I like reading all kinds of books. I like reading books about bad with guns and malleable ethics. I like reading books about spell-slinging sorcerers caught up in epic, world-spanning struggles. I read reading books about eldritch evils that prefer to warp your mind before they strip the flesh from your bones. But lately I haven't much liked reading science fiction. I used to, but somewhere along my rocky road to adulthood, SF decided it wanted to be about something bigger than laser battles in outer space. It wanted to be about theories and formulas, concepts and conundrums, the things stories sometimes contain rather than stories themselves. SF became fiction for an academy rather than for fun -- or most of it did. Fortunately, at least one SF author knows how to navigate the genre's extremes. In John Scalzi's Hugo-nominated first novel Old Man's War, the esoteric and enjoyable join hands.
John Perry is a grieving, seventy-five-year-old widower with nothing on earth to live for. That's isn't to say he plans over shuffling off his mortal coil any time soon. Far from it. Rather than fall into dotage, John plans to enlist. Yes, you read that right: A geriatric will join the army. See, few wars are fought on the earth anymore, but amongst the stars it's a different story entirely. Earth's extraterrestrial settlements have to struggle against alien aggressors, and only the Colonial Defense Forces stand between them and destruction. The CDF recruits the elderly with a simple promise: Join and we'll make you young again. The catch is that John and others like him don't know how the CDF will restore their youth -- or the incomprehensible foes they'll have to face.
To start, let's list all the delightful things you'll find in Old Man's War. Scratch that, because it's almost an impossibility. There are just too many. Still, with its military focus you can expect terrific battle scenes, humorous exchanges with a basic-training instructor who makes Gunnery Sergeant Hartman from Full Metal Jacket look friendly, and detailed descriptions of a bullet-firing, grenade-launching, microwave-zapping nanorifle that are so lovingly written they can only be called gun porn. There are crab-like aliens who treat battle like some sort of high-church liturgy. There's a sentient slime mold that digests its enemies from the inside out. There are inch-high humanoids who fly teeny tiny space fighters. Yet for all the enjoyable bits, Scalzi doesn't skimp on scientific details or ethical conundrums, devoting lots of dialogue to quantum entanglement in multiverse travel and the relative merits of negotiating rather than fighting. (The later subject avoids easy answers while still serving delicious comeuppance to an overly idealistic pacifist senator.) Not everything in the book is perfect. I think I found at least one large plot hole, and Scalzi skims over the issue of the brain/mind dichotomy when further exploration would've made the ending much more satisfying. Still, I hardly cared. Old Man's War has restored my faith in science fiction, and that's saying something.
(Picture: CC 2011 by Toruk Macto)