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Book review: “Old Man’s War” by John Scalzi

scalzi --- warI’m going to give a copy of John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War to my 30-year-old nephew Kelly for Christmas. (Shhh! Don’t tell him.) But I don’t think he’s going to respond to the book in the way I did.

A couple Christmases ago, Kelly gave me Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. That’s a science fiction book about children trained from an early age (before they are hindered by bad habits) in hyper-complicated, physically and mentally challenging war games. The idea is that they’ll transfer the skills they develop to the task of leading armies against aliens. (There was a pretty decent feature film based on the novel in theaters this year.)

An underlying theme of the book is that the pace of life and technology is moving so fast that only the young are able to really get it under control and use it.

Every generation has books like this. I remember reading and enjoying these sorts of books when I was in my teens and twenties.

Kelly was in that age group when he first read Ender’s Game, and I’m sure that, as someone just coming on the scene, he could relate very closely to Andrew “Ender” Wiggin, the novel’s central character, and the other children in the program.

card --- enders-gameI enjoyed the book a lot, but I realized that, as someone in my 60s, I had a harder time putting myself inside Ender’s skin than Kelly had. For me, the idea of children recruited to save mankind was intellectually interesting, but not viscerally so.

“More to life”

With Old Man’s War, the reverse is true.

The concept here is that, in some not-too-distant future, the elderly are given the chance to extend their lives by volunteering for the military. Why? Here’s how one character explains it:

That’s one of the reasons the CDF selected old people to become soldiers, you know — it’s not just because you’re all retired and a drag on the economy. It’s also because you’ve lived long enough to know that there’s more to life than your own life.

Most of you have raised families and have children and grandchildren and understand the value of doing something beyond your own selfish goals. Even if you never become colonists yourselves, you still recognize that human colonies are good for the human race, and worth fighting for. It’s hard to drill that concept into the brain of a nineteen-year-old. But you know from experience. In this universe, experience counts.

It makes a lot of sense, but, in our world today, you wouldn’t want to field an army of creaking old farts, even if they’ve had knee replacements. That’s why it’s the young who go to boot camp.

Happy 75th!

Ah, but on the future Earth of this novel, there is an implicit promise to recruits that, if they join on their 75th birthday, they will get some sort of bodily overhaul that will enable them to do the work of soldiering. Nobody knows exactly how that’s done. No recruit who survives the ten years of service — few do — is permitted to return home.

Without giving anything away, I can say that the chapters in which the old people of this book are given their overhauls were wonderfully evocative — and sad.

As a result of their overhauls, the old folks suddenly find themselves feeling like 20 again, only better. Their overhauls make them fitter, faster and stronger than they ever were in their youth.

As I was reading these chapters, I was feeling the aches and pains of arthritis, and was well aware of the reduction in energy that comes with age, and was confronted by a gray-beard every time I looked in a mirror.

Delightful and…

It was delightful to dream that, somehow, all of that could be reversed, and I’d be young and vibrant once again.

Sad, too.

‘Cuz it ain’t gonna happen. My body isn’t going to get an overhaul. Age continues erode me physically. This is real life.

So I felt Old Man’s War viscerally. Kelly won’t.

At least for 30 or more years.

Patrick T. Reardon

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