Old Man's War, by John Scalzi

Omphalos

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Although I really am a decent guy when you get to know me, I'll admit that my own personal outlook has the entire world populated with idiots, and, I'm sorry to say, I'll probably consider you one until I get to know you and you prove me wrong. I get lots of on-line criticism about that. Well, maybe not exactly about that. More like for treating people I don't know like idiots, which in my mind and hopefully in the minds of all non-idiots is something that is seen as directly related to that particular outlook of mine. I guess that makes me a bit of an ass, but what the heck; at least I'm true to myself, and really, what else can we truly ask for in ourselves? I'm pretty sure that is also why I am so reluctant to jump on the bandwagon when a new, highly praised author comes along, although I also happen to believe that most new things are no good. But since said new author bandwagons are often built entirely upon the opinions of internet-idiots, I'll just chalk that one up to the former outlook. Find fault in that too, do you? Just look at where its gotten us with Kevin J. Anderson, and please admit that sometimes, I'm right.

So...a few years ago along came this new guy, a journalist of some sort, named John Scalzi. The idiot-mill immediately went into overdrive, and soon my favorite message boards were abuzz with the virtues of his first book, Old Man's War. My response was fairly typical. I ignored them all and told myself "if it's any good, it'll be available in 2015. I'll just read it then." On a lark I picked it up at the Friends of the Sacramento Public Library warehouse one day (I'm on the board of that organization, but I promise you, I didn't steal it - I got it for free for slaving away a Sunday in the warehouse last fall). Earlier this week I finished reading Odd John at about nine o'clock p.m. one night. I wasn't sleepy so I reached out and found Old Man's War in my hand. Thinking "what the hell, how bad can it be?" I opened it up and did not put it down until about two a.m. Oops. I had to fly to Portland the next morning. I couldn't keep my eyes open on the flight, so I finished it in my hotel that night. It was fantastic...Please click here, or on the book cover above, to be taken to the complete review..
 

Sparrow

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I like the quote on the cover, "in the tradition of Heinlein..."

Which to my mind means that it's overrated.
I've read Old Man's War, liked it, don't quite know what the big stir over it is all about. It certainly wasn't good enough to read the next book in the series.

I think the big problem for me is the concept behind the novel, it seems rather silly.
 

thaddeus6th

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Been a while since I read it but I really rather liked it. In fact, it was probably the last sic-fi book I read for some time, until I recently bought Space Captain Smith and Death's Head.
 

Rodders

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This has been on my "to buy" list for a while now. I've heard a lot about it. All of it good.
 

Connavar

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I read it but not enough to finish it, wasnt impressed. The cover blurb is hyperbole as usual. Just because its a military SF doesnt make it automatic in the tradtion of Heinlein.
 

Sparrow

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That's where it fell flat for me, the military encounters with the aliens are totally absurd. All that time and expense resurrecting old people to fight endless wars, and for what, they go in guns-a-blazin like a cheap knockoff from Starship Troopers. As if in the far flung future we'll still be fighting conventional battles!
 

jojajihisc

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The "for what" is the very limited livable space on various planets that other aliens are willing to fight for.

I thought it was an excellent book and the two following are worthy reads as well despite consistent, but small, diminishing returns compared to the first.
 

J-WO

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Enjoyed the whole series so far, but I think Android's Dream is his best. I appreciate I'm probably in a minority. Also, I've got total respect for anyone who holds O.M.W as Scalzi's best. Its a tough choice any way you cut it!
 

Anthony G Williams

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The time is the far future, when humanity has spread to many star systems but finds itself in constant conflict with the scores of alien races who are competing for habitable planets. The Colonial Defence Forces (CDF) wage war on humanity's behalf, and have developed into a powerful organisation. They constantly recruit from Earth, but take only old people facing death who have nothing to lose; they have to declare their intention to join at age 65, and finally join up when they are ten years older. These elderly recruits don't know what to expect as no-one ever returns from the CDF; they are officially declared dead when they join.

Old Man's War is the first-person account of one such recruit, John Perry. It describes the transformation which turns him into an efficient fighting machine, his training, the friends he makes and what happens to all of them as they face the appalling death rates of combat against a varied selection of aliens.

If this plot sounds rather familiar, it is: there are strong echoes of Heinlein's Starship Troopers and Haldeman's The Forever War (both reviewed earlier this year on this blog – see the links in the review list on the left). Scalzi's book is more enjoyable and entertaining than either and I read it in two sessions, but it suffers from a lack of originality – it is too obviously derivative.

I also had a few problems with the plot. The first ones won't mean much to you unless you've read the book: if the Ghost Brigades were so superior, why withhold their advanced capabilities from the ordinary soldiers? In fact, why bother with the ordinary soldiers at all? The other issue is a more fundamental one: nations are already developing unmanned combat planes and vehicles which have a combination of self-guidance and remote control. It is hard to imagine that in a future of advanced technology, such robotic fighting machines will not be far more efficient than sending live soldiers down to fight, however enhanced they may be.

To sum up, it's the kind of book which is fun to read but not particularly memorable. I read it because it was on the reading list for the Modern Science Fiction discussion group (ModernScienceFiction : Modern Science Fiction). There are sequels which I may read someday, but they would be way down my priority list.

(An extract from my SFF blog)
 

The Ace

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Sorry, AGW, I liked it, and to me, the reason for the Ghost Brigades is obvious.

Who wants to be surrounded by three-year old supermen ?

Military SF always smacks of Haldeman and Heinlein, just as heroic fantasy smacks of LOTR. Scalzi isn't bad at all, and he's one of the few who's writing any decent SF these days.
 

J-WO

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The other issue is a more fundamental one: nations are already developing unmanned combat planes and vehicles which have a combination of self-guidance and remote control. It is hard to imagine that in a future of advanced technology, such robotic fighting machines will not be far more efficient than sending live soldiers down to fight, however enhanced they may be.
Have to disagree with you there. You'd still need the human factor to make the final choice. Are those people discharging their guns because their hostile or is it the local custom at the birth of a child? Stuff like that basically. A bereaved/ abused civilian isn't likely to get any calmer as a ten foot metal killing machine attempts to comfort them, let alone explain which direction their recent assailants fled.

And vehicles- whether manned by humans, robots or surprisingly precocious Labradors- are still gonna need the protection of infantry around them.

That said, none of this is an argument Scalzi bothers to ever make. He's too blinded by the dazzle of his literary heroes to see there's a need for updating the genre.
 

Anthony G Williams

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Have to disagree with you there. You'd still need the human factor to make the final choice. Are those people discharging their guns because their hostile or is it the local custom at the birth of a child? Stuff like that basically. A bereaved/ abused civilian isn't likely to get any calmer as a ten foot metal killing machine attempts to comfort them, let alone explain which direction their recent assailants fled.
That's an argument which applies in certain circumstances - such as currently in Afghanistan, where most of the population is on your side - but not in Scalzi's book, where they land on planets populated by an enemy they often can't even communicate with.

Anyway, in the case of the fighting machines being dropped from an orbiting spacecraft, they can be subject to monitoring and override by the spacecraft crew.
 

pyan

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Anyway, in the case of the fighting machines being dropped from an orbiting spacecraft, they can be subject to monitoring and override by the spacecraft crew.
Maybe, maybe not - you'd need a heck of a large crew to monitor every fighting robot that you dropped in a major offensive - but you're running into the dilemma that if you did do it that way, the whole point of the concept of the Old Man's War is negated, and you haven't got a story...:p
 

Omphalos

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Sorry, AGW, I liked it, and to me, the reason for the Ghost Brigades is obvious.

Who wants to be surrounded by three-year old supermen ?

Military SF always smacks of Haldeman and Heinlein, just as heroic fantasy smacks of LOTR. Scalzi isn't bad at all, and he's one of the few who's writing any decent SF these days.
I could not agree more with the part I bolded above. For me it is so hard to find decent stuff these days. Comforting to know someone else feels the same way.
 

J-WO

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That's an argument which applies in certain circumstances - such as currently in Afghanistan, where most of the population is on your side - but not in Scalzi's book, where they land on planets populated by an enemy they often can't even communicate with.
But surely a lot of their job description requires them to defend or come to the aid of human colonies?
 

Moggle

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I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It has a bit of everything in it and unlike it's earlier influences, Starship Troopers and Forever War, I wasn't lulled into a coma while reading it.
 

Ursa major

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The other issue is a more fundamental one: nations are already developing unmanned combat planes and vehicles which have a combination of self-guidance and remote control. It is hard to imagine that in a future of advanced technology, such robotic fighting machines will not be far more efficient than sending live soldiers down to fight, however enhanced they may be.
Remote control becomes difficult with distance and subject to problems with comms. (And in a future with quantum computing, how secure is encryption? You wouldn't want the enemy taking over your fighting machines.**)

The alternative, giving fighting machines autonomy, has other dangers (one's which even sc-fi - as well as SF - has addressed: your invincible machines may turn on you. Even if they're only sent to worlds populated by enemy aliens, what's to stop them coming back and taking over any world? (To be fair, you can have this problem with human soldiers, but at least they're the same species, which an automaton is not; and they don't live forever.)




** - You could use entanglement-based comms, I suppose (as seen, for example, in Singularity Sky by Charles Stross), but you'd need a lot of resource on the back channel to allow the operator(s) to "see" what's going on on the battlefield over extended periods.
 

Anthony G Williams

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On the subject of fighting robots:

You would need a large crew of monitors to keep constant track of each robot - exactly the same number as the soldiers which you would otherwise have to carry and deposit there if you were not using robots, so there would be no difference in the number of people involved. However, giving predictable advances in robotic technology, it would not be necessary to monitor every robot all of the time. They could be programmed to deal with straighforward circumstances themselves and only call for guidance when faced with uncertainty.

With the monitors onboard spaceships orbiting the planet, communication time would not be a problem (relay satellites could ensure constant coverage), particularly since the monitors would not need to control every action, just intervene with decisions in complex circumstances.

In OMW in particular, the alien enemies were all decidedly non-human so no problems about accidentally killing your own side...

What you need to remember is that the use of fighting robots is happening now, in the form of UCAVs in the skies of Afghanistan, and there is intensive research into developing different types (robot land vehicles are in service, with submarine and surface craft available) and into giving them more autonomy. This is at a far more advanced stage than space flight!

Robot warriors in space opera will have huge advantages over humans - they can be designed to withstand huge acceleration and deceleration forces, need no air or food, do not need to sleep, do not suffer from fear or panic - the list goes on.

For Scalzi to ignore all of this and focus on using human soldiers should really require him to come up with some very good reasons why advanced robots could not do the job; but, as has been observed, he ignores the issue.
 

Ursa major

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I don't think I was as clear as I should have been. The potential for problems with autonomous machines gets worse sd the technology becomes more advanced.

The future setting makes the use of fighting machines more dangerous (and, one would hope, less likely to be deployed) because computing technology will have moved them closer to the point when they might develop consciousness.

Today's drones are safe (to use) because they're basically big model airplanes with a shortish range weapon operating thousands of miles from home. And they're dumb; all current computers are dumb, in the sense that they're a long way from be able to support the complexity that might, possibly, turn into consciousness. But it's easy to see a civilisation where the smallest chip available to a manufacturer has the capability for massive parallelism (on and off-chip) and so these (not this: you'd want more than one for reliability and robustness, and there be at least one of these chips in every significant sub-system) are placed in your supposedly dumb fighting machines. And one day one of them isn't as dumb as you might hope, as its sub-systems begin to interact in new ways. (Or are they going to create old 8080/Z80/6502 type processors for their shiny new machines; probably not when the smallest chip they can buy has a billion trillion logic gate equivalents on it.)

As for human controllers in space, they'd be the number one target for those defending a planet; you'd want to keep the fighting machines in check while you go after the orbiting liveware. (Until, that is, the machines keep moving anyway, and then both humans and aliens have lost.)
 
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