An age-old complaint is that old men start wars and young men die in them. Appropriately adjusted for modern gender grammar, the complaint persists. It surely prompted the title (and perhaps the idea) for Old Man’s War, John Scalzi’s thoroughly enjoyable space adventure series. In Scalzi’s future universe if you are a man or woman on earth, are over 75, and are reasonably mentally competent, you can sign up for the Colonial Defense Forces. The attraction: enlistees get a new genetically engineered young body, a second shot at youth. The downside: the Colonial Union, headquartered off-world, has not been honest with their fellow humans back on earth about how scary and violent the galaxy is; enlistees don’t know their life expectancy in the service is actually lower than if they stayed civilians and aged normally.
There is a great deal of experimental science fiction these days by authors such as William Gibson, Cory Doctorow, and Charles Stross. You have your choice of future dystopias from the likes of Margaret Atwood and Suzanne Collins. Scalzi himself offers some unusual fare such as the techno-mystery-medical novel Lock In or the tongue-in-cheek Redshirts. But sometimes a reader might be just in the mood for old-fashioned space adventure full of insectoid aliens, slashing particle beams, and fleets of space cruisers. Scalzi provides all of that in his Old Man’s War series, and provides it in well-written but unpretentious prose. I just finished a hardcover of the sixth and latest entry in the series, The End of All Things, which is really an assemblage of four novellas, each previously released electronically. It is as solid a read as the previous five books, but, as one might expect for #6 of anything, it is not the best place for a newcomer to start. Begin with Old Man’s War. I suspect anyone who does will seek out the sequels, #2 through #5 being The Ghost Brigades, The Last Colony, Zoe's Tale, and The Human Division.
While this is primarily an adventure series, it is not all derring-do. There are schemes within schemes, very human relationships, and issues of geopolitical (“galactopolitical”?) philosophy. Imagine a galaxy as teeming with alien civilizations as, say, the Star Trek universe, but a whole lot less friendly. The many species are mutually distrustful and hostile, more because of the strategic realities than because of natural inclination. After all, it takes only a few paranoid and aggressive species to induce the others with whom they are in contact to be equally paranoid and aggressive as a matter of self-preservation. This, in turn, justifies paranoia and aggression in the first bunch and then in still more species, and so on. What are the ethical considerations for any civilization in this situation? What are they for an individual who knows the government he or she serves is wicked, but who fears the consequences of it failing? If the responsible authorities for one species can preserve lives (at least on their own side) by betraying allies and otherwise behaving in duplicitous, dastardly, and bellicose ways, is it a failure of ethics to behave any other way? If taking the “high road” results in casualties among one’s own people – or even invites annihilation – how high a road is it? Does Machiavelli always have the last laugh? These, of course, are questions we need not leave earth to ask.
Scalzi is one of the most readable SF authors working today, and is one of the hardest working, too. While the Old Man’s War series is not the deepest of fare, neither is it simpleminded – and it is definitely the most fun out of his body of work. Thumbs up for The End of All Things along with the five previous entries.