Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Overview: Old Man's War Series by John Scalzi (Old Man's War #1, The Ghost Brigades #2)

John Scalzi's first novel Old Man's War was first published in 2005 and made it as Hugo Award Finalist in 2006. The sequels followed in order, The Ghost Brigades in 2006, The Last Colony in 2007, and Zoe's Tale in 2008. There are also two novellas set in the same world, The Sagan Diary (written before The Last Colony) and After the Coup.

Old Man's War - First Edition Cover

In Scalzi's world humans finally figured out interstellar space travel and have moved on to colonize other planets. The problem is that humans are in competition with a vast amount of hostile alien races for the same pieces of real estate (planets), and war and conflict are constant and inevitable as there are only a limited amount of planets that are livable. Negotiations are limited to land-grabbing by way of war as they race through the known universe expanding and colonizing. Humans are represented by the powerful and controlling Colonial Union (CU) and the Colonial Defence Force (CDF) is out there to help protect human colonies.

Colonial Defence Force: The CU recruits their CDF soldiers from planet Earth. These old men and women have accumulated a lifetime of knowledge and skills that saves the CDF time while training. The idea also is that the life-time experiences will help these future soldiers make the correct decisions while in battle, and having had an emotional connection with family and loved ones throughout their first lifetime, these soldiers will stay sympathetic to the human cause throughout the upcoming years of war and death. Plus, these old people have nothing else to look forward to but the pain of old age and death -- they make perfect recruits. They are offered a future as soldiers by way of a two to ten year contract, and once finished with their service, if they survive the wars, a new life in a colonized planet.

Special Forces: The CDF also has their own Special Forces. These soldiers are not recruited. Special Forces or Ghost Brigade soldiers are made from the DNA of dead humans and different alien races, and using the BrainPal technology (see below) they are given a consciousness which allows them to function as humans -- albeit with super-human capabilities -- but with the specific purpose of being a soldier. However, they are not readily accepted by other humans and as a result they keep to themselves. They are the Frankenstein monsters of the CU.

Space Travel and Technology: To travel through space, humans use the Skip Drive. Scalzi goes into detail about the extent of what humans know about this technology, as well as its limitations. Besides the Skip Drive, there are other key technological advances that humans developed and saved their attempts at colonization. The two most important are the ability to successfully grow an engineered matured human body in a matter of months, and the ability to transfer consciousness from one body to another as long as the two brains are identical. These two developments combined allowed humans to successfully "produce" super soldiers (CDF and Special Forces) that could then do battle against hostile alien forces.

The two other key technological developments are the BrainPal and nanotechnology. The BrainPal is an neuroimplant that allows CDF and Special Forces soldiers to send information directly to each other -- from one BrainPal to another -- as well as to download information instantly as needed, i.e., translating alien languages, etc. The soldiers are not only able to communicate with each other through the BrainPal, they can also see through each other's eyes, and even feel each other's emotions. Nanotechnology is used everywhere. As examples: Nanobots are used to make the soldiers unitards and used like armor, the soldiers' blood (SmartBlood) is composed of nanobots, the soldiers' bodies self-heal and re-grow lost limbs, and even their weapon (MP-35) can self-repair.

Alien Races: There are many alien races introduced by Scalzi throughout the story. However, there are only a few that are slightly developed -- none with real depth: the Consu, Rraey, and the Obin. The Consu are the most advanced and complex race in the known universe and although they do battle with humans, their motivations remain a mystery. The Rraey are cannibalistic, acquisitive and aggressive but less techno-savvy than humans and the Obin are technologically advanced, but possess no consciousness or awareness. All three are at war with humanity as are the rest of the aliens in this series.

Old Man's War (Book #1)

In his first novel, Old Man's War, Scalzi begins by introducing his main character, John Perry and setting up the world building. When John Perry and his wife Kathy were 65 years old they signed a letter of intent to join the CDF, however his wife died and on his 75th birthday Perry visits his wife's grave and then goes on to join the army. Perry figures the odds are not so bad, if he's going to die anyway, he might as well die young and doing something worthwhile.

I liked the premise. The first part of the book is the best in my opinion. This is where Scalzi introduces the main character John Perry, the cast of secondary characters that later on become important to him throughout this story, and where you'll find the first blocks for the world building. I loved John Perry's sense of wonder and naivete as he and his new friends take a leap of faith and go on to an unknown future. The sense of freedom and vitality that seems to overcome the geriatric volunteers, combined with excitement and fear as an unknown future looms ahead of them, is intoxicating to them and makes the reader want to know what lies ahead.

The second section of the book is where I began to have problems with the story. After Perry undergoes his transformation, he begins the all important military training and eventually goes on to war. The military training section is brief, lacking in in-depth detail, and I thought it at best quite sketchy. As the action and the story continues, and there is plenty of action, I became torn. It is a fast paced story, with a nice flow and a central character whose actions we follow from beginning to end, but it just seemed to me that although there are plenty of details at the beginning of the book: the skip drive, nano technology, etc., when it comes to developing alien hostile races and secondary characters, true depth is sacrificed to both the action and pace.

I enjoy military science fiction, and that's exactly what Old Men's War is. Of course there's also the moral ambiguity as a central theme. Scalzi doesn't over-philosophize in Old Men's War though, he has an easy-peasy, flowing writing style that is quite reader friendly, and in this first book he gets his point across without beating the drums to a pulp. 

The Ghost Brigades (Book #2)

The Ghost Brigades is the second book in the Old Man's War series, and although it's set in the same world, very few characters from the first book make an appearance. This story focuses on the Special Forces soldiers and how they are "produced," how they function and how they feel about their roles as soldiers.

Jared Dirac is made, not born. The difference between him and other Special Forces soldiers is that he is a superhuman hybrid made out of the dead scientist Charles Boutin's DNA and consciousness. The scientist was a traitor to humanity who gave away key information to three hostile alien races who are now allied and planning to attack the Colonial Union. Jared is an experiment and if that experiment works then Boutin's motivations for betraying the Colonial Union will be known; if the experiment doesn't work, then this superhuman hybrid will be given to Special Forces as a soldier. There's no loss for the CDF, right?

The Ghost Brigades begins with plenty of moral ambiguity as you can see by my summary. It actually goes on to become even more so as the story moves along. The experiment doesn't really take at first and Jared Dirac is relegated to Special Forces. The reader goes through the whole process of experiencing life and events for the first time with Jared. That's the focus of the story, Jared's experiences, his loses and where they eventually take him as a "person" and a soldier. The consequences of the experiment and who pays the final price.  The question of the individual's rights, choices, and consciousness are all touched upon in the Ghost Brigades. Scalzi gives most of his focus to this subject.

Don't misunderstand me, there's plenty of action in The Ghost Brigades, and as in Old Man's War you'll find battles, war and carnage. Under Jane Sagan's command (Old Man's War), he experiences both loss and pain and eventually Boutin's memories begin to surface. As they battle the aliens to break the alliance, and Jared fights his and someone else's emotions and memories, finding the answer to whose consciousness makes the person becomes the key to this puzzle.

Scalzi has that flowing style that makes a long book go in a flash. My biggest problem with this particular story was the lack of connection I felt with most of the characters, and again the lack of depth and certain background detail that well... just left me wanting more. Plus, the fact that the action, Jared's character development, and the mystery are not woven well, instead they are separated into sections.

The 2012 Science
Fiction Experience
Conclusion: I'm not going to make any specific comparisons as I'm sure those have been done to death by now, but I do have to mention that although Old Man's War is very much Scalzi's, it is also obvious that it's a tribute to Heinlein (Starship Troopers) and Haldeman (The Forever War). This month I actually read the first three novels, including The Last Colony, plus The Sagan Diary and After the Coup, but decided to just focus this post on the first two books.

The first two books in this series are the best ones in my opinion. Although I'm sure for hardcore science fiction readers out there these stories don't sound fresh, Scalzi's style certainly made me appreciate them as such. That first section of Old Man's War is an absolute winner. I loved his take on the Skip Drive and how that works, as well as his attempts at explaining how consciousness can be transferred onto an engineered body. I loved that the soldiers are green and there are plenty of battles and fights to go around. Plus I certainly enjoyed Scalzi's flowing and fast paced writing style.

Unfortunately, there's also those other details such as characterization and developing background stories that were left hanging that I missed. A missed opportunity in my opinion are the hostile alien races which are pretty much two dimensional and left unexplored for the most part throughout the series. Characters also came to what seemed to be deep realizations throughout the course of events and then dismissed those conclusions without a second thought -- I didn't get that. And although Scalzi gives John Perry a strong female love interest, and follows through on that relationship in The Last Colony, I found the dialogue and interactions between those two wooden and lacking emotion.

Finally, overall this was a fun series even with its weaknesses. I loved the space opera military battles, the gruesome deaths, (one inch aliens, really? really?) and the sense of wonder that humans experience when out in space for the first time, mixed with all the rest of the techo-babble... it was a wonderful adventure.


  1. Hi Hils. I've been on the lookout for more science fiction and this series sounds very interesting. I'll have to add it to my wish list.

  2. Hi there Brie! This is a good series, I read the books one after the other and they're quick paced and keep the reader interested to the end.

    Have you read Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey yet? I definitely recommend that one if you're looking for good scifi. It has great action (sci fi opera), with compelling central characters. The series just started and the second book doesn't release until June 2012.

  3. Hils! No, I haven't read that one but you have me intrigued. I like that I can catch it at the start of the series. I'm going to check it out. Have you reviewed it?

  4. It really is good! I didn't write up an in-depth review for Leviathan Wakes. I read it in December and didn't find the time to do it justice before the end of the year! I do have a mini-review that I put together together with my December numbers. But, there are some great reviews around for that book. I can tell you that it was an A read for me. Definitely check it out. :D


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