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Old Man's War
John Scalzi
Tor paperback $12.95

review by Alasdair Stuart

John Perry joined the Colonial Defence Forces on his birthday. This in itself isn't unusual. What is unusual is that he joined on his 75th birthday. John Scalzi's astonishingly confident debut novel builds from this simple premise into a modern classic that falls somewhere between Catch 22 and Starship Troopers.

The CDF, it's discovered, actively target 75-year-olds for a very good reason; they want to be young again. The gene therapy and body enhancement technology the CDF has acquired from alien races offers the chance at a second youth with the caveat of a ten-year period in the service. If you survive, you get colonist status and are allowed to settle wherever you want, apart from Earth. If you don't, you've died serving your race.

The novel follows Perry and his group of friends as they go through basic training and begin to realise exactly what they've let themselves in for. In new bodies crammed with enhancements, they find themselves dispatched to multiple theatres of battle across a galaxy that is too small for the hundreds of races within it. Mankind has had to fight for every inch and the enhancements the soldiers have been given level the playing field instead of tipping it in their favour.

Whilst the plot is fairly standard, the way Scalzi deals with Perry's rise through the ranks and first few years in service, it is anything but. There's a streak of raw humanity to the book that gives the violence a real edge. Very few of the characters we meet at the start are still alive by the end and none of them die easily, leading to the survivors and readers alike questioning the wisdom of what they're doing. Likewise, the endless round of battle, rehabilitation, and battle takes its toll, and Perry soon finds himself pushed to the edge of his sanity. How Scalzi deals with it is both one of the novel's highlights and an example of how assured his writing is. He has absolute control over both the book and the reader's expectations, and has great fun subverting both.

Old Man's War is both a cracking SF war story and a gentle character study, balancing humour with horror to great effect. It's funny, poignant, utterly gripping and it's no surprise that the book has been nominated for a Hugo award. Highly recommended.
Old Man's War





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