By Kyt Dotson
As much of science fiction is dedicated to social discourse and the anthropological study of where humanity is going, it also likes to focus on hardware—and by that I mean military hardware. We’ve seen the theme throughout almost all science fiction. This is absolutely no stranger to the story behind John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, military speculative fiction taken to the next level by the strange march of technology and the bleeding edge of human culture. This is why it made it into my essay: “Universe at War: Space Marines in Science Fiction.”
The story is a first-person narrative following the career of John Perry, a member of the Colonial Defense Force. The gimmick of the story that gets the technology aspect going is that Perry joined the CDF unknowingly through singing up for the military at the extreme age of 65. Individuals who do so often guess that they’re coming into a different position than they expected. After all, who looks forward to a no-holds-barred combat military career at 65?
What actually happens to recruits is hidden behind a veil of secrecy. In fact, in the story it’s suggested that Earth at large isn’t aware that there are colonies.
The technology that fuels Earth’s colonial efforts in space is several-fold. First, they are capable of growing new bodies for recruits, based on their DNA and full of nanotech goodies that make them more durable, faster, stronger, and superior to the many foes that humanity has met in the galaxy. In fact, there are a multitude of technologies that go into the new bodies including skin capable of photosynthesis and special proprietary blood capable of a higher oxygen load. Since the new bodies must be based on the recipients DNA they look rather like them.
The recruits are consciousness-mapped from their frail, old bodies, into this vibrant specialized military bodies upon their instatement into the CDF space marines.
One of the driving focuses of the book is that Perry and his wife signed the letter of intent in their old age on a whim. Unfortunately, she died before she could accept along with him, and the fact that she’s no longer in his life led him to decide it might be a good idea to join the military after all.
After his basic training, he finds himself thrust into a multitude of militaristic combat situations. Humanity really is at war with a spectacular array of other species over a galaxy of sparse resources and locations where they can colonize and inhabit. Even with the new-body-technology, it’s still difficult to take and hold hostile landscapes; especially when others out in the galaxy want to take those colonies from them. This the necessity of the CDF not only to scout out new planets to colonies, but to determine why colonies vanished from the radar, and to engage in large-scale engagements against enemy force to keep them at bay.
Diplomacy with aliens isn’t a strong suit with the CDF in Old Man’s War.
For all its strong militaristic points, Scalzi brings the human point of warfare and technology front and center with the first person narrative. Perry sounds and feels like someone taken from his life and thrust into a new one. He’s also got a sense of humor that mixes both the sensation of notable age (he is 75 in the story, after all) and the juvenile delight of being thrust back into a young body and thrown into a war that in the past we’ve only seen mere children fight. In fact, that’s the standing reason why the military sought to recruit aged folks: they’d lack the gung-ho stupidity of the youth after years of living and possibly retain some self preservation and judgment.
Some of the humor in the story comes out when Perry is presented with what is basically a communication uplink into technological telepathy called the BainPal. The BrainPal provides essential communication for CDF soldiers to speak to one another, receive orders, as well as access information on the fly. John Perry, due to his general distrust of intrusive technology, decides to name his BrainPal, “Asshole.” This sentiment is reflected across the names that the others in his squad give to their BrainPals as well. It generates a little bit of hilariously juvenile discussion.
Much of the story leads to the next book, The Ghost Brigades, and spirals out a universe full of hostile aliens (of varying humanity and empathy) and the plight of Earth trying to scratch their way out of what’s a fairly built up ecology. People who have read Starship Troopers and The Forever War will see a strong resemblance in the universe building and the approach to militaristic pursuit.
This book, and those that come after it in the series, make for a compelling reading experience and John Perry’s personal perspective and drama helps frame what would otherwise be a cut-and-dry space marine science fiction story.