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John Scalzi – Old Man’s War

May 25, 2011

64. Old Man’s War by John Scalzi (2004)
Old Man’s War, Book 1

Length: 314 pages
Genre: Science Fiction

Started: 06 May 11
Finished: 08 May 11

Where did it come from? The library booksale.
Why do I have it? I don’t remember where I first heard of it, but it was Nymeth who finally convinced me to add it to my wishlist.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 10 July 2010.

My retirement
plan doesn’t include fighting
hostile aliens.

Summary: It was a typical seventy-fifth birthday for John Perry. He got up, went to visit his wife’s grave, and then enlisted in the army. In the not-too-distant future, humanity has finally started colonizing other planets… only to find that outer space is filled with alien races who are none too keen on ceding habitable planets to human colonies. The Colonial Defense Force is in dire need of soldiers, but they recruit only those past the age of 75 – a full life’s experience and wisdom. Plus, everyone knows that the CDF’s technology outstrips anything available on Earth, and there are whispers about a secret procedure to make enlistees young again. With nothing left tying him to Earth, John is looking forward to his two-year term of service out amongst the stars, but what he finds – and what he becomes – is nothing like anything he had ever expected.

Review: I had some mixed expectations when I started this book. It came highly recommended, and I’d enjoyed the snippets of Scalzi’s writing that I’d read elsewhere (mostly Clash of the Geeks and on But the cover and the back-cover copy made it seem like very heavily tech-y military sci-fi, which is my least favorite flavor of the genre. And, as it turns out, it is moderately tech-y, and definitely very military space-fight based, but it didn’t really bother me all that much, because it was also damn funny. It’s hard to be too annoyed by an extended spacefight description when that battle involves someone becoming “perhaps the first person in the history of man to kick himself in his own uvula.” (Which: gross, I know, but also hilariously written.) There are similar one-liners, absurdities, and just general snarkiness throughout the book, and I was laughing out loud so often (and so uncontrollably) that I’m glad I wasn’t reading it in a public place.

The great thing about this book is that under all of the humor and the action and the spacefights, there’s a really strong human element to the story. John’s a very sympathetic character, with some interesting things to say about life and love and marriage and getting older, and watching him with his friends (the self-christened “Old Farts”) was both very familiar and very touching.

“That accusation is as irrelevant as it is true,” Thomas said indignantly. “I admit to coveting his Belgian waffle, yes. I won’t deny that. But if sacrificing my own arteries will prolong his life, then it’s worth it to me. Consider this the culinary equivalent of falling on a grenade for the sake of my comrade.”

“Most grenades aren’t soaked in syrup,” she said.

“Maybe they should be,” Thomas said. “We’d see a lot more selfless acts.” –p. 48

My only real complaint is that the main plot conflict didn’t show up until relatively late in the book. The storyline of the first 2/3s or so could be fully summed up by “John joins the military.” Which is fine as storylines go, and I certainly didn’t feel like the story was meandering or off-topic, but it did leave things feeling a little episodic, with no clear picture of where we were headed. In the grand scheme of things, however, that’s a pretty minor complaint, because even without a clear roadmap of the plot, the story flew by easily (and hilariously), and I would have happily read another few hundred pages in the same vein. And, once the plot conflict did show up, it was interesting enough to get me thoroughly hooked, and intensely curious about the sequels. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Highly recommended for anyone who thinks that classic Heinlein-esque sci-fi would be better with the addition of copious amounts of sarcasm, snark, and swearing.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Adventures in Reading, As Usual I Need More Bookshelves, The Bookling, Dusk Before the Dawn, Graeme’s Fantasy Book Review, Realms of Speculative Fiction, Speculative Book Review, Stainless Steel Droppings, Stella Matutina, Things Mean a Lot, A Working Title, The Written World
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife’s grave. Then I joined the army.

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. May 25, 2011 10:31 am

    I keep reading about this one. Your review has convinced me to add it to my tbr list. I can always use a good laugh!

  2. May 26, 2011 10:28 pm

    I really need to read on in this series… I stalled and I really liked this book.

    • May 27, 2011 9:43 am

      Kailana – I need to see if I can track down the sequels too… The local library booksale used to have at least one of them, but I refrained from buying until I’d read the first one. I wonder if it’s still there?

  3. May 28, 2011 12:36 pm

    I loved this one and then subsequently went on to read all of the sequels. It was that strong human element to me – it’s got tech and military aspects, but the characters are fantastic. The only one of Scalzi’s books I failed to connect with was Zoe’s War, and that was mainly because his voice is so distinctive that I had trouble connecting it with a teenage girl. (People who don’t read his blog apparently don’t have this same problem).

    • May 30, 2011 9:51 am

      Meghan – I can see how that might be a problem; if the style’s at all like in this book, I’d have issues believing that it came from a young girl. But, on the other hand, I don’t read Scalzi’s blog regularly, just the stuff of his that crops up on Tor, so I might be okay. I guess I’ll find out! :)

  4. May 30, 2011 2:34 pm

    Yeah! That was a good book. I had the same reservations when I picked it up, and the same reaction. It also has some of the “wonder” that science fiction seems to lack lately … the rosy-tinted view of humankind’s future. Sure, they’re fighting a war and the human casualties are high, but it’s still a rosier picture than all the urban-decay or post-apocalyptic SF. If only brain transplants were possible.

    • June 6, 2011 9:39 am

      Abby – You’re saying they’re not?!? Shit, there goes my retirement plan… ;)

  5. June 5, 2011 2:21 pm

    You’ve got some great fun ahead, if you continue with the series, they’re all fantastic. :) Unlike Meghan, I loved Zoe’s War, it was my favourite in the series. I listened to the audiobook though and the narrator was fantastic, so that might have helped with connecting with the different voice…

    • June 6, 2011 9:43 am

      Darren – Have you listened to all of the audiobooks, or just the one? I think my dad would *love* this book – he’s a big fan of classic sci-fi and Scalzi’s sense humor would be a perfect fit with his own – but he listens to rather than reads about 98% of his books.

  6. June 10, 2011 11:59 am

    I love Scalzi’s humor. This isn’t my favourite of the series (ZOE’S TALE and THE LAST COLONY are tied for first place), but I had a few problems with public snickering while I was reading it. People kept looking at me funny.

    • June 13, 2011 1:21 pm

      Memory – I need to get my butt in gear and track down the sequels. Waiting for them to crop up on BookMooch has thus far been ineffective.


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