ARTS

  /  

February 4, 2005

Scalzi: From the U of C to a galaxy far, far away

Not only is John Scalzi a University of Chicago alum (AB '91), he is a former Editor in Chief of the Maroon. He is also a distant relative of John Wilkes Booth.

His first novel does not disappoint.

Old Man's War is a delightfully imaginative and unpredictable tale of septuagenarian John Perry's first two years in an extraterrestrial military. Perry volunteers to join the mysterious Colonial Defense Forces on his 75th birthday, leaving behind everything he knows on Earth for a ride into outer space on a large geosynchronous beanstalk.

Old Man's War is an exciting read. Scalzi has an unusual gift for plot, and there is not a quiet moment as Perry flies from world to world, narrowly escaping one gruesome death after another. Further, Scalzi truly has a writer's ear for rhythm, which serves to optimize both the humor of the dialogue and the thrill of the battles.

Superficially, Old Man's War resembles Starship Troopers, one of Robert A. Heinlein's masterpieces. Both describe a brave, intelligent, improbably fortunate infantryman in a technologically advanced military, defending Earth and human colonies. But the similarity ends there. While Starship Troopers is a sober social commentary, Old Man's War is a quirky, fast-paced, plot-driven story that resembles Douglas Adams more than Heinlein. "In a decade you'll be eighty-five," Perry quips, "and then the only difference between you and a raisin will be that while you're both wrinkled and without a prostate, the raisin never had a prostate to begin with."

The story, particularly the early chapters, is filled with Perry's quick, irreverent wit. Naturally, there will never be another Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but Old Man's War achieves, at times, that oh-so-rare type of ironic humor. However, Scalzi's later philosophical musings about death detract from the humor, and the sappy ending is a bit of a disappointment.

It is clear Scalzi is trying to say something profound about death, but he does not depict his philosophy cogently. His point—whatever it is—is obscured by heavy-handed abuse of the death motif, by bizarre (though thoroughly fascinating) medical experiments, and the distraction of the expertly crafted plot.

His characterization is rudimentary and amateurish; however, given his adeptness with humor and plot, he can be forgiven the caricatures walking around pretending to be people. Besides, the caricatures have absolutely delightful conversations.

I didn't quite know what to do with the sex scenes, which, oddly, were explicit without being descriptive. Perry's bedroom conquests might have been better served through metaphor, sardonic humor, and oblique reference, or with unapologetically graphic detail. It seemed to me that Scalzi was trying awkwardly to split the difference, which was just plain embarrassing.

I couldn't help but wonder if naming the hero "John Perry" (which bears a suspicious resemblance to the moniker of 2004's presidential runner-up, everyone's favorite junior senator from Massachusetts) was simply coincidence or, rather, some form of subliminal propaganda. After a thorough investigation (read: Google search) I found Scalzi's blog, www.scalzi.com/whatever, which revealed him to be a liberal. I decided to forgive him, though, because Old Man's War is a charming, engaging novel, and I imagine that Scalzi will eventually come around.

I would highly recommend the incredibly entertaining Old Man's War. I look forward to reading another novel from Scalzi, which I hope he writes soon.