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Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

All I can say is that I was entertained, in a popcorn sort of way.

Nowhere came Old Man’s War close to fulfilling expectations, raised by all these kudos it received. There’s one terrific premise which, quite unexpectedly, branches out later in the book, bundled with another nice surprise.

But that’s basically it. Character development is, like, nil—and there aren’t any noticeable “characters” to begin with. Which is a bit odd for seventy-something year old protagonists. Moreover, Old Man’s War’s plot is formulaic and predictable to an almost embarrassing degree. It’s not that Scalzi wouldn’t notice—on the contrary. He goes to great lengths to deflect it in a kind of self-conscious, postmodern way, letting his characters, just in time, voice the déjà vus and objections he correctly presumes to arise in the reader’s mind. Which is certainly clever, but it only takes you so far. As the story goes on and the time goes by, the original predictions are indeed fulfilled, and so heavy-handedly like you wouldn’t believe. (As soon as you arrive at the equivalent to Parris Island, prepare for the worst.)

From then on, John Scalzi manages to drill, like your friendly-neighborhood popcorn action movie directed by Michael Bay, any surviving traces of plausibility right into the ground, and he does so in two different ways that wonderfully complement each other.

[Note: Here Be Spoilers.]

On the one hand, the utterly unexperienced protagonist (a former, what, copywriter?) has unfailingly the right ideas and does the right things at the right moments, which gets him raised from corporal to captain in no time. On the other, if you look at these “right ideas” real hard, and the marvelous actions the hero performs, they reveal themselves to be stunningly trivial and, from a narrative perspective, highly unimaginative. Now wait—maybe an overlooked case of an “unreliable narrator”? But no. As soon as he becomes the first soldier ever to gain the grudging respect of the over-robust drill sergeant, you will think the operating power of the word “tacky” has increased tenfold while you weren’t looking.

Next on the agenda: utterly interchangeable, modular murder-destroy-kill rampages, and the only person voicing doubt and trying to inject some diplomacy is among the most disagreeable characters in the whole novel. But the “clever trick” mentioned above is played again: suddenly, after the disagreeable diplomat’s messy demise everybody has been waiting for, another and much more likable character voices the reader’s thoughts that a little bit of “diplomacy” mightn’t be so ludicrous after all, even if this particular effort was gross and stupid. There you go. But of course, this more likable character dies shortly thereafter, in even more exquisitely gruesome fashion, to make sure the “diplomacy” motif is dead and buried and will never rise again. What else? Oh yes: more hack and slay ensues, relentlessly.

If you let Old Man’s War sink in for a week or so, even the perceived popcorn value fades away in favor of a nagging feeling that you might just have followed some editorially polished Gary Stu through the scripted game course of a future Call of Duty franchise.

Scalzi, John. Old Man’s War. New York: Tor, 2007.
This review was also published at LibraryThing.

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