Old Man’s War

AJM encouraged me to read some science fiction that was written a bit more recently. After all, just because I started reading science fiction in the 1970s and stopped reading science fiction in the 1970s, doesn’t mean I should restrict myself to reading science fiction from the 1970s. He suggested Old Man’s War for two reasons; it is an alternative riff on the themes of brain transplant and identity that Heinlein explored in I Will Fear No Evil” and last week Paramount bought the movie rights.

The most obvious difference between these two visions of the future is that Scalzi’s (contrary to its title) is populated with women. Almost every other character is a woman and they are just there doing stuff, same as the men. They are not regarded as “other”. We are human. “Others” are the aliens out there trying to kill us. It’s a relief to jump the 30 year time warp from 1975 to 2005 and find myself home psychologically. But it also drives home the point that whether it’s Heinlein or Scalzi, science fiction is just a projection of our present day with cooler technology. In fact so much of present day Earth is the same in Old Man’s War that feels like it was set in the present day, except that we Earthlings have begun to colonize the universe.

One thing that I really like about Scalzi is that he doesn’t waste a lot of time with tedious description. So much contemporary fiction I’ve read lately seems to be written from the same manual, telling detail is important (I agree), so you should know everything about a character including the model of her phone (I disagree). Scalzi has a lot of characters but they reveal themselves through conversation. You really know very little about them except their names and in some cases their former occupations. All the rest is baggage and leaving it behind gives the reader the same sense of immediacy that the characters experience as they leave their former lives behind. It puts us in the moment. This works well for me because it’s how I experience the world. I don’t really see people visually. (I won’t recognize you out of context.) I experience them through their words, their voices, and their movements.

Spoilers Ahead

Both I Will Fear No Evil and Old Man’s War start with the concept of inserting the personality/soul/consciousness of an old person into a young body. In Heinlein’s universe, given a second chance at youth, there is only one thing any sane person would do. Fuck. That’s the first thing they do in Scalzi’s universe, too, but then they have to get down to business. The young are designed specifically to make war not love.

Part one of the book, the switch into the newly designed bodies and the acclimation to new conditions and training, was the most interesting to me. The final two thirds of the book described various battles. It moved along like a good action movie but it didn’t interest me as much. That is, it didn’t give me as much to think about. Even as flawed as I Will Fear No Evil is I marked twenty times as many passages as I did in Old Man’s War. The latter is more likable, somewhat pleasant and unassuming. (I imagine Scalzi at a party as being that quiet guy in the corner with a amused and self-deprecating smile; Heinlein is the cantankerous old fart on the couch arguing with everyone just to see if he can get a rise out of anyone.) Toward the end of Old Man’s War, two characters do discuss some of the psychological and ethical issues of consciousness transference. I don’t know if this more subtle approach (compared with Heinlein) is contemporary style, Scalzi’s style, or whether he’s just saving some this exploration of consequences for the sequels. I’ll have to read those to find out. Which I will.

Quotes and Notes

2011-03-02. Added after reading all three books in the series.

“…in about a minute, all that time I spent memorizing the constellations will be wasted effort. There’s no Orion or Ursa Minor or Cassiopeia where we’re going.” (Alan) — p 71

How many years of my life have been spent in acquiring knowledge for which I know longer have any use? The deeper question is whether this was time wasted or just part of the process that makes me who I am and not someone else.

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