Old Men’s War by John Scalzi
Old Men’s War is the first book I’ve read by John Scalzi and I can already reveal that it will definitely not be the last. And I don’t just mean that the book was good enough to make me want to read the other books in the series. No, it was good enough to make me read much more from Scalzi, regardless of whether or not they are part of the Old Men’s War series. It was such a good experience!
The book tells the story of 75-years-old John Perry, who joins the army. This might seem counter-productive, but for him and many other seniors enlisting seems a better option than wasting away in an old body. No one knows exactly what the Colonial Defense Force (CDF) does with their old recruits, but they wouldn’t take in old men and women without doing something to make it possible for them to fight. So on his birthday John visits the grave of his wife for the last time and then starts a new adventure.
John’s thrust into a dark universe where sentient races fight for living space and supremacy. To lose the fight would mean an end for the human race, and so these old recruits are thrown into a bloody hell where 3/4 of them die before the end of their term.
It’s a ridiculous concept. I mean, John is 75-years-old. But instead of retiring, he goes into the unknown, into a war much more dangerous than he could have imagined. Why would you take people so old for such a job? Isn’t the folly of war for the young, with the old commanding them from behind their desks? It’s the most brilliant thing that it works so well in this book.
There are reasons why the CDF takes their recruits so old. They make sense. And it’s a lot more fun to watch old farts go headfirst into such an adventure. Especially the first half (enlisting and training) is enhanced by the humorous nature of the protagonist and his clique. They go into this new world with the knowledge that they have nothing to lose, and they have the experience to make different soldiers than whippersnappers snatched from their mother’s bosom. It’s a nice twist from other military genre fiction and it works very well.
“I spend hours one night watching Wile E. Coyote get smashed and blown up; I finally stopped when Maggie demanded I choose between her and Road Runner. I chose her. I could pick Road Runner anytime, after all. I had downloaded all the cartoons into Asshole.”
The whole book is carried by its great protagonist, who’s not only funny (even if his jokes might seem a bit flat at times), but quite the fast thinker and a natural soldier, as it turns out. You’ll be content to follow him most of the time, except for some sombering interludes with other characters. He’s a man that has lost his most important person, but still manages to enjoy his new life, find new friends, and build a new place where he belongs for himself. You can learn a lot from him.
It’s not purely a book for military SFF fans, but mostly. After John finishes his training, the universal hell starts, with dozens of alien races to war against. Before that (and in-between) we get compelling looks at the new soldier’s psych, their expectations fort this new “life”, and some fascinating world-building mixed in to make this book one whole cookie for you to gobble up.
The book has only about 300 pages, but it doesn’t feel too short. We get a good mix of action and character building, one that knows how and when to end the narrative. Not everything the protagonist does in the service of the CDF sits right with me, but the universe seems to be an unforgiving one, where diplomacy is not welcome. In that, I can understand why he and the other soldiers set the welfare of themselves and humanity above those of other races.
Concluding: It’s a treat for fans of military SFF, but holds enough to interest other readers too. It’s carried by a lovable protagonist and his positive outlook on the world and his will to carve out a new life for himself and his friends. The premise is compelling and brilliantly completed and works well, even if it might seem counterproductive to use old men and women as soldiers in an intergalactic war. Definitely worth to pick up and get sucked into!