Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Old Man's War

I'm late to the Scalzi party--it's a good one, and I've been missing it! My friend who reads more SF than I do had what I consider a minor quibble about John Scalzi's wonderful first book, Old Man's War, and so didn't recommend it to me. He has a weird philosophy about not wanting to read books other people recommend anyway, so I guess that's why he didn't bring me the book, press it into my hands, and demand that I start reading it right then. This is what I would do to all of you if I could. I press the book virtually into your hands right now.

What did I like most about Old Man's War? Well, it has stuff. You know, science fiction stuff that's described in just enough detail to make it interesting, like the "beanstalk" elevator that gets the main character, John Perry, to outer space. It also has aliens. And it doesn't just have one or two, and it doesn't just describe them physically. They have mysterious motivations and philosophies, and there's an entire universe of them! Most of all, it has this great idea that old people would make good soldiers, if they only had physical prowess to match their decades of experience.

I found the description of Perry's transformation into a physical being capable of soldiering to be accurate, if a bit speedy. The process has just taken place (note that I'm carefully not telling you exactly what the process is; it would be rude to steal the author's thunder in that way), and the old man steps out:

"I placed my right foot forward and staggered a little bit. Dr. Russell came up beside me and steadied me. 'Careful,' he said. 'You've been an older man for a while. It's going to take you a little bit of time to remember how to be in a young body.'
'What do you mean?' I said.
'Well,' he said. 'For one thing, you can straighten up.'
He was right. I was stooped slightly (kids, drink your milk). I straightened up, and took another step forward. And another. Good news, I remembered how to walk. I cracked a grin like a schoolboy as I paced in the room.

What took me about a month to learn--how to walk again after walking like an old person for some years--takes Perry about a minute, but hey, this is fiction. It's good enough fiction that it brought me back to the coaching I got on how to hit with the heel first and then roll the foot and bend the knee at the end, and the days when I had to think about stepping like that in order to be able to do it.

The stuff in this book includes Scalzi's version of the feed. He calls it a BrainPal. When Perry gets his, he names it Asshole:

Apparently, there was very little Asshole couldn't do. He could send messages to other recruits. He could download reports. He could play music or video. He could play games. He could call up any document on a system. He could store incredible amounts of data. He could perform complex calculations. He could diagnose physical ailments and provide suggestions for cures. He could create a local network among a chosen group of other BrainPal users. He could provide instantaneous translations of hundreds of human and alien languages. He could even provide field of vision information on any other BrainPal user.

The uses of the BrainPal get even more interesting in the sequel to Old Man's War, entitled The Ghost Brigades (I'm halfway through it). The kinds of philosophical questions raised by human use of technology get more interesting, too--and they start out pretty interesting in Old Man's War:

The next step of evolution is already happening. Just like the Earth, most of the colonies are isolated from each other. Nearly all people born on a colony stay there their entire lives. Humans also adapt to their new homes; it's already beginning culturally. Some of the oldest of the colony planets are beginning to show linguistic and cultural drift from their cultures and languages back on Earth....you've lived long enough to know that there's more to life than your own life. Most of you have raised families and have children and grandchildren and understand the value of doing something beyond your own selfish goals. Even if you never become colonists yourselves, you still recognize that human colonies are good for the human race, and worth fighting for. It's hard to drill that concept into the brain of a nineteen-year-old. But you know from experience. In this universe, experience counts.

When I finish The Ghost Brigades, I'm going on to read The Last Colony and then all the other Scalzi books I can find, probably starting with the one about Jane Sagan, even if it is only available in hardback, and the one about Jane and Perry's daughter Zoe, which is coming out this August. Not only that, but I'm joining the considerable party of readers who follow Scalzi's blog Whatever. It's like what Holden Caulfield imagined all those years ago--you finish a book, and you can virtually call up the author and talk to him about it. Everyone's invited, but you'll have more fun if you've read his books, and maybe the books of his friends... For mother's day, I got a trip to the bookstore to find some of the books on the list I keep. We have a credit card that gives us a book dollar for every thousand dollars we spend, or something like that, so I got a bunch of books I've been wanting to read, including The Ghost Brigades and Cory Doctorow's Little Brother. It's a great week to be underemployed.

By the way, at the bookstore I went to, Borders, I found The Ghost Brigades in SF, Little Brother in YA, and Neil Gaiman's M is for Magic in the children's section.

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