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Old Man's War - John Scalzi

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Author: John Scalzi / Format: Paperback / Date of publication: 01 June 2007 / Genre: Science Fiction / Subcategory: Science Fiction General / Publisher: Pan Macmillan / Title: Old Man's War / ISBN 13: 9780330452168 / ISBN 10: 0330452168

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      22.06.2009 08:50
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      Starship Troopers with a heart.

      Heinlein's Starship Troopers was ostensibly a book about humanity waging an interplanetary war against nasty alien creatures. It took a squad of raw recruits and showed their brutal training and induction into military life.

      It's become a classic, but a bit of a dodgy classic because of its political subtexts.

      So I was a bit wary of John Scalzi's Old Man's War, as the back cover blurb suggested it might follow much the same plot.

      And in a way it does. Instead of fresh-faced teens signing up to splatter aliens, however, John Perry has just turned 75. He's a pacifist who used to work in advertising, but he's signed up to join the Colonial Defense Forces, who want the experience of senior citizens rather than the rashness of youth in their infantry ranks. The attraction for John is the implication that the CDF will make him young again.

      The book is written entirely in the first person, and follows John through his enlistment and basic training, and then on to a spectacular military career. The exact nature of his rejuvenation is probably a bit of a massive plot detail to reveal, but while it's not exactly original (it even owes quite a bit to humourist Terry Pratchett's science-fiction works), it IS interesting, particularly in the book's last quarter, when the full implications of the technology are played out in proper speculative fiction style.

      Having a 75 year old man as a narrator is a masterstroke, undercutting the gung-ho nature of war stories with the pathos of a central character who's grown old and lost everyone he loves through natural causes - and can't bear to see the same happen to his new comrades through violence.
      Scalzi keeps the character consistent, though, Perry and his bunch of rejuvenated soldier chums keep up their meandering, teasing conversations throughout the novel. Even when John is diving out of an exploding spacecraft from orbit, he still comes across as an old man.

      The variety of aliens on display are a gruesome bunch as well, but again towards the end one race are shown to have a radically different view of life to humanity. There's a lot more going on than simple bug-eyed monsters, although I found the constant examples of aliens eating humans to be a bit dull after a while.

      Despite the rambling style of the narrator, the writing is tight and slick, and the story rattles along at a brisk pace. The action sequences are suitably exciting, and the more philosophical sections are engaging. There's also plenty of sex, for those interested in that side of things.

      Scalzi is also not afraid to show his allegiances, and characters pop up with names ranging from Gaiman to Sagan. Jane Sagan is particularly interesting, and apparently pops up again in the (inevitable) sequel.

      I bought this book thinking it would be a slightly pulpy read on the bus, but what could have been a silly macho war story has a deeply soppy heart to it, and gentle humour diluting the horror of war and building the tension. Great stuff. I bought it as the free book in a 'buy 2 get 1 free' offer at Waterstones, but my copy should have cost £6.99. You can get it much cheaper from Amazon, predictably.

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