In which war gets old

January 20, 2009

I’d heard good things about Old Man’s War by John Scalzi. Things that made me want to read it. Now, having read it, I am hard pressed to remember what those good things were and who said them, because I’d like to ask those people some questions.

The ideas are interesting, without a doubt. In the future, humans are at war with just about everyone else in the galaxy and they recruit old people to fight. The book explores the technology involved, in detail that is specific enough to be believable but vague enough to sidestep questions of realism and feasibility. Some worthwhile philosophical questions are asked and answered in a generally satisfactory way.

There are, however, two main problems with this book, and they are pretty significant: the characters and the plot.

We’ll start with the latter, which is possibly the less egregious. To put it briefly, not much happens in this book. Over three hundred pages and perhaps a third of them or less actually move the action forward in some substantive way. And honestly, the action doesn’t seem to go much of anywhere anyway. I could say more, but I don’t want to wander too close to spoiler territory. Suffice it to say that the first third of the book is spent easing the reader into the pool, and the rest feels like treading water with the occasional cannonball.

But sometimes a book can get away with slow or flimsy plot if the characters are sympathetic and engaging. Unfortunately, these aren’t really either, mostly because they have little to no distinct personality to differentiate them. They are all nice, intelligent, well-spoken people who sound alike and are only distinguished by their previous careers. The main character in particular is disappointingly bland and, even worse, has no detectable character flaw. He is awesome and everyone likes him and he does awesome things and boy he sure is great! He never does anything wrong, and when bad things happen they are never his fault and, really, they don’t tend to happen to him anyway so who cares? It’s not like the other characters were distinct enough to worry about, so when any of them die the impact is minimal.

Most of the book felt like the notes for a book, like the author wrote all these fabulous background bits about the universe and technology and so forth and thought it would be a great idea to have various characters relate this information in lengthy, pointless conversations. It was not a great idea. It was quite possibly the opposite of a great idea. Even the action bits weren’t as exciting as one might hope; it felt like more time was spent planning the actions than actually engaging in them, and they tended to go just as planned with one notable and enjoyable exception.

Would I recommend this book? Perhaps to the kind of person who liked to read D&D manuals for fun. Otherwise, the gimmick of having old people fight wars is not sufficient to carry this novel. If I want to read about space marines, I’ll go grab Starship Troopers. If I want morality, I’ll read some Clarke or Asimov or Vonnegut.

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