John Scalzi is one of the highest profile science fiction authors alive. A prolific writer, he was also President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, consulted on the hit TV show Stargate Universe, maintains a hugely popular blog and is an outspoken activist for many good causes. It was therefore with high hopes that last year I picked up Redshirts – one of his latest novels, which recently won the Hugo award. Unfortunately the reality did not live up to the hype – it was, effectively, a single Star Trek joke stretched out to fill 300 pages, with uninspired characterisation and insipid prose. Over time, however, I began to suspect that I might have judged Scalzi too harshly and that it might be worth giving a writer of his reputation another chance. Therefore, I recently read Old Man’s War – his first ever novel. The book is set in the distant future – with humanity having finally reached the stars and found out that we are not alone. The various species of the galaxy are caught up in a near constant state of conflict – in many ways the reminiscent of 19th century colonial wars. While Earth itself is isolated from the fighting, as well as the greater galactic community in general, by its colonies the planet’s citizens when they turn 75 may join the Colonial Defence Force and receive a rejuvenation treatment before getting the chance to see the universe. The novel follows John Perry, who makes this very choice, and his fellow new recruits as they go through basic training, have their first taste of combat and learn how, in the current conflict, there are no real ‘good guys’. In many ways this book has many problems similar to those in Redshirts. The main issue I have with Scalzi’s characters in both books is that they are all essentially the same person. The protagonists may be differentiated by gender or ethnicity but they all have the same personality – smart, outspoken, generally nice but often sarcastic – in short, people very similar to Scalzi himself. Don’t get me wrong – Scalzi knows how to write this character type very well but seeing it half a dozen times in the same novel gets really tiring, really fast. Scalzi’s prose is, to put it nicely, very utilitarian. It is clear and readable but nothing more. There is no beauty in it – it is used merely as a tool to get the story across. All this leaves are the plot and themes – and here is where my opinion of the two novels diverges. While Redshirts was just, in effect, an extended parody, Old Man’s War is something more. While focusing mainly on the personal experiences of John Perry it also subtly conveys the far larger and deeper story of galactic conflict and, by the end, it manages to ask serious questions about the nature of war and colonisation. All the while it remains very exciting – both in the fast paced combat scenes and in the tense moments in between them. These positives don’t cancel out the negatives, but they do help me forget them and make the book a very enjoyable read. There are novels that explore similar themes in more depth and with greater skill but few that do it in such an engaging manner. I do believe that Scalzi’s popularity as a person has artificially inflated the popularity of his books and Old Man’s War is certainly not a masterpiece but the fact is that I read it in a single day and its sequels are already on my reading list.
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