The first book I bought when I got my Kindle was John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War. I had been told two things about it: that it was a counterpoint to Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and that it was awesome.
What I was not told, however, was that Old Man’s War was the first in a 4-book series. I thought it was a stand-alone novel that would give me a fun but short ride before I moved on. I was wrong.
But I was wrong in a really good way. It turns out that the Old Man’s War series was so well written and engaging that I now consider it one of my favorite series of all time, having finished the main trilogy on my Kindle within a week of starting to read.
Old Man’s War
There’s a lot to love about the series. The first book—the one from which the series draws its name—is told from the first-person perspective of John Perry, a quick-witted and sarcastic 75 year old. We meet him as he joins the army, or more accurately, the Colonial Defense Force (CDF). Perry joins the CDF because they promise to either make him young again or to extend his life in exchange for a stint in the military, though they never tell him how they’ll do it until he enlists.
The how is fun: they transfer his consciousness into a green-skinned (chlorophyll in the skin!), genetically enhanced clone of himself. He then goes off to fight in an interstellar war that he didn’t even know existed a week before.
Old Man’s War is a quick, fun read. We get to learn about John and the CDF’s war at the same time he is being shuttled around, fighting wherever the higher-ups decide more grunts are needed.
Because of the way the narrative is structured, it’s almost like reading a short story collection where each story is told by the same narrator. Same character, but different battles on different planets against different aliens. It’s fast and frantic; Scalzi does a great job of actually making the aliens alien instead of recolored humans with brow-ridges (sorry Star Trek, you know I love you anyway).
The Ghost Brigades
Since the first novel was so much fun, I immediately downloaded the sequel: The Ghost Brigades. And I was shocked. Instead of being first-person inside John Perry’s head, it was a traditional third-person narrative following around one of the characters from OMW I figured would be peripheral at best (boy, was I wrong!). Readers don’t even meet the protagonist until roughly 1/3 into the book.
It was a clear departure from what made me love Old Man’s War, but I persevered, and I’m very glad I did. Jared Dirac, the protag we don’t meet for a while, is every bit as interesting as John Perry, just in a different way. He sees the world in a way that a 75 year old sarcastic soldier cannot, and that really grounds the novel so that readers can relate.
One thing I have to praise The Ghost Brigades for is its first chapter. It was brilliant. I won’t ruin it for you, but let me just say that Scalzi manages to throw a wrench in the gears even that early on with a twist that I did not see coming. It’s wacky fun and makes me appreciate him as a storyteller for being able to do something so unexpected.
Also, what gets me about it is that there is no way that I can think of for this device to be done on film, which makes me smile. As much as I am a TV/film geek, there’s a reason books are my favorites.
The action scenes are just as prevalent in Brigades as in the first book, and they play out just as well in third-person. While the first one was mostly action with some politics thrown in for good measure, the second installment tries to balance the two a bit more carefully. While never distracting, the political intrigue of the CDF and its interaction with the other alien races become far more elaborate and fleshed-out. (That’s a good thing.)
The Last Colony
Book 3 has the same kind of nearly-a-spoiler title that Tolkien hated about The Return of the King, but don’t let that ruin it for you. We also get back into John Perry’s head for some first-person alien killing. Taking Book 2’s cue, Colony puts action on the backburner and focuses almost entirely on interpersonal and political drama.
There are still plenty of ‘splosions and such, but now they’re not so “look an alien!”ish as they were when they had to function as the foundation of the first two novels’ conflicts.
By taking the main narrative away from the battlefield, Scalzi clears the path for a great deal of characterization. The Last Colony is really where the series puts all the pieces that we were hidden in the other books together. I don’t know Scalzi’s motivation for writing the series, but I get the feeling that the story he really wanted to tell was the one in The Last Colony but it took him Old Man’s War and The Ghost Brigades to get there and set it all up.
The Last Colony ends with perfect resolution to the trilogy’s main narrative, while still leaving a door open for the series to continue at some point. Scalzi says in his acknowledgements that he won’t be returning to OMW immediately in order to pursue other endeavors, but he may at some point.
His “at some point” came earlier than expected because not long after Colony’s release, Zoe’s Tale came out. It is to The Last Colony what Ender’s Shadow was to Ender’s Game: a parallel narrative of the events of the previous novel, told through the perspective of another character.
At Scalzi’s behest, I took a break between the final two books because I wasn’t sure if I wanted to read the same story twice in a row. Now, having finished Zoe’s Tale, I can say that it wouldn’t have been a problem to have done so. Sure, I knew what was going to happen, but the writing and perspective were each unique enough to make it all feel fresh and not the cop-out device that shadowing narratives can feel like (I wasn’t a big fan of Ender’s Shadow, unlike 95% of the SF community).
At one point, tragedy strikes the colony the characters live in and someone dies. I knew this would happen because I had read The Last Colony. What I did not know would happen is that since the narrator of Zoe’s Tale—Zoe, obviously—was a more involved participant than John Perry was, I would be struck so hard emotionally. I actually cried a couple of times while reading Zoe’s Tale, and I knew everything that was going to happen before it happened! And it still made me cry. That’s good writing.
The only problem I have with Zoe’s Tale is there is a single spot of inconsistency in the narrative. Normally, I would say “meh” and move on, but it was used as such an important plot device—for Zoe and her boyfriend to break up—that it really bugged me. You see, Zoe’s boyfriend Enzo had to prove he was different than other testosterone-fueled boys his age. To do so, he sent her poetry via their interlinked PDAs; he wooed her with his words. When they landed on their new colony, the colonists could no longer use PDAs. So the Zoe makes a point to say that he still sends her poetry via his best friend, who begrudges being his messenger.
But then a while later, Zoe gets mad at Enzo. Or Enzo gets mad at Zoe. I can’t remember. And they start to fight. She claims that he’s changed since their move because he hasn’t written her a single poem since they reached the colony world. She goes into great detail about it, and eventually uses it as a trumped-up charge to break up with him.
“Wait,” I say. “What?”
I even went back and found the passages to make sure I wasn’t just misremembering. But nope. This major plot point was inconsistent and that bugs me because of how intricately detailed the rest of the series is. It seems like someone, somewhere would have been able to notice that it makes the story lose a tad of its humanity and poignancy.
Or I could be misreading it entirely, and it was done purposefully to show how irrational and shortsighted teenage love-angst can really be.
If you haven’t been able to tell, I think these novels are fantastic. Even if you’re not a fan of military SF, there’s something in these books for you. I settled in for a one-shot novel but found myself in a four-book series that I was sad to finish. I hope John Scalzi revisits this world eventually because it deserves the attention. And while not necessarily written for children, the author only uses adult-themes and vulgarity to make the military aspect of the books come alive; it’s not gratuitous.
Give this series a shot. I can’t see how you’d be disappointed.