John Scalzi: Old Man’s War
I don’t read much science fiction – so far I think I have managed one Heinlein novel, a thick collection of classical sci-fi short stories (some of them extremely good, such as E. M. Forster’s The Machine Stops,) most of what Neal Stephenson has written, and now John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War. The latter was available as a free download from Tor Books (you have to sign up for their newsletters to be allowed to download it), and as such an excellent way to check out Scalzi’s serious writing (I am a faithful reader of Whatever, his blog.)
Well, I apologize, shouldn’t-look-a-gift-horse-in-the-mouth and so on, but this was a bit of a disappointment. The starting premise is fine, the language is straightforward, but I kept looking for a plot of some kind, and instead got a very basic picaresque about old people volunteering to be intergalactic soldiers fighting aliens in return for brand new bodies. (Not very picaresque either, since the hero becomes a highly decorated commander as the story progresses.) Entertaining and all that, competently written, the world Scalzi creates and populates is interesting, at least in the beginning, but the lack of any non-obvious plot to drive things forward makes it hard to get enthusiastic about the book.
It is obviously the beginning of a series, but still: Where are the surprises, the plot twists, the exciting insights? Not to mention, where are the personalities – these old people going out to fight a war all seem very cartoonish, without much difference in what they say and do, and certainly not much reflection about the task their are given, a few tactical shrewdnesses excepted. They all seem to shelve a lifetime of experience (and, presumably, thought) in favor of a "well, we would be dead now if it wasn’t for joining up, so dying is no big deal."
I think I know why I don’t read sci-fi so much: Most sci-fi is, to put it bluntly, to the male mind what bodice-rippers are to females. Sci-fi works best, at least for me, when it says something about our own time, which is another way of saying that it works when it takes a current phenomenon and projects it out into the future. Excellent examples include Ann Warren Griffith’s short story Captive Audience (written in the 50s, about how every product contains advertising, a surprisingly relevant point in these adsensical times); Philip K. Dick’s Second Variety (written about 1953, too), about a future earth which has been evacuated by humans because autonomous weapon systems have taken over; or Neal Stephenson’s novels about virtuality (Snow Crash) and nanotechnology (Diamond age). This approach is hard work, for there has to be science – and thus research – in the fiction, or fiction in the science.