Thursday, July 18, 2013

Genre-ally Speaking: Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi

Title: Old Man’s War
Author: John Scalzi
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication Year: 2005
Read: July 2013
Where It Came From: Bought It
Genre: Military Sci-Fi
Rating: 4 Empees

The Quick and Dirty:

In the future, humanity is colonizing the universe and going head-to-head with alien races to do so. Earth itself isn’t really part of the game, but her people are given the option of joining the Colonial Defense Forces when they turn 75—pledge 2 years of your life fighting for the CDF and humanity’s place in the universe, and in return you’ll be made fit to fight and given your very own plot of land on a colony when your tour of duty is up. John Perry, missing his dead wife and tired of growing older, decides to do it. He leaves Earth, never to return, and finds himself greatly altered in an intergalactic war much different than he ever could have imagined. This book was written with an easy, humorous voice that made the pages fly by, and the story itself was very gripping. The descriptions of battles and characters’ demises often made me queasy, but it wasn’t enough to turn me off from the book.

The Wordy Version:

Y’know, I’ve never been super into sci-fi. I don’t have anything against it, and I’ve read plenty of the sci-fi gateway drugs (Ender’s Game, A Wrinkle in Time, etc.) and enjoyed them, but for some reason I don’t often find myself reading it or seeking it out. So while I’d heard tell of Old Man’s War from friends and various podcasts I listen to, I didn’t know much about it beyond the title. It was on my radar and in my mental category of “someday” books, but it hadn’t been boosted up the list to be read in the immediate future.

And then I went to Phoenix Comicon and met its author, John Scalzi, who was both hilarious and full of interesting things to say. Seeing his general awesomeness gave the book the boost it needed, so I bought a copy and got it autographed and just now got around to reading it a couple months later. And what did I think of this book that I was under so much pressure to enjoy?

I am happy to say I enjoyed it! Really enjoyed it, in fact. Scalzi’s humor is evident in the voice of the narrator, John Perry. In this book it’s not humor in the vein of Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, kind of zany and escalating genre tropes to ridiculous proportions, to greatly amusing effect—it’s rather an easy reading, personal sort of humor in the character of the protagonist. (Although Scalzi clearly has skill and ability where the former is concerned—I direct you again to the sentient yogurt.) The voice and style were easy to read, and the story itself was quite gripping. I wasn’t always sure where it was going to go next, but I knew I wanted to find out. I am not the fastest of readers (my brain was broken by college and its massive and often headache-inducing reading assignments), so I was very surprised at how quickly I was plowing through it.

So, I clearly appreciated the humor in the book, but it was interesting to see that the humor and readability of the prose belie the depth of some of the topics and ideas it broaches. There is some deep stuff in here that the characters (and the reader as well, if they’re in a thoughtful mood) grapple with, that sneaks up on you. What is the place of humanity in the universe? To what lengths is it necessary and appropriate to go when trying to ensure the survival of the species? Does “appropriate” go out the window in favor of “necessary” when survival is at stake? And that’s just scratching the surface—there’s plenty more to be mined from the text. There were even some moments that made me sniffle, usually when Perry was thinking about his dead wife.

But there were also some nausea-inducing moments to round out the whole spectrum of emotion. One thing to take from this is that space may be the final frontier, but it is vast and dangerous, so dangerous that you can’t even predict what dangers you’ll come up against. And there were so, so many unpleasant ways people (and aliens too, to be fair) met their doom. Kind of the whole, “Don’t get too attached to a character, because they’re probably gonna die!” thing. I do not have an iron stomach, so there were times when I had to take a little breather and try to not think too hard about the highly inventive and extremely unsavory way some person just died. It never kept me away for long, though, because I just needed to know what. Came. Next.

Overall, really good book. Scalzi did an impressive job teasing out into a vision of a possible future what human colonization of space and contact with alien races could end up being like. It was futuristic, but based in reality, and it had the perfect balance of entertainment value and depth. Can’t wait to read the next one.

Oh, also: Is the great alien race that humanity has to contend with (or at least admit is more advanced and hope we don’t have to contend with) destined to be giant bugs? I’m talking Ender’s Game, Men in Black, in this book the Consu… I’ve also heard that Robert A. Heinlein, whose work I haven’t read but is apparently a great influence on Scalzi, has big alien bugs. Why did it have to be bugs?

What are your favorite sci-fi books? Have you ever checked out John Scalzi’s work before?

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