Old Man’s War

The back blurb comments made reference to Scalzi writing so closely to Heinlein that the book may as well have been written by Heinlein.  (As if that’s a compliment??) For reference, the only Heinlein books I’ve read are Stranger in a Strange Land and Time Enough for Love, and I couldn’t see the similarity.  Maybe the reviewers meant Starship Troopers, which, from the Wikipedia description, seems to follow the same plot structure – new recruit, learning about life as a murderer of alien beings, framework for the same discussions about morality and ethics and virtue.

Which is where my biggest criticism lies: this well written, well structured and entertaining story felt like every other story just like it, with the one major distinction being that it didn’t go out of its way to insult or exclude me for being female, ethnic, etc etc etc.  This is a terrible reason to like a story: hey, I read something written from the POV of a man about a traditionally masculine/parochial/prejudiced cultural institution and it didn’t make me rageful enough to throw the book across the room!  Yay!

So, the strength of the book is in its peripheral characters?  The texture of its surrounds?  The way that, my goodness, someone can finally envisage a future for earth which doesn’t endlessly repeat the same contemporary political framework?  (At least there was no mention of monarchy…)  But the book continues to repeat these structures, the military structure, the colonial structure, despite the superficial diversity of its cast.  (Remember: Avatar also had a superficially diverse cast.)  The moral and ethical questions are exactly the same as the ones asked now, even if it is set in a war with random aliens.  One lot of aliens, under invasion, even have a conversation exactly like a bunch of humans (more superficial diversity).  The gimmick of a 75 year old being recruited into a war rapidly becomes nothing more than a gimmick.  Seriously, a 75 year old reacts no differently to war than an 18 year old?  And considering the greater proficiency of the Ghost Brigades, what is the economic benefit in transferring the brain of a 75 year old?  Why not just clone the DNA of everyone on earth multiple times over and have a boundless army?  It’s not like any of them can return to earth.  What is restraining the ethics (or resources) of the CDF such that they only take volunteers, then promptly train any ethical consideration out of them, as out of place in the brutality of colonial war?

The BrainPal was mildly interesting, except it’s far too much like a brain-implanted iPhone to seem like anything more than an inevitability. The Consu were interesting as an alien race representing something somewhat different from human morality and motivation, but were never explored.  The transferred consciousness never went anywhere.  The new bodies never went anywhere.  The undercurrent themes and messages said nothing new.  The skip drive concept, explained only towards the end, is fascinating, but the consequences never explored.

I’d recommend this book to someone who likes space military stories, but for me it was just a bland, inoffensive, likeable, and generic war story that could have been set anywhere.  I was harder hit because of how many good reviews this series gets, but I have very high expectations for my sci fi, particularly when the book is clearly trying to focus on some moral undercurrent message which should apply to ‘all’ (cue wild laughter: the first and biggest mistake).  Stranger in a Strange Land did something completely different in questioning the foundations of human belief without actually moving to a conclusion except to keep moving; Old Man’s War only appears to reaffirm the foundations of human belief, in a very static way, and ends in that most traditional of motifs, reaffirming the value and virtue of marriage even across a body and consciousness transfer.  (The DNA remembers.  Cough.)  The thing is, most sci fi these days is so badly adulterated pap that this book stands out miles about the crowd: this IS a good story, it’s just nothing new.  I can’t even tag it with my usual “could have been more”, because it is exactly what it is.

After a quick scan of the summaries of next books in the series, I do not think I will read, seeing as the very next book seems to be an entire plot device just to give the newly re-wed sterile clone couple a child.