I finally read John Scalzi’s novel Old Man’s War after seeing it on one of those 100 best sci-fi books lists that makes you feel bad for just how little of the sci-fi canon you’ve read. I’ve had a copy on loan from a friend for a year, but have just now gotten to it.
My reaction to this was identical to the last book I had thrust upon me by a “must read” list. Much like Asimov’s plodding Foundation, I found Scalzi’s Old Man’s War to be full of very cool ideas buried under workmanlike prose and painfully uninspired plot mechanics. The story is set in the requisite far-future, where geriatrics can go to space and enlist in the Colonial Defense Force upon their 75th birthday. After being outfitted in younger, scientifically enhanced bodies, the CDF recruits must wage violent war on the many bizarre alien species who constantly threaten the human colonies. John Perry is the main character, who enlists just after his wife’s death.
Scalzi is spectacular with the backstory and details – the actual Colonists, who we never see, are all Indian; the refuges of a decisive nuclear war between the U.S. and India. Because of this, joining the Colonial Defense Force is the only way non-Indians can get into deep space. Also cool, the new bodies the recruits are given are each equipped with an internal “Brainpal,” an onboard personal assistant through which battle data can be analyzed, movies can be watched and emails can be sent – basically an internal Siri. Scalzi also spends a lot of time outlining how the starships’ “skip drives” work. These are used all the time to get from one side of the universe to the other, but rather than the now commonplace explanations of “warp” or “faster than light” travel, etc., halfway through the book, Scalzi reveals that the ships move great distances by essentially punching a hole into a parallel, but only slightly different universe. That on a practical level these various universes are essentially the same doesn’t do much to comfort Perry and the other characters, who realize that they will never be able to return to their “home” universe. Even though Scalzi takes the time to let this ominous fact sink in, he forgets to have it inform a significant plot point later.
The chief weakness of Old Man’s War, especially considering that it is a war novel, is that Scalzi continually fails to create any kind of real stakes for his characters and situations. This leads to dozens of by-the-book battle sequences, and hopefully by looking closely at one of them this point can be further illustrated: Later in the book, Perry and a small group of CDF Special Forces are meeting with the alien Consu, a race of tentacled religious zealots who are generally warlike, but have a deep sense of honor. The Consu have agreed to answer as many as five questions about a piece of technology Perry’s group desperately needs, based on how many of the five Special Forces guys can defeat a Consu in single to-the-death combat. If all five guys win, they get to ask five questions. If only three guys win, they get three questions. So, Scalzi sets up a kind of dire arrangement with a terrifically pulpy sci-fi vibe, but totally mangles it in the execution. First, Perry himself is exempt from fighting because of some obscure ritualistic loophole. This is just terrible storytelling – Perry is the protagonist of the story, and as such should be our direct window into the action, not a once removed commentator on it. Also he’s an underdog. He’s running around with nearly invincible Special Forces guys, but is not himself trained for something like this. Why not stack the odds against him and then let him figure out an ingenious way to win, as he does in a few other places in the book? To me, this is an obvious missed opportunity, but amazingly, it’s the least of the problems with the sequence. I’d give this one to Scalzi if he had a brilliant idea for how the rest of the scene goes down, but he doesn’t.
So you’ve got five Special Forces guys and five Consu. The Special Forces guys are given ceremonial Consu knives to fight with, because the Consu’s primary weapon is a “slashing arm” with a natural blade at the end of it. Each fight occurs one at a time. All of this is great and Scalzi handles the buildup to the five fights very well. But here’s how the fights go down: the first three Special Forces guys win with minimal effort, the fourth Special Forces guy is killed, and then Perry’s love interest, Jane, wins the fifth fight without even getting near the Consu.
Okay, so if I’m John Scalzi and I’m writing this scene the one thing I know going into it is that the Special Forces guys have to win enough of the fights to get the information they need – we are at the backend of the novel and they simply have to have this info to get to the climax of the story. That’s fine, but, again thinking as the writer, surely you can’t have all five of them win, because where’s the suspense in that? If all five are going to win, why even depict the scene at all? It’s also worth noting that all but one of the Special Forces guys who will be fighting are “red shirts”; brand new characters introduced solely for the purpose of this sequence. The fifth is Perry’s new girlfriend, who readers have only recently met in the story. So the readers will want her to survive – more for Perry’s sake than her own – but the other four are totally expendable.
After establishing three of the Special Forces guys are total badasses, the problem with the death of the fourth guy is that it feels like a fluke, like this guy was maybe just the weak link on the team. Worse, it feels like exactly what it was — perfunctory. At least one of them had to lose and Scalzi didn’t really care which one. Why not have all four of the “red shirts” get beaten, so we are terrified that Jane isn’t going to make it? Or at least start off with the guy who gets killed, so the other four fights have some sense of drama?
So like everything else in the book, this scene starts with a great sci-fi concept but loses its way in the details. Bummer, I worked really hard to like this one, mostly to no avail.