Friday, March 5, 2010

Old Man's War by John Scalzi

Old Man's WarOk, let's pull back from the God thing and turn on some nice, easy-listening science fiction.  Old Man's War is a damn good book, and Scalzi is a damn fine writer.  Although this is technically genre writing, the syle and resonance of Scalzi's writing elevate it above the usual "It is now the year 2150, and ____________" (fill in the blank with "robots rule the earth", "apes rule the earth", "the earth is only a fond memory", etc.). 

The date of the story's beginning is not specified, and it isn't important; in the future life on earth is pretty much the same as it is now - life in space is what's changed.  Humanity has conquered the lightspeed barrier and colonized several other solar systems.  But there is virtually no exchange of technology or information between the Department of Colonial Affairs and Earth; everything flows one way only - off planet, permanently.  Colonists are young, healthy, fertile men and women from low-income nations like India and Thailand, and once they leave, they never come back.

The Ghost BrigadesAlso, life among the stars is not a peaceful one; the systems that have been colonized lie in close proximity to a variety of intelligent extraterrestrials, and the resources of new colonies are often disputed and/or fought over.  So soldiers are required, and these are also drawn from earth, but not from the young and healthy.  It is the planet's senior citizens who form the front lines of interstellar defense.

The narrator of the book is John Perry, a 70-something widower with no particular reason to remain on earth.  The Colonial Defense Force has, in exchange for a term of enlistment, to make him young again, and train him to fight on behalf of the colonies.  The details of his transformation and training are too fascinating and original to reveal here; readers are best advised to discover these themselves.  But soon enough, John and a group of new-found friends and fellow former gray-hairs are fighting aliens on distant shores.

The Last ColonyWhat separates the book from other Heinleinesque imitators is the unique romance that develops between John Perry and a mysterious Special Forces soldier named Jane Sagan.  Special Forces aren't like regular troops - their nickname is The Ghost Brigades, because they are created from the DNA of old people who die between enlistment and deployment - and they are born as adults, with a panoply of enhanced abilities.  Jane Sagan is less than ten years old, biologically, when John meets her.  She is also built from the DNA of his late wife, but has none of her memories.

And so a wistful, funny and strange courtship begins between these two very different people, almost of different species, against a backdrop of war, death, tragedy, and political intrigue.  It turns out that the people of Earth are isolated from the rest of the galaxy for a reason, and that they are being deceived and manipulated by the CDF for policy reasons.  This backstory becomes the pivotal theme and conflict that Scalzi extends in the book's sequels:  The Ghost Brigades, The Last Colony, and Zoe's Tale, all of which are equally engaging, humorous, and brilliantly plotted and executed.

Zoe's TaleThe series has continuity; ideally the books should be read in order.  The richness of the developing storyline - paralleled by the the developing relationship between John and Jane - keeps on challenging the reader with its exploration of human values, traditions, morality and politics.  And each book is individually satisfying in a way that many series books are not. 

I love science fiction - its probably my favorite genre - but I am discerning in my tastes.  Invention and imagination are no substitute for a good story and sharp writing.  Scalzi, fortunately, has them all in great quantity, and I eagerly look forward to future efforts by this outstanding talent.

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