Friday, 18 May 2012

Old Man's War by John Scalzi

This novel has been on my to be read list since it first came out about seven years ago, but I've only just got round to reading it, and it was worth the wait.

The novel is one of the most old-fashioned pieces of science fiction I've read in ages, reminding me of the books I used to read and love when younger. Most modern sf I've tried recently is either too literate, or too political, or too flashy, or too weird, or very long, or determined to prove that the author knows vast amounts about scientific stuff. The end result is stories that fail to grip and are just too serious to entertain with none of that sense of excitement and wonder that I crave. Thankfully Scalzi's novel is none of these things.

The book starts with an opening line that has been rightly acclaimed as being one of the best:

I did two things on my seventy-fifty birthday: I visited my wife's grave, then I joined the army.

If the main purpose of the opening few words is to make sure you read on, then that works as after that start you have to find out where the tale is going. As it turns out, it's nowhere new as the story is a familiar one of super-soldiers going off to fight a pointless war on a far flung planet. There are several templates for this type of story. There's the Starship Troopers angle of war is great, so let's kick some alien butt with our big guns. Then there's the Forever War angle of war is hell. And there's something in between, which is where Old Man's War places itself. I've never felt even the slightest urge to see Avatar, but I'd guess it used the same story that this novel uses.

The hero gets a new and improved body, learns how to use it, goes to war against some big bad aliens, and gradually learns that there's more going on than he first thought. I gather there's more books that develop and explain the wider story, but I was content with this small-scale vision. Over half the book is taken up with the hero adapting to his new life, but the story never drags as it's told with gentle humour and an eye for interesting scenes. The first person narrative makes the lead character interesting and the story is clever enough to acknowledge the war story clich├ęs it's using without coming over as trite. Best of all for modern science fiction, it's short and it doesn’t outstay its welcome.

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