Mark Terry

Monday, October 08, 2007

John Scalzi--On The Edge of Greatness?

October 8, 2007

I recently finished reading OLD MAN'S WAR by John Scalzi. It's the first in what appears to be 4 or 5 books about a particular science fiction universe. As it happens, I read the second book first, THE GHOST BRIGADES, which I loved.
I've amused myself by titling this post "John Scalzi--On The Edge of Greatness?" I think reviewers and critics are entirely too inclined to label writers they like with the greatness label. I've never quite gotten over the reviewer who compared Michael Connelly's novels to "Crime and Punishment." That may be true, but Michael will have to be long-dead before we ever know. Same goes for John Scalzi, I think. Let's just say I thought these novels rocked and I'll give you an example of why OLD MAN'S WAR hit me so hard.
In OLD MAN'S WAR, it's far in the future, human beings have moved into space, but found that habitable planets are scarce, and the competition for them is fierce. Not only do other races want them, they're willing to fight for them. Some have even developed a taste for human flesh (the neck bones, we're told, go particularly well in soups). Some, to make matters worse, have significantly more advanced technology. Earth remains mostly out of the loop, but the Colonial Union advanced humans to the stars and the Colonial Defense Forces are the military arm. It's a classic "we'll fight them out there so we don't have to fight them on Earth" kind of thing.
Here's the twist. The CDF doesn't recruit young men and women to fight their war. They need those people to colonize planets and continue creating more human beings. They recruit people on their 75th birthday. Due to some complicated bioengineering (which I won't go into but it's cool) they give up all their rights on earth, join the CDF, are given, er, new bodies, and go off to fight whoever the CDF thinks it needs to fight. OLD MAN'S WAR is told by John Perry, who joins the CDF on his 75th birthday and follows him through his first year at war.
Let me just highly recommend this book. If Scalzi isn't the reincarnation of Robert Heinlein, he's at least channeling his spirit. His writing is solid, his ideas are great, and he does what we want him to do--tell a good story well. Everything else is just a bonus.
I have some quibbles about the book's earlier pace and a few other things, but they're minor and besides, I always have quibbles about writers and their books. I just want to put a piece of the novel up here and you can decide for yourself what you might think. Early on, in recruitment, John Perry makes friends with a few other recruits. They dub themselves The Old Farts and by and large, they are broken up later and sent to different parts of the galaxy to fight. But due to technology implanted in their skulls called a BrainPal, they are able to stay in touch. John lets the readers know how his friends are doing.
His friend Maggie is fighting a space battle when her troop transport is struck by an Ohu missile, which tore open the hull and sucked her and several other soldiers into space. Here is how Scalzi tells this:
And so Maggie, whose SmartBlood was by now reaching its oxygen-carrying limit and whose body was undoubtedly beginning to scream for oxygen, took her Empee, aimed it at the nearest Ohu ship, computed a trajectory, and unloaded rocket after rocket. Each rocket burst provided an equal and opposite burst of thrust to Maggie, speeding her toward Temperance's darkened, nighttime sky. Battle data would later show that her rockets, propellant long spent, did indeed impact against the Ohu ship, dealing some minor damage.
Then Maggie turned, faced the planet that would kill her, and like the good professor of Eastern religions that she used to be, she composed jisei, the death poem, in the haiku form.
Do not mourn me, friends
I fall as a shooting star
Into the next life
She sent it and the last moments of her life to the rest of us, and then she died, hurtling brightly across the Temperance night sky.
She was my friend. Briefly, she was my lover. She was braver than I ever would have been in the moment of death. And I bet she was a hell of a shooting star.
And that's why I think John Scalzi might be on the edge of greatness.
Mark Terry



Anonymous Jim Hall said...

I have been a science fiction fan for years but I was getting burned out on what I thought was some bland sci fi. I read Scalzi's Old Man's War, followed by Tobias Buckell's Ragamuffin, and my love of sci fi was burning once again. I have enjoyed all of John's and Tobys books, I also think you should check out Richard K. Morgan and Michael Marshall Smith.

7:43 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Yeah, Jim, I have to note that I really hadn't read SF in years and years. I like Toby's books a lot. His books are so different than what I had ever read before--they seem positively exotic--that I'm still not sure what to think of them except to note that I think they're great, as well. Through Toby I discovered Scalzi and I like his books a lot, too.

9:12 AM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

That is the coolest! I used to read science fiction exclusively. I don't know what happened, because I haven't read it in years. I did go through a must-read-every-word-he-wrote phase with Robert Heinlein.

Lately, I've been missing Star Trek. Even though I've been watching re-runs like crazy, I miss the hope for the best of humanity that used to pervade the genre. (It might still be there ... I haven't been reading as much.)

12:50 PM  
Anonymous Jim Hall said...

Spyscribbler if you are a Star Trek fan check out on Nov 12 they are showing "for one night only" The Menagerie (The Christopher Pike episode)with some new bells and whistles. I know a lot of my friends and I plan to catch it. I thought I would point it out. :)

2:44 PM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

Ohmigawd!!! That is awesome ... I might just have to reschedule some lessons for that one ...

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