Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Starship pensioners

John Perry has had a good innings. He goes to visit his wife’s grave one last time; they had 40 years of pretty good marriage until a sudden stroke killed her. He says goodbye to his son, who is doing well and a mayor. He does a round of seeing people and closing off the threads; apologising, explaining, sleeping-with where he needs to. And then he joins the army.

John Scalzi’s book “Old Man’s War” takes 100 pages for its hero to get off Earth, and another 50 before he’s fighting aliens – by which time we’re halfway through. But essentially this is a novel about Space War, and Scalzi acknowledges his debt to Robert Heinlein and et cetera.

I must admit I’m not a great admirer of the meatheaded antics of buzzcut Starship Troopers, and Scalzi manages to nick all the high-action thrills and violence yuou’d expect while by turns deepening, subverting and generally make good on the generic conventions.

Faced with a uiniverse of unrepetant evil aliens (many of them with fanatical religious motivations) Earth is using anything’s it got to stop its colonies being wiped out or swallowed whole. And one way of doing that is to enlist the old-folk; people who’ve had good lives and lots of varied experience, and are on borrowed time. It’s difficult to say much more without spoiling the many brilliant surprises.

Helpfully, John Perry soon teams up with a retired physics teacher, who can explain or at least speculate about the various physics bits. We get some fun about the space-life “beanstalks” that get recruits off planet Earth, and there’s some clever stuff about the consequences of travelling apparently faster than light. The aliens encountered are all successively different, weird and horrid so the fighting half of the book is backed with mad and thrilling incident.

I especially liked the scale employed; this is a huge conflict against very tricky foes. And at one point Scalzi nicely undercuts the wish-fulfilment wonder of his sci-fi army’s toys and gadgets. The coolness of their weapons isn’t just a write self-abusing; it’s used to further mark the huge scale of the problem.
“‘There has never been a military in the entire history of the human race that has gone to war equipped with more than the least it needs to fight its enemy. War is expensive. It costs money and it costs lives and no civilization has an infinite amount of either. So when you fight, you conserve. You use and equip only as much as you have to, never more.’”

John Scalzi, Old Man’s War, p. 138.

The brutal, epic violence that ensues is also matched with a goofy wit, characters cracking self-effacing jokes and generally not taking things too seriously. As a result, what could have been – and usually is in tales of Space War – bludgeoningly gruff tale of hellavu-tough heroes is more about the troubled lives of ordinary Joes.

It’s great fun and a rip-roaring read, but three things niggle. First, John is continually blessed with guiding angels. He’s the one who just happens to become leader of his gang; he’s the one whose old life just happens to get another officer onside; he’s the one to survive a particular incident, to solve a way of killing a particular baddie, and he’s the one to have a billion-to-one chance encounter that otherwise never, ever happens. The growing implausibility of this plot-convenient luck loosens his hold on being an ordinary Joe. I think it bothers most because it makes him much more like the gracelessly lucky and boasting heroes of generic Space War shlock.

Second is the relentless evil of the monsters. They have no redeeming features whatever – and one man suggesting we might at least try negotiation is very quickly dealt with in gruesome, comic style. Many of the aliens seem driven by fanatical religion which never really aspires much about crude cliché.

The human soldiers seem to have no religion at all. Where they can, they collect the bodies of the fallen but they don’t seem to go in for funerals or memorials – we’re told there are posthumous medals. People are legally dead when they sign up, so marriage effectively doesn’t happen either – as John himself acknowledges. And though there’s a mention of Hindu and Muslim conscripts early on, they are clearly not in the same take-up as John and are never mentioned again. A sergeant major barks that there’s no ethnic minorities in this war, and a computer says there’s counselling for those with ethical concerns. And that’s it; the whole tangled issue of different beliefs is conveniently brushed aside.

There are already sequels which are now added to the list of things I must somehow get to; a queue of books now snaking away beyond the haze of the horizon. Books Two are too often a diminishing return, so I don’t feel a great urgency to see what happens next. But this first instalment is a rip-roaring read and will be loved (to nick a line from Jonathan Ross) by teenage boys of any age or sex.


Anonymous said...

It's worth noting that Scalzi has now made clear We Don't Know Everything Yet, possibly not anything. The black and whiteness, and brushing over the ethics is deliberate and the next books will make everything clearer or murkier. (Ie think the self-subversion of the film of Starship Troopers as much as Heinlein's novel, I guess). My friend nhw wrote an uncomplimentary review which resulted in threads both there and on Scalzi's own blog. Follow up post with relevant links here http://nhw.livejournal.com/643512.html )

That said, I wasn't really grabbed myself.

Anonymous said...

I thought the prose was good and easy to read, but besides the Mary Sue-ism of the main character just being so good at and right about eveything you mentioned, I found the whole being in love with a clone of your wife kind of creepy. It would seem to reduce her to just her physical state and ignores the life experiences that makes a person who they are.

0tralala said...

Thanks for the link Liadnan - interesting stuff. And Dave, I'd refer you to the conversation on p. 285 in which it discusses Jane being and not being who she looks like.

It's creepy and weird, but the book does acknowledge that that's the case!