John Perry is a likable old man from Ohio who joins the army of the future for a shot at a second life. In typical Heinlein fashion, military recruits derive benefits unavailable to everyday citizens. See, if you join the army on your seventy-fifth birthday you receive the luxury of a brand new body, which is more physically fit than your original body ever was. From there you’re shuffled off to boot camp on a remote planet where you’re likely to learn that disgusting, evil-looking aliens are humanity’s allies while the pleasant-looking, dear-like aliens are most likely among your worst nightmares.
That’s nearly half of the book, but I haven’t given too much away. The fun isn’t so much what happens, but how it happens. Remember Kick the Can? It was the episode of The Twilight Zone (remade as a segment in the movie version) in which a group of elderly people learn how to be young again. That’s what Old Man’s War reminds me of a lot of the time. It’s as if a large group of seventy-five year olds relive their first day of school on an intergalactic scale. For a long, opening section of the book it’s a whimsical fantasy. At the beginning of the second section, however, it turns dark, but manages to retain its charm.
Although I frequent his blog more than most I haven’t gotten around to reading any of John Scalzi’s fiction until now. I bought Old Man’s War a long time ago after reading Scalzi’s candid introduction to The Forever War (one of my all-time favorites), but it was one of those books that got lost by the bed in my ever growing “To Read” pile. I should know by now that the book I plan to read is never the book I read at the time. Every time I finish one novel, instead of going to the next in line, I go through my unread pile and read first sentences at random. A Dune sequel wasn’t doing it for me. Neither was The Wheel of Time or Consider Phlebas. So with a sigh I picked up Old Man’s War and read:
I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife’s grave. Then I joined the army.
Now you should see why I was hooked. Openings are the most important and perhaps hardest part to get right. Scalzi does it in a little over a dozen words.
Heinlein’s stamp is all over Old Man’s War in a pleasant way… and I’m not the biggest Heinlein fan. Scalzi is a Heinlein fan and isn’t ashamed to draw inspiration from the SF maestro. Old Man’s War is a casual read, though not at all shallow, and you can’t read it in the same house anyone’s sleeping in—it’s far too funny for that. An early scene in which John visits an army doctor had me howling.
I think it’s worth noting that Scalzi originally self-published Old Man’s War on his blog, where it became so popular Tor eventually picked it up. It just goes to show that the science fiction portion of the publishing industry is relatively fearless of trying new things, not to mention particularly proud of finding new talent. In a matter of a few short years Scalzi went from being a self-published science fiction writer to the head of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. Oh, and Paramount optioned Old Man’s War into a movie. Sure, options are a dime a dozen—I’m still waiting for a Repairman Jack film—but I imagine Old Man’s War: The Movie has a good shot of being made if Ender’s Game performs well at the box office (it will).
I assumed John Scalzi was one of those guys who lucked out. I realize I was wrong. The guy’s got the talent to back it up. I don’t remember the last time I became so enamored with a writer after reading only one of his novels. Check out the user reviews. I’m far from being the only one with such high praise, even if two of the three people in the video above disliked it.
I don’t plan on reading any of the sequels next, but that’s only because I never read the books I plan on reading.