My reading pace this year has slowed down seemingly tremendously, though in actuality probably not that much. The consequence of this is that my first temptation is, when I do have a spare moment to read, to only read books that I suspect I’ll race through quickly so I can get that quick high off finishing a story. That impulse has led me to put off reading the Old Man’s War series, despite it sitting near the top of my TBR for the last three years, because I mistakenly believed I didn’t have the fuel in me to get involved in another space opera series. What I didn’t know was that compared to, for instance, the Expanse series, each of the Old Man’s War books are in the 300-page rather than 600-page range, and that they’re so typically John Scalzi that it’s impossible not to enjoy them.
Both of the first two books in the series start from the familiar foundation of following a new military recruit through his first several missions, which have the dual purpose of introducing the reader to a host of intelligent and often combative alien species, and revealing some shocking and morally ambiguous truths about the state of humanity in this era. The set-up for both of these stories is that human life across the universe is governed by the Colonial Union, comprised of Earth and a significant number of other off-world colonies, and these colonies are protected militarily by the Colonial Defense Forces. The CDF has a rather interesting way of filling its ranks: Earth-born people aged 75 and older are invited to join up if they’d rather not die old at home. See, while the details are unclear, the CDF is known to be in possession of the premier technology for extending life. As such, they generally have no issue getting people to enlist, because as far as Earth-born humans know, they get to do a quick ten-year tour in the military and then enjoy the benefits of their renewed and extended youth.
Of course, it’s not quite so simple, because the privilege of being on Earth is that, for whatever reason, it’s been more or less left alone compared to a bunch of the other human colonies, so humans born there have no idea how bloody the wars among the different intelligent species are. What promises to be a pretty plush arrangement actually has a shockingly high death toll. Still, most recruits don’t revolt at this discovery, because given their advancing age on Earth, many of them enlisted because they felt they had less and less to live for there anyway.
Old Man’s War, the first book, establishes all of the above world building and more through the eyes of recruit John Perry, a classic Scalzi hero. He is blessed with above-average intelligence, a bit of good luck, and a charismatic sense of humor. To tell you any more about Perry’s journey through the CDF gets into spoilery territory, and as the book is well worth a read, I won’t go there. The Ghost Brigades gives us a deeper look at the CDF’s Special Forces, which have a slightly different policy for recruiting their soldiers than the rest of the CDF. I don’t want to give it away either, but this book gets more into the moral questions of what humanity is becoming and has already become, and indulges in some fun sci-fi rumination on consciousness and cloning. As a geneticist by training, both books tickle my absurdity bone, but in a good way — it’s less “evil scientists” and more “we actually barely understand this super advanced technology which seems to be arbitrarily gifted to us in pieces by more advanced species, so we’re kind of figuring this out as we go.”
I’m beginning the next book, The Last Colony, and plan on finishing the series more or less shortly after. I should have known sooner that Scalzi would deliver on everything I want from sci-fi (compelling plots, a creative and well-defined universe, futuristic technology, allegorical future situations that mirror contemporary questions) while not being too self-serious and keeping the humor intact.