I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife’s grave. Then I joined the army.
As first liners go this is one is a good one. Old Man’s War is an absolute brilliant book by my favorite author John Scalzi. John Perry, the protagonist is a cynical but friendly old man. He loves his dead wife Kathy very much and remembers her with warmth and affection, but also at times with resentment for leaving him behind. She suddenly died from a brain aneurysm eight years ago. They had enrolled in the Colonial Defence Force (CDF) together before she died, planing a life together among stars they knew very little about. John still have no idea of what to expect, except that they have some way to make him young again.
So on his 75 birthday he travels to CDF’s recruitment office. The young recruiter confirms that he signs up for two years with an option for CDF to extend it to ten. John takes a leap of faith and signs, becoming legally dead if he stays on earth. Once you leave earth you can never go back. The official reason is to protect earth against alien diseases.
John Scalzi paints a humorus if somewhat cynical picture of being old.
Perry travels to orbit via the Beanstalk, a feat of colonial engineering no one on earth can duplicate. As Harry, another recruit he meets there theorises, the beanstalk isn’t the most economical or easiest way to get to orbit, it is rather the hardest most expensive way to get there, it is a message to the governments on earth. Unless you can duplicate this, you have nothing to do among the stars.
They are herded trough Colonial Station to their ride the starship CDFS Henry Hudson, where they somewhat surreal are served coffee and donuts. Not the usual military welcome.
During the following two days they go trough tests of various kinds. First they get a physical and their brains are implanted with a sensor array. They test language, math, make them angry, awnser questions from to a naked sexy woman/man etc. Perry resents being treated as a preschooler. During that time he bonds with a group of other recruits and they name themselves ‘The Old Farts’, they becomes his substitute family.
After two days they skip to the Phoenix system where they will load supplies before going to Beta Pyxis III for basic training. The enormous space station and the hundreds of ships around it makes them realise what a backwater earth have become.
The long awaited ‘concluding physical improvment’ that will enable them to fight in CDF takes place, more later.
The characterisation is exquisite and this is one of John Scalzi’s greatest strengths, you can identify with the characters, what motivates them, in fact at times it felt like my consciousness was transferred into the main character. John also do cynical old man very well, even if he is young man himself.
The world is also well though out and coherent. Earth is kept a backwater by the Colonial Union to be used for soldiers and colonists. The developed countries supply educated experienced soldier at an age of 75, the under developed countries supply colonists of any age.
It is a beautiful story with a moral. The characters John and his group are easy to love. World building, descriptions etc is inserted in a clever way. No massive infodumps here. There is also a number wow moments in the story.
Our protagonist John Perry get to experience revelation after revelation about the CDF and Earth. If you are a first time reader, you should enjoy it too. If you read on, you will learn too much, and it might spoil part of the enjoyment. You have been warned. Spoiler alert!
The ‘concluding physical improvment’ is made by transfering their conscious to new bodies. John gets a new green-fighting-machine one, of the Defender Series XII ‘Hercules’ model, and a brochure. He has SmartBlood™, CatsEye™, UncommonSense™, HardArm™, BrainPal™ all patented technologies that he will benefit from as long as he is in CDF. He name his BrainPal Asshole.
Their Commander holds a short speach and order them to have fun the rest of the trip, and they do. Their new bodies are as likable as possible, meaning they all look very attractive. The following days are spent having sex and enjoying being 25 again.
On arrival to Beta Pyxis III they are given a lecture. They learn humans have colonized a dozen planets, they compete for the same real-estate with hundreds of other colonies by other races. Humanity have few allies. Very few races are allies with anyone, been so since before we left earth. There is a fierce competition, a race where we have to fight to colonize. The Colonial Defence Force objectives are to protect colonies, secure new planets for colonization, prepare planets with native populations for human colonization.After 10 years of service three out of four of them will be dead.
The Old Farts are split into different training platoons. Master Sergeant Antonio Ruiz is Johns drill instructor, he lives up to what you can expect from a master sergeant and more. He hate their guts but he fails to find anything to hate with john so he makes him platoon leader.
They learn the limits of their bodies under cheerful banter. After a week they receive their weapon, the MP-35 infantery rifle.
When the recruits get over confident in their abilities, Ruiz takes them down again. He explain military economics for them. Their fantastic bodies and weapons are the bare minimum that allows them to survive on the modern battlefield. He also drills alien races preconceptions out of them, it doesn’t matter if they look like Bambi they will still eat you! They also do war games and John have a knack for it. John graduates with a good grade from Ruiz.
Perry is assigned to CDFS Modesto, 233rd battalion, D company, 2nd platoon Lt Arthur Keyes commanding. Their first mission is ritual fighting with a more advanced race, the Consu. They have personal shields making them hard to kill, John programs a two shot function for his rifle that works and share it with the rest. It works out well and he get a commendation. The fight was, as a veteran tell Perry, as easy as they get.
But life in CDF is dangerous, other Old Farts die off. After the first fight Perry and his fellow recruits are fully accepted into the platoon. and he reflects on replacing dead friends. Until you fight you just take up space exemplified by a former senator now first timer trying diplomacy in the middle of a raid ending up a needle cushion. Eventually killing gets to Perry but he works through it.
Then comes the Coral massacre, a Rraey invasion force captured the colony and butchered the colonists. The Colonial Union sends a fleet to take it back, but they are ambushed as they skip out into normalspace, the Rraey have acquired a new technology that allows them to predict where a ship skips back into normal space. The fleet is destroyed. Perry is the only survivor and he is rescued by his dead wife.
After being rescued he is put in stasis until they can get back to Phoenix station. There he is put into a regen tank to heal. Afterwards he finds out he was rescued by CDF special forces, from the ship sparrowhawk. They are called the Ghost Brigade, rumor says they are dead people.
Then he sees someone in the cafeteria that looks exactly like Kathy, his dead wife. He boldly thanks her for saving his life. Her name is Jane Sagan. Before she leaves he beam her a photo of his wedding and is thrown into a wall. Later that night Jane sneaks in and visits him. she wants to know more. she is six years old and she doesn’t know any realborns. It amazes her to hear that he was married to Kathy for 42 years. Their relation develops in secret.
John Perry is promoted to Lieutenant and sent with Sparrowhawk to return to Coral and capture the tachion detector. Thats as much as I am going to tell.
In conclusion, It’s a wonderful book i strongly recommend it to all lovers of science fiction.