Saturday, July 29, 2006

Book-A-Day #12 (7/28): Old Man's War by John Scalzi

The last novel I had to read for Hugo voting -- which is good, since the deadline is Monday. (Everybody go vote now!)

Short version: I liked this a lot better than Spin, but I'm not sure if it's Hugo-worthy.

Longer Version: Old Man's War is one of those books that are actually exactly like the cliche -- it's easier to just keep reading to the end as quickly as possible than to put it down and do anything else. (And I appreciate that in a book.) It's written in first-person, which helps with the immediacy, and also aids in suspension of disbelief, since the background has a few things that would be hard to swallow if they were stated flatly by an omniscient narrator. (But when they're what our narrator is told, there's a much better chance that it's not the entire story.)

This is the book that starts with the hero spending his seventy-fifth birthday visiting his wife's grave and then joining the army. It's one of the great attention-grabbing openings of our time, right up there with "'In five years, the penis will be obsolete,' the salesman said." And it goes on from there at a fine clip; this is a novel that knows how to move along, and doesn't waste any time. It's not rushed, though; it just moves at an appropriately zippy pace.

I don't have much else to say about this novel (there often isn't much to say about a good piece of adventure fiction), except that I hope the background isn't precisely as it is presented to John Perry (our protagonist) in this book. Apparently, humanity discovered (on its own) an interstellar drive about two hundred years previously, and then expanded outward into a galaxy filled with a myriad alien races battling over every inhabitable planet.

Possible problems with this:
  • If the competition is so cut-throat, how come Earth had been left alone previously?
  • And how come there were nearby inhabitable planets for us to colonize in the first place?
  • Isn't it massively unlikely that all of these races are close enough to military/technological parity that ground wars for planetary surfaces are even plausible?
  • I also have to wonder about the apparent lack of planet-killer (or even star-killer) weapons.
All in all, it looks like the Old Man universe should be vastly more dangerous than it is (with that level of pugnaciousness, I'd expect a few alien races both willing and very able to wipe out a species like humanity without much trouble), so I'm interested to see if Scalzi deals with those issues in future books.

Did I enjoy it? Hell yes. As a matter of fact, I've already ordered a copy of the sequel, The Ghost Brigades, from the SFBC warehouse (one of the perks of being an editor). And that's quite rare these days. The last time I was this excited about a new SF writer, it was James Alan Gardner's Expendable (which also had background problems, though, in Gardner's case, those loomed larger and larger as the series went on -- I hope that doesn't happen with Scalzi).

But it's not an obviously "big" book, so I don't know if it's the front-runner for my Hugo vote. I've now read all the novels, and they're all good books, but I have serious problems with all of them. Oh, well -- who was it that defined a novel as "a long piece of prose that has something wrong with it"?

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