Military science fiction is one of the most popular and beloved subgenres in fiction. Titles like War of the Worlds and Starship Troopers continue to captivate readers to this day. Hollywood took notice, gifting us mega-hits like Aliens and Battlestar Galactica. The genre is jam-packed with weighted themes, pulsing action, and mind-bending tech that often provides new and interesting ways of thinking about the universe we inhabit.
Starship Troopers has been a personal favorite for years, written by the legendary Robert A. Heinlein. The book weaves its way through controversial topics with an eerie effectiveness, a testament to Heinlein’s enduring brilliance. His understanding of the military machine oozes from the page and sucks you into his character motivations. I thought for sure that this book would endure as my go-to measuring stick for the genre.
That is, until I read Old Man’s War.
John Scalzi is a New York Times bestselling author with a Hugo Award under his belt. Dude has some serious cred, so I went into the book with lofty expectations. Old Man’s War is the first of a six-book series that I plan to gleefully devour. The first book was in my to-read pile for quite some time, as the recommendation kept rearing its head in conversation. Once it reached the top, I actually felt a wash of relief. “Finally, I can see what all the fuss is about.” Several hours later, I put the book down and simply uttered, “Holy shit.”
Without giving anything away, as a happy husband in a two-decade relationship that is still going strong, this book hit me hard in the feels.
I was not expecting that from a military sci-fi novel, albeit one with an enthralling narrative voice. The “old man” part refers to an advanced version of Earth where retirees are the ones who join the Armed Forces. The idea is that a wealth of experience is far more valuable than youthful vigor. And when you live in a world where the military can provide you with a brand new combat-ready body (complete with green skin), it makes a hell of a lot of sense.
The story follows John Perry, a 75-year-old senior who lost his wife and is reaching the end of his days. He joins the military, because why not. He is promised a new and exciting life beyond the stars, fighting for … well, something. It doesn’t matter. He’s moving forward, and that’s all that matters. John makes new friends along the way and discovers that he is quite adept at his new life battling aliens from planet to planet.
Old Man’s War takes several dives into familiar themes, first and foremost, what it means to be human. Others include the role of advanced technology and the psychological stresses of war. But what Scalzi manages to do is frame them inside a new landscape (or hellscape more like it), one that paints foes as unbeatable and treats characters like members of a hive colony. In many ways, it’s a complete role reversal of books like Starship Troopers, which gives the reader a fascinating new perspective on personal relations and interstellar conflicts.
The book is engrossing up to the third act, at which point it rises to the rank of classic. It pains me to stay mum about it, but it would pain me more to spoil it for anyone else. Old Man’s War is not only my new favorite book in the genre, it’s also a new favorite all around.
The saga continues with The Ghost Brigades, which is exactly where I’ll be shortly after posting this review (with apologies to my to-read pile).