Old man’s war

Things have gotten a little fantasy-centric lately, so I figured it’s time for some more sf.

Old man’s war / John Scalzi. First published 2011.

I don’t want to sound like a Scalzi obsessive, but I think he’s one of the best living authors of sf.


He’s also a super awesome hew-mon.


Anyways, Old man’s war.


Brief plot summary

Earth has begun to colonize outer space, but colonization is highly restricted: only those from third-world nations or who have completed military service are allowed to emigrate. The catch? The military only accepts people who are 75 years old as recruits. The Colonial Defense Force also highly restricts knowledge about the universe at large and a strict ban on advanced technology means that life on Earth has not significantly changed from the late 20th/early 21st century.

John Perry, retired ad writer, decides to enlist and ends up discovering that the universe is weirder and more dangerous than he ever expected.

So how is it?

It’s really good on its own, but the extended universe initially created in this book is even better. Old man’s war is unapologetic about its influences: both Starship troopers and The forever war are highly visible antecedents to this book. Despite the familiarity of the plot (super-soldiers in the future fight aliens!) Old man’s war feels neither derivative nor simple.


It’s technically military sf, in the vein of its Heinleinian and Haldemanian predecessors, but (more akin to Haldeman’s later work) the focus isn’t exclusively military. Perry is a very human character, upset over the loss of his wife but not cartoonishly so, a critical thinker in a military organization that might prefer he were otherwise, and a very sympathetic character overall.

I won’t reveal too much, but I’ll just say that while Old man’s war is structurally modeled on Heinlein’s Starship troopers, the actual content of the novel is closer to the film version.

Structurally, Old man’s war is Starship troopers. Tonally and plot-wise it’s more like The forever war, but Scalzi deviates from these giants in the genre to distinguish himself. FTL travel is possible in this world, in contrast with The forever war, and the military innovations are sufficiently different (largely informed by current trends in the genre) that it’s not “same-y” at all.

Scalzi populates his universe with a diverse set of believable aliens. The cosmos of Old man’s war is crowded, with countless species attempting to claim ownership over the limited number of planets capable of sustaining them. The conflict feels real, and has a compelling internal logic and complexity that sets this book apart from other military SF. The fact that the races he fights are intelligent, adaptable opponents helps to prevent the many battle scenes from becoming repetitive and provides a realistic explanation for why, given the enhancements of the human military, the conflict continues. Because this war is about terrain and not about ideology, species find themselves allying with the species that they have the least in common with, since they will not then eventually be in competition with each other for resources. It’s an interesting twist and even the “allies” come across as impenitrably alien.

There are enough questions presented throughout the book to keep the reader interested as well. From the nature of the mysterious Ghost brigades, the method by which 75 year olds become effective combatants, the reasons for Earth’s enforced isolation, to secrets I won’t reveal here, Scalzi never allows the reader to feel like they know everything.

Old man’s war was Scalzi’s first published novel, and while it’s an incrediblys strong book the first-novel-itis is somewhat visible. One could argue that he leans a little too heavily on genre tropes (although he plays with them well enough that it’s by no means boring), and the entire thing feels somewhat … limited. The sequels, which expand the universe and elaborate the thematic elements are even stronger than this one.


Old man’s war is a quick read, it’s accessible, and it’s practically mandatory reading for fans of modern sf. Fans of 60s sf will enjoy it, but it’s not too old school for modern readers. The military theme might turn off some readers, but it’s not a patriarchal action movie military novel. It’s about an individual who happens to be in the military, doing some serious self examination while doing his best just to stay alive. As long as they are willing to come to it with an open mind, Old man’s war is great for any fan of character-driven sf.

Further reading

Mandatory cross recommendations

Starship troopers / Robert Heinlein

The forever war / Joe Haldeman

The sequel to Old man’s war

The ghost brigades / John Scalzi

sf with detailed, realistically alien aliens

A fire upon the deep / Vernor Vinge

Foreigner / C.J. Cherryh

Interested in more intellectual approaches to military sf

Forever peace / Joe Haldeman

Just wants to read books about space marines shooting aliens

Soldier of the legion / Marshall S. Thomas



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