Review of The Old Man's War Trilogy by John Scalzi


In 2005, John Scalzi burst on the scene with a remarkable first novel, Old Man's War. It got nominated for a Hugo and won him the Campbell award for best new writer. Many felt it was the sort of novel Heinlein might be writing today. That might be too high a praise, but it's close. The third book in this trilogy has just come out, so it was time to review the set.

It's hard to review the book without some spoilers, and impossible for me to review the latter two books without spoiling the first, but I'll warn you when that's going to happen.

OMW tells the story of John Perry, a 75 year old man living on an Earth only a bit more advanced than our own, but it's hundreds of years in the future. Earth people know they're part of a collection of human colonies which does battle with nasty aliens, but they are kept in the dark about the realities. People in the third world are offered o ne way trips to join colonies. People in the 1st world can, when they turn 75, sign up for the colonial military, again a one-way trip. It's not a hard choice to make since everybody presumes the military will make them young again, and the alternative is ordinary death by old age.

The protagonist and his wife sign up, but she dies before the enlistment date, so he goes on his own. The first half of the book depicts his learning the reality of the colonial union, and boot camp, and the latter half outlines his experiences fighting against various nasty aliens.

It's a highly recommended read. If you loved Starship Troopers or The Forever War this is your kind of book. Now I'll go into some minor spoilers. Perry quickly finds the colonial union is vastly more advanced than Earth, which is kept as a backwards planet in order to encourage recruiting and colonization. Humanity is a nasty species, and it is constantly warring with just about all the aliens it meets. There are not enough colony worlds and it's standard procedure if we find an inhabited but poorly defended young colony to try to steal that world, and the aliens do the same to us.

Perry learns the reason they take 75 year old soldiers is they clone them new, young, supersoldier bodies and transfer their consciousness into them, then conscript them for a 10 year tour which most of them won't survive. The consciousness transfer is written as an odd mixture of a mind-copy and a true transfer which leaves the old body mindless and is done while the subject is awake. It's the fairly standard SF dodge of the question of whether such a transfer is "real" or if it involves creating a copy and killing the original. In Book one, nobody gives this any more thought.

What follows is a story that, as I note, is in the tradition of Starship Troopers, but certainly not the same book. And you can't help but feeling that the bizarre system where Earth is in the dark while its colonies fight constant bloody wars is something you have to suspend disbelief on, it's a setting from which to generate the interesting plot of people at the end of life going to war.

The Ghost Brigades and The Last Colony

(Serious spoilers for the first book follow.)

These two books are not, I would have to say, as fresh and exciting as the first, but they are still good. And they deal with the two big issues I spoke of from the first book, at least to some extent.

The Ghost Brigades gives us a protagonist who is a member of the special forces described in Old Man's War. These are people who start as mindless clones because their original died before signing up but after the cloning process was begun. Through the help of a computer implant, they are immediately aware, a combination of naivete and hyper-knowledge. I find this a stretch, but again it's the premise for telling our story. Here we learn that the consciousness transfer can be a copy, not emptying the original, though frankly the issues surrounding that are never addressed.

A human traitor has fled human worlds to work with the aliens. He left behind a copy of his mind using new technology, so they grow a clone to hold the mind, hoping to learn what he's up to. The transfer doesn't take, so the new body, Dirac, becomes another special forces soldier. As you will expect, some of the memories do take, and the story ensues. And we get our first taste of the author's realization that the bizarre political structure of the first book is untenable.

Indeed, the final book, The Last Colony, is all about that, but I can't say a great deal more. It brings back the two heroes of Old Man's War as administrators of a new, special colony which is of great interest to alien forces, with much hidden from the characters, at least at first.

I'm glad that Scalzi chose to clear up the issues with the first book, but also glad that he's decided to not revisit this universe in his next books. Indeed, I almost always want a creative writer to develop new worlds for us rather than write sequels. Alas, publishers know sequels are an easier sell, so we get mostly those. Scalzi is a writer to watch, though the slight drop in quality in the sequels is a bad sign. Sometimes when a new writer bursts on the scene with an amazing first novel, it's a portent of even greater things to come. Other times we find that many years of their creativity went into the first book, and that level can't be sustained -- sometimes it is never reached again. I have not made a decision on what course Scalzi's career will take yet -- it's too early to say -- but of course we hope it's of the former type.

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