Redshirts was the first John Scalzi book I read a couple of years ago, and having been a massive Trekkie all my life I loved it. I found it funny and clever, and I assumed Scalzi must have been writing for years. It’s only very recently that I’ve started to get any idea of where various authors sit on the great timeline of SFF, and I was convinced Scalzi must be one of those late-seventies early-eighties writers making a comeback. Convinced. When I first found Old Man’s War I thought I must have found one of his earlier books, reprinted. And it reads so much like the awesome pulpy sci-fi of the seventies, (but way less sexist), that it wasn’t until I was getting ready to write this and did a quick search for his bibliography that I learned this was his first published novel. In 2005. So I clearly have a lot to learn.
It’s a great book, whatever it’s age. Scalzi has got an ace sense of humour, but he’s also able to write really solid, sympathetic characters and really, really good dialogue. John, Alan, Harry, Jesse, Maggie, Susan and Thomas, a.k.a. The Old Farts, are a group of new recruits in the Colonial Defence Forces; all in their seventies, all volunteers. Having given DNA samples along with signed letters of intent at the age of 65, John and his wife Kathy intended to join together. Now that Kathy has passed away John says goodbye to her grave, to his son Charlie and his family, and leaves Earth (forever, it’s part of the deal), for the CDF, space travel and a brand-spanking new body in any colour as long as it’s green. He meets his fellow Old Farts on the journey into orbit and the absolutely best bit of the book is their developing friendships as they go through all the tests and upgrades to get them ready for the CDF. When they have to go their separate ways to begin training for military service it’s genuinely sad that they have to split up, although Scalzi is so good at writing character that you just get to care about a whole new set of people once John and Alan have arrived on Beta Pyxis III, and I hooted aloud throughout their training under the stereotypical shouty-sweary drill instructor Master Sergeant Ruiz. This is a pattern that repeats throughout the book, (because, you know, war): It is truly affecting when a character dies (some more than others, obviously), and Scalzi pays them due attention, but then new characters come on board so you don’t feel the hole for too long. It’s good, good writing.
And it’s an awesome universe. While life carries on very much as normal down on Earth, up in space everything is out to get us. Humanity is just one of hundreds of other species out to colonise as much of space as it can get its greasy little mits on, and there is fierce competition with absolutely no interest in sharing. The alien species are diverse, often savage, and occasionally inexplicable. While I personally prefer my aliens friendly and inclined towards coffee and cake rather than our death and destruction, it’s fascinating to read about this chaotic scramble for territory and the tech needed to hold off all other comers. It’s written so gustily that you can’t help but be drawn in.
On the flip side, becoming a killing machine after a pedestrian Earth-bound life definitely messes with a person’s head. There is plenty of discussion about war throughout the book, especially when John loses it after slaughtering the Covandu on Cova Banda. The Covandu are very similar to humankind except for their being only inches tall, and John and his fellow soldiers kill them by stomping on them. The CDF forces wade through the Covandu cities like uniformed Godzillas stamping out life as they go.
“‘I’m talking about the fact that our opponents are one fucking inch tall. Before this, we were fighting spiders. Before that, we were fighting goddamned pterodactyls. It’s all messing with my sense of scale. It’s messing with my sense of me. I don’t feel human anymore, Alan.’
‘Technically speaking, you’re not human anymore,’ Alan said. It was an attempt to lighten my mood.
It didn’t work. ‘Well, then, I don’t feel connected with what it was to be human anymore,’ I said. ‘Our job is to go meet strange new people and cultures, and kill the sons of bitches as quickly as we possibly can. We know only what we need to know about these people in order to fight with them. They don’t exist to be anything other than an enemy, as far as we know.'”
I like that, for all he keeps his tone light, Scalzi still has a place for these discussions. It’s not all blood guts and glory and screw the other guy/girl/being.
There’s some cool tech and science on display here too. The faster than light travel employed in this universe is the Skip Drive, which kind of hurts my head if I think about it too much (there’s talk of multiple universes – I seriously can’t handle that sort of thing, my brain’s not big enough); there are space elevators known as Beanstalks (and I’m back on solid ground with that concept); guns, ‘empees’, that can fire different types of round that it creates itself, and can self-repair; and my favourite thing, the BrainPal. Well, it’s probably everyone’s favourite thing. The BrainPal is an implant that is essentially a smart phone in your brain. It enables instant communication, can be used as an ereader and television inside your head, it can translate things for you, you can look anything up on it, and you can operate your empee via thought. I have no doubt that Apple is already working on it. (In We by John Dickinson people have a similar kind of implant and I loved the idea then as much as I do now. The only advantage Scalzi’s BrainPal has is that you can name it whatever you want and I love all the names the Old Farts choose for theirs).
If there’s just one more thing that lifts this book up out of the quagmire of military sci-fi it is, for me at least, the exploration of John and Kathy’s marriage. For John his marriage to Kathy is not a thing of the past, even though she has passed away it is something ever-present for him. It’s not a marriage described only in rosy hues, it feels pretty authentic with its ups and downs and everydayness, which is perhaps why, when John starts to question his own humanity, his marriage and his feelings about it are the things that keep him grounded. And when he meets Jane, a Ghost Brigade soldier created from Kathy’s DNA but with none of his wife’s memories, his tentative relationship with her is another aspect of that first relationship, as well as something new. The next book in the series is called The Ghost Brigades and I am secretly hopeful that there will be more about Jane (Jane Sagan – nice touch) to come because I think she definitely needs more page time – I have so many unanswered questions.
I’ll say it again: This is a great book. It is absolutely worth reading. It’s got action, and space travel and a sense of humour. It’s also got a heart. I really, really like it. John Scalzi is up there on my list of most awesome writers of all time. He’s got style as well as smarts, and if it weren’t for the fact that I am woefully close to finishing my Book Bingo I’d go back to the beginning and read Old Man’s War all over again.
“‘I simply refuse to acknowledge that there is not something about you I despise,’ Ruiz said. ‘Where are you from?’
‘Ohio, Master Sergeant!’
Ruiz grimaced. Nothing there. Ohio’s utter inoffensiveness had finally worked to my advantage. ‘What did you do for a living, recruit?’
‘I was self-employed, Master Sergeant!’
‘I was a writer, Master Sergeant!’
Ruiz’s feral grin was back; obviously he had it in for those who worked with words. ‘Tell me you wrote fiction, recruit,’ he said. ‘I have a bone to pick with novelists.'”