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We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing book club running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “Book Bingo” where we drew reading challenges commonly found on book bingo cards from a hat and chose a book based on that. For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!
Book: “Old Man’s War” by John Scalzi
Publishing Info: Tor Books, December 2005
Where Did We Get This Book: Audiobook from the library!
Book Bingo Prompt: A book set on a ship
Book Description: John Perry did two things on his 75th birthday. First he visited his wife’s grave. Then he joined the army.
The good news is that humanity finally made it into interstellar space. The bad news is that planets fit to live on are scarce– and alien races willing to fight us for them are common. So: we fight. To defend Earth, and to stake our own claim to planetary real estate. Far from Earth, the war has been going on for decades: brutal, bloody, unyielding.
Earth itself is a backwater. The bulk of humanity’s resources are in the hands of the Colonial Defense Force. Everybody knows that when you reach retirement age, you can join the CDF. They don’t want young people; they want people who carry the knowledge and skills of decades of living. You’ll be taken off Earth and never allowed to return. You’ll serve two years at the front. And if you survive, you’ll be given a generous homestead stake of your own, on one of our hard-won colony planets.
John Perry is taking that deal. He has only the vaguest idea what to expect. Because the actual fight, light-years from home, is far, far harder than he can imagine–and what he will become is far stranger.
I will be the first to admit that when I saw that this book was the choice for our Book Club, I groaned. Not only was it Science Fiction, one of my less liked genres, it was also MILITARY fiction, ANOTHER of my less liked genres. But having had good experiences with John Scalzi in the past, I downloaded the audiobook, set it on 1.5x speed, and decided to listen to it while going on a long trip up north, so that I could be a captive audience of sorts. And you know what? I did not dislike this book in the way that I thought I would!
Don’t misunderstand me; I still had a hard time with the science fiction, and I still didn’t like the military themes (and even though the colonialism in this book wasn’t super cut and dry in the morality of it within this universe and circumstance, I still was a little put off by it). But there were a few things I did really like. For one, it reminded me of “Starship Troopers” in a lot of ways, a sci-fi film I do really enjoy. For another, there are themes of a non-human being having to learn to be human/connect with the human that they themselves have kind of inhabited, which is SUCH a favorite trope of mine (Hello “Starman” and Illyria from “Angel”! I love you both so much!). And finally, and the moment that made me go from ‘eh, this is okay’ to ‘HOLY SHIT THIS IS SUDDENLY AMAZING?!’, we have Master Sgt Ruiz. The trash talking, belittling, no nonsense and SO GODDAMN FUNNY sergeant that our main character John Perry has to answer to. Everything about this character had me howling with laughter as I drove up through the North Woods. Everything.
So, I was anticipating a miss and ended up really liking “Old Man’s War”! I don’t think I’m going to continue the series, but this first book was enjoyable.
Science fiction is solidly within my genre preferences. And, let’s admit it, a lot of science fiction has cross-over with military fiction, so fans of the former generally are ok to some extent with the latter. I’ve also read some good military fantasy fiction and enjoyed that as well. Probably for similar reasons as Kate, I would likely struggle with military fiction written in our modern, very real world (the weird fetishization of it seen in things like the NFL comes to mind). But I do think that fantasy/science fiction allows readers to explore aspects of military fiction in interesting ways. In these imaginary realms, the author is freed of some of the pat positions and previously established understandings of the military and warfare that a reader brings with them. Instead, the author can freely explore the much more complicated history, morality, and purpose of a military force and the types of conflict they can find themselves in. It’s too easy in our modern understanding to look at such things and come up with simple, comfortable, black and white, right and wrong decisions. Books like this force readers to challenge their own positions and tackle complicated questions that don’t leave us comfortably assured of what the right answer is. Through this exercise, I’ve found that books like this accomplish one of the most unique and powerful abilities that reading brings by exposing readers to ideas, peoples, circumstances that they wouldn’t possibly experience in their ordinary life.
So, too, I found the colonization topic to be interesting as well. Again, there are no easy answers here and readers are not allowed to fall back on easy “good” or “evil” understandings of what is happening. Scalzi walks the story through some landmine-filled topics. And through his character, a very human, very sympathetic man, the reader must also grapple with the world that Scalzi is presenting and what, if anything, may be applicable to how we understand human nature, our history and our future.
I also particularly liked a discussion on religion and culture that comes later in the book. Like many other good science fiction stories, it is an excellent look at how people attempt to graft their own understanding of morality, religion, and culture onto a foreign body. In these examples, the foreign bodies are literal aliens, so there are also very creative and interesting new religions and cultures at their heart. But the idea remains the same, regardless. This one I thought was particularly interesting, and, if anything, I wish the story had focused a bit more on this aspect of things. And (here’s where I really agree with Kate about military fiction) less on detailed descriptions of space battles and laser guns.
I’m also totally with Kate about the amazinginess that was Master Sgt Ruiz. I literally laughed out lout several times during his page time. Overall, this was much more my sort of thing than Kate’s, but I don’t think anyone who regularly reads this blog is surprised by that! I think the pacing was a bit strange, and the story would jump from one scene to another without much transition, but I enjoyed the themes and the characters of this book well enough. Science fiction readers will likely enjoy it!
Kate’s Rating 7: I enjoyed this more than I thought I would! A little “Starship Troopers”, a little ‘learning to be human’, and a hilarious drill sergeant made for a combination that worked for me.
Serena’s Rating 8: So full of action and set at a galloping pace, you almost forget to think about some of the challenging themes the book is digging into, but when you do, they are interesting, indeed.
Book Club Questions
- Does the future world and universe in this book seem believable and possible?
- What do you think is the motivation of the Colonial Union and Defense Force?
- What did you think of the humor in this book? Did it add to the reading experience? Take away from it?
- How did the themes of battle fatigue and feelings of inhumanity strike you?
- What alien races did you like best and what alien races were your least favorite?
- What were your thoughts on Jane Sagan and her character arc?
- Would you volunteer in the Colonial Union?
Next Book Club Pick: “In a Midnight Wood” by Ellen Hart