Review of Old Man series by John Scalzi

Scalzi is a real writer.

This is a review of the books Old Man’s War, Ghost Brigade, Last Colony, and Zoe’s Tale, all by John Scalzi. There isn’t an official name of the series, but people refer to it as the Old Man series.

I guess I’m a tourist science fiction reader, in that I still care about things like characterization and plot. I can certainly enjoy explosions and melodrama, and big ideas about the human condition are always welcome, but sometimes I want to sit down with a real meal. I want it all. For me, this series is a full, enjoyable meal. Scalzi mentions Heinlein in the acknowledgements of his Old Man’s War, crediting Starship Troopers as an ancestor to his novel.

Starship Troopers was a great, bold vision — hard and wondrous right up until the book sits the reader down in a desk and delivers a lengthy treatise on service, sacrifice, duty, and citizenship, excerpted here:

But duty is an adult virtue—indeed a juvenile becomes an adult when, and only when, he acquires a knowledge of duty and embraces it as dearer than the self-love he was born with. There never was, there cannot be a ‘juvenile delinquent.’ But for every juvenile criminal there are always one or more adult delinquents—people of mature years who either do not know their duty, or who, knowing it, fail.

This is virtually every character interaction in the book, with stand-in questions filling the gaps like a 1950s instructional movie. (“Gee, Mr. Simon, that’s really interesting. Can you tell me more?”) I remember that bit above as being part of a forty-page-long lecture, although I’m sure it wasn’t that long. You simply can’t get away with that anymore. People overlook that style now because at the time, you couldn’t get the good parts (the big ideas) of the book anywhere else. Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four have similar screeds embedded, as did non-genre books of the time, and so all end up in the same category: brilliant, but you must be aware of the era it was written in. The craft of fiction has moved on, and unless you’re willing to couch your experience in the appreciation of art history, you probably won’t like it.

Which brings me back to Scalzi. His prose is smooth, his characters flawed and multidimensional, and his content is on par with the good parts of Heinlein. He’s not overdone and literary, doesn’t lecture, and is sneaky-smart. The first three lines of Old Man’s War:

I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife’s grave. Then I joined the army.

Wastes no time.

While I’m thinking about the issues of identity, service, relationships, longevity, and more, I also care about these characters. I don’t know if this is the best of what current speculative fiction has to offer — I haven’t read enough — but they are exactly what I want.

The subsequent books in the series continue to challenge conceptually while being eminently readable. These aren’t traditional sequels, as sequels tend to follow the same characters through a repeated cycle of the first story (Die Hard 2), or are a grand arc (Lord of the Rings) broken into multiple books. The Old Man books follow the story of a future humanity, and while the organizations and enemies persist, there’s no single “main character” of the series. Each book stands alone, and with every additional book, I had my expectations challenged in an ultimately pleasant way. I enjoyed Ghost Brigades and The Last Colony as much as Old Man’s War.

The only book of the series that didn’t work for me was Zoe’s Tale. It’s not an original story, but a parallel telling of Last Colony from a minor character’s point of view. Zoe is a teenager, and Scalzi captures the insecurity and teenage model of thought very well. I just wish it were to a greater end; the plot follows the framework of Last Colony perfectly, with little or no deviation, which ended up reducing my enthusiasm. I kept waiting to find out how this tied into the greater story, or have the events of the other book cast into a different light, but that moment never came. This novel very much had the feeling of bonus features on a dvd that you never quite get around to watching. I wonder if it’s just that the book paled in comparison to the others.

That exception aside, I very much enjoyed this series. I could finally stop thinking about his craft and just enjoy the ride, and I thought about the stories and characters after I finished each book. These are great books. I hope that Scalzi writes more in this series.

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