Review: Old Man’s War (The Series)
Old Man’s War
The Old Man’s War series is fascinating in its construction, focusing not so much on an interstellar war as much as interstellar geo-political maneuvers as alien species and humans attempt to colonize the parts of the galaxy where they live.
Book 1 is really the prologue and Act 1 for the larger story, which doesn’t sound like a great set-up for a book. Yet, I found the world building interesting. John Scalzi does a wonderful job of building out scenes that allow the reader to see how the world works without making you feel like you’re reading background treatment for a story.
That’s the best part of the book, the world building, because the character development is relatively thin. We met a few characters who are Red Shirts, destined to die, and a hero who solves all the problems thrown at him. (Gotta make it through to the end or else we can’t really have a series!)
I say that last part—about the character development—with love. There’s only so much that you can do when you’re world building. As John Perry, the main character, moves through the world, he’s experiencing the War and the Colonial Defense Force (CDF), the somewhat mysterious group that serves to protect Earth from the alien races. (The relationship between Earth and the CDF is the central theme of the series, not the wars or alien races!) And so the story diverges to unpack parts of the world as the plot moves slowly—and then hastily—to an end.
Rest assured, good reader, the book sets up a galaxy into which Scalzi tells some interesting geo-political stories in future books (far better than the Separatist movement in the Star Wars prequels), but Old Man’s War is a fun introduction to that world.
The Ghost Brigades
I was initially off-put that the series moved away from John Perry, the protagonist of the first book, but Scalzi’s choice was correct. (I did have to tell myself to hang in there because I wanted more Perry. However, I’m a writer and I know books aren’t about what the reader wants, they are about the story the author wants to tell.)
The story delves into the Special Forces, a group briefly touched upon in Old Man’s War. This construct served as a way to delve deeper into the the “enemy” of the Colonial Defense Force while also building on the galaxy John Scalzi set up in the first book.
This story felt more complete than Old Man’s War, in part because the story world was already built (and thus this isn’t a criticism) and in part because the several of the main characters—and one of the alien races—become integral to the next two books, which tell the same story through two very different point-of-view lenses.
The Last Colony
I won’t lie, I was happy to have him back. Since he was the first character we met in this series, I enjoyed the anchor of his return. Added to that, he was with two of the characters from The Ghost Brigades. All in all, it felt like the band was back together.
This story of galactic intrigue and war wasn’t told on a cosmic scale. Instead, Scalzi scaled back the story, placing us on a single colony, Roanoke (a bit too on the nose if you know its history), and then taking time to explore the dynamics of colonists living on the front lines of an amorphous war.
The plot puts us at the fulcrum between the Colonial Defense Force and its expansionist ways and the Conclave, a collective of worlds trying to reduce the violence of interstellar colonization. We see Perry, his partner Jane Sagan, and their adoptive daughter Zoe working to navigate a war that is no longer theirs to fight.
One note: book three and book four are companions. The Last Colony has plot holes galore. Until you read Zoe’s Tale. So, dear reader, be warned. Don’t mutter under your breath about deus ex machina. It’s all explained in the next book.
I didn’t expect Zoe’s Tale to be my favorite entry in the Old Man’s War series, but here we are. The book retells the story of The Last Colony through the eyes of Zoe Perry, the adopted daughter of John Perry (the protagonist from Book 1 and 3) and Jane Perry (a main character from Book one and two).
I went into the story with low expectations because I dislike these tropes. But, dammit, John Scalzi didn’t just retcon what didn’t work in the last book (or what was intentionally left out so he had room to write this story), but instead added an entire layer of intrigue to his geo-political story world.
Zoe’s interactions with the Obin and the Conclave brilliantly opened up this universe. Her point-of-view, which is linked to the non-human part of this universe, enabled the reader to explore the “alien invaders” through a lens that wasn’t human. Now, it’s helpful that neither faction—the aliens nor the humans—had been portrayed as “evil” or “good” in the series, which made this transition easier. Still, we hadn’t spent time with their intentions until this book.
The first few acts of the book, before she leaves Roanoke (the colony her parents ran in Book three), felt like a young adult novel, while the later acts felt more like an Isaac Asimov-lite rumination on the world. And Zoe’s participation in that—she was humanities representative—felt right. (The youth—the young—will always see the world in its best light and not as it is.)
I’m not a fan of science-fiction series because authors tend to get lost in what doesn’t matter and drawn towards bright, shiny explosions. But Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series does just the opposite. The deeper he gets into the series, the smaller we get. He digs into the interpersonal relationships, and—as we know in real life—that is where the right people in the right place can make the right kind of changes.
The Human Division
There are two major changes in John Scalzi‘s book The Human Division. First, the series moves away from the Perry family’s point-of-view in this story and replaces them with Harry Wilson, a wise-cracking Colonial Defense Force soldier. Second, this is a serial, which means the stories–while connected the universe—aren’t necessarily narratively related to each other. Instead, we’re treated to a series of episodes with Harry and the misfit B-team.
As with Zoe’s Tale, I had to ease into this new storytelling mechanism. Once I got passed the jolt, I enjoyed the short stories (which is really how I experienced them) and I appreciated that Scalzi didn’t just continue retreading the Old Man’s War series framework. I usually ditch other series around book four or five for just that reason.
The other part I enjoyed was the focus on the Earth-Colonial Union galaxy-politics instead of expanding to the Conclave or other species. The move made the story feel smaller and more intimate, as much as one can do that in a galactic space opera.
Since this was serialized, there are moments when—reading it as a collective novel—I could feel the different tones happening in the stories. But, that’s a minor writer-nerd quibble and not something that got in the way of my enjoyment.
All told, this was a fine addition to the series, and I’m looking forward to Harry Wilson’s next adventures.