The novel “Old Man’s War” by John Scalzi was published for the first time in 2005. It’s the first book in the “Old Man’s War” series.
John Perry just turned 75. He’s a widower so he decides to join the Colonial Defense Forces (CDF) that defend the Earth and other human colonies from hostile aliens. Together with other recruits who are the same age, he’s subjected to a transfer of his mind from his decaying body to a new one that has almost the same look he had as a young man but is much stronger and resistant and has much sharper senses.
John Perry and the other recruits are trained hard to learn how to use the superhuman abilities of their new bodies then they’re sent to various battles against aliens of various species. A particularly tough fight puts Perry in touch with the Ghost Brigades, a rather mysterious FDC corps with new surprises for him.
“Old Man’s War” is John Scalzi’s debut novel and introduces a fictional universe in which he then set other stories. In a future in which humans have colonized other planets, it’s necessary to defend them from hostile alien species and for this purpose there are the Colonial Defense Forces (CDF). The novel is narrated in first person by John Perry, a retired man who lost his wife and is 75 when he enlists.
In the future narrated in “Old Man’s War” the Earth is rather isolated and John Perry has only a vague idea of what awaits him because the details of the FDC modus operandi are reserved and the people who join them can no longer return to their home planet. Perry knows that in some way he’ll be returned to a condition suitable to make him useful as a soldier but he’s very surprised when he discovers that his mind will be transferred to a new body created through genetic engineering.
The FDC soldiers are in fact given bodies not fully human because they’re based on the original DNA of each soldier but with several changes that make them superhuman. They’re also equipped with a BrainPal, a neural implant that allows mental communication with their comrades and access to the FDC network.
“Old Man’s War” is divided into three parts. The first part follows John Perry from the moment he enlists to the beginning of his training with the discovery of the various technologies that allow the CDF to turn elderly people into potential soldiers. The second part concerns the training of John Perry and the other recruits with the discovery of the FDC weapons and fighting techniques. The third part follows John Perry in various battles with the discovery of alien species and the Ghost Brigades.
John Scalzi has been compared to Robert A. Heinlein, in fact he acknowledges his debt to the great master of science fiction in acknowledgments at the end of the book. “Old Man’s War” in some ways follows the pattern of Heinlein’s “Starship Troopers” but Scalzi has his own style.
“Old Man’s War” is similar in some ways to the Heinlein’s juveniles and “Starship Troopers” was originally written as a juvenile. This can be paradoxical considering the fact that the protagonist and his comrades are elderly people but it makes sense for the fact that at the beginning they have only the vaguest idea of what to expect so everything is a discovery. For them, it literally opens up a universe, and they are catapulted into a new life, just like in a juvenile.
Despite the many surprises, John Perry and his fellow soldiers are still elderly people who have accumulated a lot of life experiences. Even when faced with the unexpected, their reactions are different from those of a teen-ager. For example, Perry sees the events with a certain irony that Johnny Rico in “Starship Troopers” couldn’t have.
Honestly, sometimes Robert A. Heinlein preached certain ideas rather than tell the story and this is one of the reasons why “Starship Troopers” is so controversial. “Old Man’s War” can be seen overall as a militaristic novel because it leaves very little room to diplomacy but John Scalzi looks like a pacifist compared to Heinlein.
In “Starship Troopers” there are humans, the good ones, against the aliens, the evil ones. In “Old Man’s War” the situation is a bit more complex. In John Scalzi’s fictional universe there are many alien species and even though the trend is to fight for control of the planets there are differences between them.
For example, the Consu are a species with a level of technology much higher than humans but they have their own peculiar code of honor. The consequence is that they fight according to a ritual without using any technology that would allow them easy victories and this makes it possible to defeat them.
John Scalzi’s fictional universe is complex and in “Old Man’s War” only a small part is shown. The various technologies used such as the propulsion system that allows moving instantly from one point of the universe to another are explained in a superficial way. The novel is narrated by the protagonist John Perry so readers discover what he discovers in the course of the story.
Inevitably, at the end of “Old Man’s War” there are many questions readers can ask about the technologies used, the CDF, the human society of the future, aliens and more. John Scalzi’s choice is clearly to focus on the story of the protagonist, who inevitably is by far the best developed character. The plot is linear and the pace, after a slow start, becomes quite fast.
This kind of choice is especially welcome by those who prefer novels under 400 pages focused on the story rather than 500+ page novels that explain everything about the fictional universe in which they’re set. “Old Man’s War” already has some sequels in which the author can provide more information so this kind of choice is fine with me.
In my opinion, “Old Man’s War” is a novel built in a solid and engaging way that succeeds in introducing an intriguing fictional universe so I recommend reading it.