John Scalzi,
Old Man's War
(Tor, 2005)

Let's say you're 75, with your best days definitely behind you. What would you risk to be rejuvenated? Would you join the interplanetary Colonial Defense Forces to fight aliens knowing you'd never see Earth again? Of course you would ... if you were a typical 1950s SF hero. The Old Man's War is a welcome return to the adventure novels of that era. Shades of Heinlein, Bester, Clarke and Azimov. Say hello to interplanetary action described in clear, direct prose, heroes you can root for and strange, devious aliens you can loathe.

John Perry, our narrator, is a flippant old man destined to become a flippant young man again after joining the Colonial Defense Forces. In his earlier days he was a successful ad-agency writer, but is now retired and feeling the effects of age. The death of his beloved wife makes it even easier to leave Earth in search of youth and adventure.

The CDF lives up to its part of the bargain. They transport him to a spaceship where he is rejuvenated and then some. You need all the mods you can get if you're going to save mankind. Thorough training is partly familiarization with the new body and its capabilities. It's also an introduction to the battle Earth and its colonies must wage to survive. Forty percent of new recruits die within two years during combat with violent and aggressive aliens who are attacking human colonies. Because tactics and abilities vary wildly from one race to the next, even experienced fighters are often subject to fatal surprise.

Nothing can be taken for granted. The Bathunga are oozing aliens who would have scared H.P. Lovecraft, but they are pacifists. The kindly looking Salong raise humans for food.

Perry's first combat is against the ruthless and enigmatic Consu, possessors of extraordinary technology but a strange sense of honor that keeps them from using weapons beyond the capability of an enemy. Scalzi has a ball describing them and many other unpredictably strange races.

The book is generally well written. Combat scenes hold attention. Characterizations are varied and believable, and so are relationships. The treatment of technology is a bit closer to hard SF than not, and clever SF ideas abound.

The hero is likeable and his responsibilities grow more challenging as his courage and quick thinking catch the attention of senior officers. The novel comes to a satisfying conclusion, but there are more aliens to fight and an unusual love story that's barely off the ground. Plenty of room for a sequel, and I'll be one of those ready to buy.

by Ron Bierman
22 October 2005

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