Old Man's War for my birthday this year. I had told her that I want to read more science fiction but that I find the genre a bit intimidating, especially the more traditional "space operas" and wasn't sure where to start. She recommended Scalzi to me and then gave me this first book in a series.
Old Man's War is about John Perry, a 75-year-old man who signs up for the Colonial Defense Force (CDF). The CDF takes old people from the Americas, gives them new, powerful, green bodies, and then sends them out to engage in inter-planetary warfare to defend human colonies in outer space. Most of these colonies are people by Asians and Africans, who were bombed to oblivion by the western world in a Subcontinental War.
I'm really glad that my friend gave me this book to read as an introduction to space opera because right from the beginning, I felt super-comfortable with the book. John's narrative voice is wry and self-deprecating and really funny, and I immediately felt welcomed into his world. The story also moves pretty quickly and introduces some really great characters. The humor is just as important, if not more important, as the science and the plot and all the rest. It's a really fun introduction to science fiction, and I highly recommend it to anyone who is unsure of where to start with "traditional" science fiction but wants to give it a try.
That said, there were a lot of things about this book that raised several red flags. These I detailed out to my friend in very long-winded text messages. Let me also just say before I get into all of these that both my friend and I are very feminist and very aware of white-washing and everything else that I'm about to talk about, and both of us still enjoyed this book. Also, she said that some of my concerns are addressed by Scalzi in later books in the series, even if they were not addressed in this first book.
On to my concerns.
Very close to the beginning of this book, a pretty vile character points out that all of the space colonists are Indian (he calls Indians "Hindis" and "dot heads"), which is unfair because they lost the war and losers shouldn't get to colonize space. All the white people (apparently being American = being white) can only get into space by joining this Colonial Defense Force. This is insane because dot heads who lose a war on earth should not then get the protection of superior beings in space.
The whole race thing is brought up VERY clearly and intentionally, and yet, for the rest of the book, there is zero interaction with any colonists. Based on the names that everyone on the Colonial Defense Force have, I would guess that there is also very limited interaction with anyone that isn't white or Hispanic (though everyone in the force has green skin, so "white" is a misnomer, maybe). I know that science fiction generally has a diversity problem, so it's not that I was expecting a gloriously diverse cast here, but I was frustrated that the race thing was brought up so early on and then never again acknowledged or dealt with again. It's like Scalzi was using the other racist jerk as a foil just to show readers how open-minded and kind John Perry is in contrast, which is annoying. Mostly because he is using a conversation between two white men to show that one is racist and the other is not. I would believe it more if anyone who was not white had a voice in the conversation.
And then, we are supposed to believe that John Perry is this upstanding guy who is not racist, but then he cheerfully goes from planet to planet killing other intelligent species who have built up cultures and histories over time. There is a moment when he acknowledges how bad this makes him feel, when everyone around him acknowledges it as well. But then they just move on and continue the destruction. This I guess would be somewhat understandable if you're 20 years old and had never been through a war before or thought about other people before. But again, John is at least 75 years old and had protested wars on earth. But seems to think it's a totally different ball game out in space. And again, they never once engage with colonists, so you don't even really know how he feels about people who are not the same as him.
There was one scene in the book that stood out to me a lot, possibly because I also recently finished I am Malala, and she spent a bit of time talking about the Taliban. Some years ago, the Taliban destroyed ancient beautiful Buddhist statues. There was a huge outcry for reasons I hope I don't need to outline here.
In Old Man's War, there is very brief moment in which John leaves a spaceship to go onto an alien planet. He sees "an abstract sculpture of some description" and blows it up. "Never much liked abstract art." Possibly, I am a little too sensitive at this time, since this was clearly supposed to be a moment of comic relief prior to war. But all I could think was, "IT MIGHT NOT BE UGLY ABSTRACT ART TO THEM, JERKFACE."
And that's really where I feel like this book had a lot of unmet potential. We're led to believe that John is this great guy because he has an excellent sense of humor, a lot of people like him, he treats his comrades well, he seems fairly smart, and he stood up against racism that one time in a pretty low-risk setting. But then through the rest of the book, you don't see any of the stuff he questions or worries about come back to him in terms of how the war effects him or how he interacts with colonists. It felt very "here's the white savior you've all been waiting for!" And that annoyed me.
That said, I think I am going to read the next book in this series. My friend said Old Man's War is an introduction to a complex and well-plotted series. I trust her judgment, and the book really was enjoyable if you're not as hyper-sensitive as I seem to be these days.
Has anyone else read this series? Any thoughts on how it evolves as it continues?