February 2005

Adrienne Martini

specfic floozy

Old Man's War

After this column, I do solemnly swear to not mention Heinlein again until the Spring thaw. While it is certainly overstating the case to assert that his work touches every current science fiction book, there is a reason that his name keeps being bandied about. It is impossible to deny the influence of his juveniles like Have Spaceship Will Travel or The Star Beast or Glory Road on a subset of current science fiction writers who specialize in adventure, bug-eyed critters and moral quandaries.

John Varley is always the first writer to leap to mind when the phrase “modern-day Heinlein” is bandied about. Granted, Varley’s early works don’t really fit this description well; they are more influenced by Norman Spinrad and Michael Moorcock, who were at their most productive when Varley was really hitting his stride. But Varley’s more recent outings have Heinlein’s fingerprints all over them. Steel Beach could be a sequel to The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. The Golden Globe has Double Star at its heart. And Red Thunder is an amalgam of all of the juveniles, a reverent alloy of gee-whiz faith in human engineering and optimistic visions of the power of self-determination. Which isn’t to imply that these books aren’t wonderful. Despite all of their Heinleinian trappings -- and ferreting them all out would be a fitting subject for a doctoral dissertation -- each is still a rip-roaring read.

On its surface, John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, his first conventionally published novel, fits the Heinlien mold. You’ve got interstellar adventure, aggressive space species and a smart protagonist who gets laid frequently. But Scalzi internalizes these old tropes and creates something that feels fresh, despite its clear ties to Heinlein’s best. While Varley is clearly borrowing from the speculative fiction fan’s memory and winking all the way, Scalzi has ingested its spirit and spat out something wholly his own.
What also helps Old Man’s War be such an enjoyable read is Scalzi’s brisk-yet-colorful voice, one that has been honed by his blog The Whatever and his non-fiction work like The Book of the Dumb and The Rough Guide to the Universe. Scalzi has pared the bloat from his use of language and his text feels trim without being anemic.

The story itself revolves around 75-year-old John Perry, a widower who joins the little-understood and vastly-powerful Colonial Defense Forces, who promise him a ticket off of Earth and a miraculous cure for aging. There is no free lunch, of course, and Perry must devote the next two years (at least) to defending all of the Earth’s extra-terrestrial colonies from the folks will do anything for a crack at the same real estate. It’s a war that will keep expanding as long as humanity is able to, which ensure that there will always be an enemy at which to throw these newly rejuvenated septuagenarians.

The first half of the book could almost be read like a post-Vietnam Starship Troopers, complete with basic training, exotic enemies and first battle fears. But the tone shifts as the plot progresses. As Perry becomes less green (and there’s a pun here that only those who have read the book will get), the story shifts into a spectrum that feels like that of Heinlein’s later years, when he was pondering the meanings of love and family. But Scalzi succeeds where Heinlein failed. Instead of simply becoming one long, lusty fantasy, Scalzi digs to find how our connections influence who we are as well as who we become without them. It’s good, thought-provoking stuff. While not really “stunning,” as the cover tease proclaims, it is a delightful read that kicks the pants off of most of what’s out there.

Still, I have two minor nits to pick. The Ghost Brigades, a mysterious squadron that I can’t accurately describe without tipping Scalzi’s hand, don’t quite make sense. Perhaps this mystery will be cleared up in Scalzi’s next novel, a sequel to Old Man’s War called, tellingly, The Ghost Brigades.

My bigger nit is with the cover design, which doesn’t adequately convey the tone and texture of the story it wraps around. Scalzi himself has professed his love of Donato Giancola’s painting. I’m happy that he’s happy. It’s a lovely painting, all blue-green with a titular old man right in the center. It’s just not art that really sells the book’s strengths. I’m not saying that it should be some Boris Vallejo big-boobed monstrosity. Tor, however, has had some of the more stunning covers of the last few years (like Cory Doctorow’s forthcoming short story collection or Patrick Nielsen Hayden’s New Skies anthology) that I’m surprised that this book didn’t get a jazzier treatment. Not that disappointing cover art should give anyone pause about buying Scalzi’s book. I do wonder how many more eyeballs could have been grabbed by something as enjoyable as the text itself.