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Old Man's War
Old Man's War #1
by John Scalzi
Tor, 332pp
Published: December 2005

Humans have spread all over the universe but rather than an idyllic galaxy-wide confederation of trade, it’s all they can do just to stay alive.  Turns out the humans have lots of competition for prime real estate.  The Colonial Defense Forces are the only thing standing between human colonies and all the alien-uglies trying to kill them to take away a planet.  What makes this story stand apart is a clever twist:  rather than recruiting from young people and destroying generations in sometimes hopeless battles; they recruit from seniors who have lived their full lives and are on the down-hill slide.  The recruitment is simple and irresistible:  on your 75th birthday, you can choose to join the CDF for a minimum two-year term of service, not to exceed ten years; and, in return, they will make you young again.  There are, of course, catches.  They will never return to Earth, they will never see friends or family again; and, no one on Earth has the slightest idea how the promise of youth is fulfilled.

John Perry is seventy-five.  He and his beloved wife, Kathy, had planned to join the CDF together but Kathy suffered an unfortunate stroke.  There really isn’t anything to hold John on Earth and his curiosity and desire to be young again is enough to send him off-planet.  So he and hundreds more find themselves on an interstellar ship really and truly heading into the unknown.  The accommodations are superb but there is no information forthcoming to explain what to expect.  John and some new friends spend much time speculating as to what kind of rejuvenating techniques there are but the reality turned out to be nothing they could have envisioned.

Once they have all been “processed” their next stop is boot camp – which is no different than any other boot camp you’ve seen or read of, including a caricature of a drill sergeant.  The difference being that they are now capable of amazing feats.  Their delight in being young and impossibly strong is tempered by the cold fact that most of them will not survive their two-year term.  They are comforted by the fact that they can make a difference in the survival of the human race.

The story follows John Perry and his new close circle of friends, the “old farts”, and gives us some understanding of the nature of the universe – just about every alien race hates every other alien race.  John distinguishes himself with valuable insights and a rather amazing ability to not die.  But the substance of the story is a bit thin.  Since I already know the author is several books along in the series and this is a well-received series, I’m sure there is more to come. 

The best part is the world-building which is more like society-building as it’s not the shape of the planet ecology, or the ship life, but more about how much humans can change and still consider themselves human.  John is a satisfying character although his friends don’t get as much character-building time.  But I don’t yet see anything in John that will make him an indispensable character or a hero of humanity – the universe is just too big for one person to make that much of a difference.  But I’m betting the author will prove me wrong.

It’s a very well-written story and the prose carries the reader along effortlessly.  There are some fun ideas to ponder and a sense of anticipation that there’s a bigger story out there.  I’m glad I have more to dive into right away.  ~~ Catherine Book

For more titles by John Scalzi click here

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