This is the War Handwavium score for “Old Man’s War”, a novel by John Scalzi.
Score: +324 points
What Kind of Story?
“Old Man’s War” is often compared to Heinlein’s “Starship Troopers”. The author, John Scalzi, in fact acknowledges and thanks Mr. Heinlein at the end of the book as the last acknowledgement in the book. Having just read both novels for the first time and within a short time of each other, I’m not exactly sure they’re really the same kind of story.
I’ve been trying to figure out what kind of story “Old Man’s War” is. I couldn’t wrap my head around it so I listed out each chapter and what happens. This is what it looks like:
Chapter 1, Perry visits wife’s grave, signs up with CDF
Chapter 2, space elevator
Chapter 3, On the station
Chapter 4, exam, meet clone
Chapter 5, transfer to new body
Chapter 6, sex, sex, sex. 3/4 of you will be dead in 10 years
Chapter 7, Bootcamp, meet Drill Instructor
Chapter 8, Bootcamp, dry fire exercise
Chapter 9, Battle the Consu
Chapter 10, Meet former diplomat, Meet Whaidans. Diplomacy fails.
Chapter 11, The horror of war is OK once you realize how brutal humans are
Chapter 12, CDF tries to take back Coral, entire fleet, 90,000 people, wiped out (except Perry)
Chapter 13, Perry talks about Jane, his wife.
Chapter 14, Perry meets Jane, his wife. She throws him against a wall
Chapter 15, Perry trains with Special Forces, talks with Jane, his wife.
Chapter 16, CDF delegates fight Consu in ceremony to ask questions
Chapter 17, CDF fight the Rraery on Coral destroy Skip detector
Chapter 18, Perry promoted to Captain, gets postcard from Jane, his wife.
A Love Story?
This is going to sound weird, but I think “Old Man’s War” is actually a love story, with a military, hard-sf backdrop. The reason I say that is because the story is defined by where the main character evolves. And the main character, John Perry, doesn’t evolve in the military. Quite a lot like the main character in “Starship Troopers”, Perry’s military trajectory is linear. There is no three act play with Perry’s military career.
But there is a three-act play with Perry’s relationship with his wife, Kathy. It starts out with a person, place, and problem. Perry 75 years old, at his wife’s grave, missing her and deciding to never come back because its too painful. Act I is saying goodbye, leaving the cemetery, then leaving Earth, then leaving his old body behind. Act II ends with Perry meeting the clone of his wife, a woman named Jane. Act III spends much of its time with Perry pursuing Jane and trying to get to know her and Jane trying to get to know about Kathy’s life. Act III ends with Jane sending Perry a postcard saying, in effect, lets plan on living happily ever after when we get out of the military.
There is another three-act play with the military, but the “character” that goes through that it the CDF military as a whole. They’re fighting aliens, they start winning. Then they get wiped out. Then they come back and win the day. But Perry doesn’t really follow the three-act play structure from a military standpoint. His progress through the military is fairly linear. He starts out as a private, gets promoted, gets promoted, gets promoted, the end.
Perry does go through the three-act play structure with his body. He starts out getting a brand new supercharged body. Act II has him nearly die in battle as his body is severely damaged. Act III has him come back and even be the first “born” person to serve with the Ghost Brigade special forces. But a body is just a special effect.
And readers don’t “care” about CDF as an organization.
So, it seems that “Old Man’s War” is a love story about Perry, coming to terms with his wife’s death, then meeting his cloned wife, then his cloned wife wants to live happily ever after with Perry, which seems to be the one thing that Perry consistently wants throughout the story, and finally gets in the last chapter.
Starship Troopers Influence
Even though its a love story, “Old Man’s War” clearly is heavily influenced by “Starship Troopers”.
Heinlein’s world denies voting rights to all but those who served in the miltary. Scalzi’s world has an earth where everyone gets to vote, but the CDF denies people of earth access to their technology and other colonial worlds unless they sign their life over to CDF. Literally sign their life over. People are legally declared dead once they take them in.
At first, I thought CDF was a government army, but then it became clear that CDF is not under any civilian authority. They answer to no one but themselves. So then I thought maybe they were some sort of private military corporation (PMC) like Blackwater (now called Xe). But they don’t seem to use their monopoly for monetary advantage. They could be selling all sorts of stuff to people of Earth, but they just don’t care about money. And they don’t really care about Earth people that much either. The technology CDF has would save, quite literally, billions of lives over just a few years, but they withold it.
Well, my guess is that part of the reason is it solves the problem of Caesar’s Palmtop. If Earth had the technology that the CDF had, it wouldn’t look anything like the earth we have now. But the Earth we see in “Old Man’s War” is very, very similar to today’s Earth. And the advantage to that is it gives a familiar place to start the reader at. Once we get introduced to a sleepy little town in Ohio where Perry lives, we get more and more serious “out of whack events”, up the space elevator, to space stations with artificial gravity, to starships with Skip drives, to total body replacement. Boom. Out. Of. Whack.
The other reason might just be that Scalzi acknowledged Heinlein’s “Starship Troopers” as a heavy influence, and while Heinlein’s world was downright fascist, Scalzi’s world is at least severely libertarian. The CDF has basically “Gone Galt” on the world. When a government tries to regulate them, the CDF just leaves, the epitome of “going Galt”. They refuse any form of restriction or regulation. They refuse to reveal what happens to humans once they leave Earth. They have a complete and total monopoly over Earth and pretty much over all human colonies. And yet they’re not interested in power or money. They do not abuse their monopoly to gain themselves power or money. They are, in essence, a benevolent dictator who is only interested in their own complete and total freedom.
A Libertarian Utopia
The CDF is portrayed as an almost near-ideal of a libertarian utopia. Complete power. Complete freedom. Zero government interference. Interactions are limited strictly to contractual interactions. And magically, no abuse of power. And more important for libertarians to sustain the fantasy, all the John Galts leave Earth, and Earth is left in the dust. Earth is unable to replicate *any* of the technology that the CDF has.
This is extremely important for the Libertarian fantasy. This is the key to “Going Galt”. When libertarians talk of “Going Galt”, they are talking of taking their ball and going home, and the rest of us sheeple will rue the day we ever tried to regulate their behavior. Going Galt is in essence taking the idea of a boycott and imbuing it with magical powers. Libertarians love boycotts. They think boycotts will solve anything that regulation tries to solve, and boycotts will do it much better (as far as a Libertarian will tell you).
The CDF operates like a nearly perfect representation of the ideal Libertarian fantasy of Going Galt. They remove themselves from Earth’s population but because they are the masters of industry, their economy is astronomical, while the lazy folk left on earth, can’t seem to afford a single space elevator. Meanwhile, CDF not only has space elevators on every planet, they have hundreds and hundreds of *gigantic* starships. The economy of the universe that is “Old Man’s War” leaves a lot of unanswered questions as to how it works. But all the pieces are there for a Libertarian to pick it up and say “This is our Nirvana”.
This actually might explain why so many libertarians show up at Scalzi’s blog, Whatever. They read “Old Man’s War”. They see it as representing the ideal Libertarian fantasy. And they assume Scalzi is a flaming Libertarian. Turns out, Scalzi isn’t a flaming libertarian. Politically speaking, I believe he describes himself as moderately or slightly left of center.
I cannot stress this enough. Heinlein said he wrote “Starship Troopers” in response to SANE calling for an end to nuclear bomb testing. Heinlein wrote “Starship Troopers” as a polemic to show that we needed the bomb to protect ourselves from the communist bugs. Two years after writing “Starship Troopers”, Heinlein told people at a sci-fi convention that nuclear war was coming soon, build a bomb shelter, stock up on food and unregistered guns, and go out in a blaze of glory.
Scalzi does not appear to have any political/military axe to grind here. He seems heavily influenced by “Starship Troopers” and seems to rack up a number of war handwavium points simply because he is following “Starship Troopers” in *form*. But “Old Man’s War” doesn’t make a point to make polemics or to justify a military worldview.
200 Years of Constant Galatic War
That said, “Old Man’s War” does present a very militaristic world. A class of one-thousand new recruits are told that three-quarters of them will be dead in ten years. If they have a new class of recruits every week, that’s fifty thousand recruits a year. And of those fifty-thousand recruits, thirty-seven thousand will be dead in ten years. But that means it also averages out to thirty-seven thousand dead every year. That’s not quite WW2 level of casualty rates. We are told this level of casualty rate has been going on for the last 200 years that CDF has been waging war.
It is difficult to fathom a universe that can support this amount of carnage for this long and yet have Earth look so familiar to today’s standing. WW2 was not something any country could have sustained for two centuries. I don’t know if it would be something that all the colonies could sustain or not.
I have a real hard time holding that this constant Galatic War is going on to this severe of a degree and yet Earth is essentially untouched by alien war. But “Starship Troopers” starts with the assumption of a constant Galatic War, so maybe “Old Mans War” follows it because that’s the form of the story.
Straight Up Bug Hunt
The wars being waged are straight-up bug hunts. The enemy is ugly, inhuman, alien. And for some reason, many of them love to eat human flesh. One alien invasion force even brought along their own celebrity chef to cook the humans they took prisoner. But that does have the advantage of making things pretty black and white.
“Starship Troopers” was a straight-up bug hunt. It was written by Heinlein who was a graduate of West Point but who never fought in combat and worked on radar while he was in the navy. And Heinlein’s portrayal of combat is, well, to borrow a phrase from one of the best science officers in Star Fleet, “He is intelligent, but not experienced. His pattern indicates two-dimensional thinking.”
Heinlein’s portrayal of combat is two-dimensional thinking. Grunts running around the ground with guns. Powered armor be damned, you would still have gunships on close air support, bombers, artillery, mortars, and heavy armor like tanks or something. If power armor is armor, then a tank made of the same material will be a helluva a lot more armored. Battleships might have two feet of armor. Tanks might have half a foot of armor, plus reactive plates that explode. War is a combined arms exercise, not just a squad of infantry running around, standing up while being shot at.
The problem is that a combined arms exercise is hella difficult to write. You’ve got characters with completely different points of view affecting the field. Every single one of them operates differently. And if you do it poorly, having a battleship ten miles off shore (or somewhere in low orbit) provide a fire mission and save everyone’s bacon, can end up coming across as a deus ex machina. You can’t use Chekov’s Gun in act three unless you introduce it in Act 1. And there are a bajillion different Checkov’s Guns in war. It’s *hard* to write it accurately and readably.
I did notice that Scalzi’s characters seem to appreciate the value of cover and camouflage. Perry hugs the dirt a number of times. I don’t recall Heinlein’s characters ever using the ground as for ballistic protection.
Strawmanning Nonviolent Solutions
In “Starship Troopers”, there isn’t a single civilian character with any amount of “face time” that has anything good to say about the military. Father calls it a waste of money and calls people in federal service lazy. This happens with a number of civilian characters who show up. They are represented by Heinlein as know-nothing-do-gooders who are completely clueless about how the world really works. Since Heinlein was writing “Starship Troopers” as a pro-military polemic in response to civilians calling for a halt to nuclear weapons testing, this isn’t too surprising that Heinlein strawmanned all the civilians into ijiots.
Unfortunately, Scalzi seems to have followed “Starship Troopers” in form on this aspect. Diplomacy never works in the universe that is “Old Mans War”. Private Senator Ambassador Secretary Bender is introduced at the beginning of one chapter as a completely incompetent, know-nothing do-gooder who in his previous life as a human on Earth secured a peace treaty in Ireland. This failed to hold and diplomacy was declared to be useless. After the CDF spends most of the chapter blowing up and killing Whaidians, Bender walks up to several hundred Whaidians and attempts a strawman version of “diplomacy” and gets vaporized for it, thus demonstrating again the ineffectiveness of diplomacy. In that same chapter, Viveros says she’ll become an officer some day and change the orders and get peace. She gets killed two sentences later. Apparently even thinking about diplomacy will get you killed in “Old Man’s War” universe.
The Horror? The Horror? Meh. Not so Much
Around page 210, Perry steps on a lot of Covandu’s becoming “Godzilla”. It is at this time where Perry starts questioning the morality of his actions, and starts to confront the horror of endless war with no possibility for diplomacy. Perry wonders if he has become a monster.
By page 220, some humans kill one of Perry’s friends, Susan, effectively torturing her to death by fish (it’s kind of hard to explain). At the end of the page, Perry decides that he is no longer worried about becoming a monster or becoming “less human” as a result of war, because “humans can be as inhuman as any alien species”.
I don’t even know what to make of this.
Here on Earth, we have human serial killers. The existence of human serial killers should not lower the bar to the question as to whether or not you are acting like a monster or not. Serial killers are humans and are monsters. Their existence does not turn genocide and warcrimes into just another day on the job.
This was probably my biggest disappointment in “Old Man’s War”. I would rather have had Perry NOT face the horror of war than to face it and shrug it off with that kind of argument just a few pages later.
This doesn’t have anything to do with the War Handwavium score, but since I know a little bit about the author, John Scalzi, there were certain bits about the protagonist, John Perry, that raised some potential Gary Stu red flags.
First of all, there are the factual similarities between author and protagonist: both the author (John Scalzi) and protagonist (John Perry) have the same first name. They both live in a small town in Ohio. They both work as writers. They both are madly in love with their wives.
Then there are the things that the protagonist does that usually only a Mary Sue or Gary Stu could hope to accomplish.
page 137, Master Sergeant Ruiz makes a point to hate every individual in his platoon for individual reasons. Except for Perry, who saved Ruiz’s life through good advertising copy?
page 163, with apparently no tactical training whatsoever, an ad writer apparently is the smartest tactician in the brigade, defeating several other platoons in war games. This former ad writer demonstrates more tactical smarts than some former retired career military officers who are in his platoon and the other platoons.
page 165, Master Sergeant Ruiz (who hates everyone) tells Perry to say hi to his new commanding officer, Lieutenant Arthur Keyes, and to tell Keyes that Ruiz says that Perry is not nearly the dipshit his other graduates turned out to be.
Page 181, Perry gets a commendation for figuring out that after you shoot a Consu with a shield, they get up, so you have to shoot them a second time.
Page 249, 94,000 people killed in attack on Coral. Only three survive, one of them is Perry.
page 347, being promoted to captain and bringing in the schematics felt a little like piling it on.
page 350, any time a Special Forces Ghost Brigade person sees Perry, they ping him signifying respect, because Perry is the only “realborn” to serve with Special Forces. Ever. In 200 years of constant war, Perry was the first realborn to serve with Special Forces.
The Gary Stu stuff was slightly distracting when it showed up, but it didn’t really detract too much from the overall story.
War Handwavium score: +324
-10, page 118, in ten years three-quarters of the recruits will be dead.
+10, page 120, Colonization is the key to our race’s survival
+10, page 120, Civil Defense Force becomes an invading force
+3, page 129, video showing a man killed in combat by aliens
-5, page 146, recruits were failing and failing for … a lack of nerve
+10, page 154, Ruiz knocks McCain out with a rifle. Training violence.
+10, page 155, Ruiz points rifle at McCain and pulls trigger. Faked execution.
+10, page 157, Aliens called Salong set up human meat farm.
+10, page 162, Perry, Alan, and Martin give “administrative discipline” to a recruit (no name?) dangling him from a stolen hovercar. How they managed to steal a hovercar when the rifles can’t fire without authorization eludes me.
+5, page 163, paralyzing pain and collapse if “shot”. training violence.
-10, page 169, Consu blasted a human colony to let us know they were looking for action
+10, page 170, Consu are extremely advanced technology alien race (they enclosed an entire pulsar to extract its energy) and yet they’re backward to the point of viewing war as a religious experience. (die in combat to go to heaven, and get 72 virgins, one imagines)
+6, page 175, Perry figures out the double-shot to kill Consu and kills at least 2 on this page.
+9, page 176, 3 consu are killed
+9, page 177, 3 consu are killed
-3, page 177, Watson is killed
+10, page 178, double-tap thins out Consu herd
+10, page 178, Consu squad commit ritual suicide
-6, page 178, 2 cdf dead
-8, page 178, 4 cdf wounded
-10, page 178, Consu armored hovercraft take out 16 cdf at once.
+3, page 179, Perry shoots scavenger
-3, page 183, Maggie dies, writes a haiku
+10, page 187, Private Senator Ambassador Secretary Bender: politicians are stupid
+10, page 191, Bender got a peace treaty, then violence erupts. Peace treaties don’t work.
+10, page 191, Damn real live people getting in the way of your peace treaty. (treaties don’t work)
+10, page 195, Perry shoots missiles at several Whaidians
+9, page 195, Perry kills 2, Bender kills 1
+18, page 196, Perry kills 6 on rooftops
+5, page 196, Perry gives a “love tap”
+5, page 196, Bender and Perry open fire first on group of aliens
+12, page 198, Perry and Bender blast 4 aliens through a wall
+10, page 201, Bender attempts peaceful contact, fails. Peace is for idiots.
-3, page 201, Bender is killed
+15, page 202, Several hundred Whaidian’s are killed in a turkey shoot.
+10, page 203, damn real lives getting in the way of peaceful ideas. (strawmanning peaceful ideas)
+10, page 203, Viveros says she’ll become an officer some day and change the orders. Gets killed two sentences later. (strawmanning peacefule ideas)
-3, page 205, Thomas killed
-18, page 208, 6 platoon mates killed
+15, page 209, Perry ambush’s Gindalian soldiers
+3, page 210, Perry steps on Covandu
+10, page 211, Perry steps on a lot of Covandu’s becoming “Godzilla”.
+3, page 211, Perry flings a Covandu into a wall.
+10, page 214, Stomping a bunch of Covandu’s
+10, page 215, Perry’s horror of war becomes nostalgia for his wife?
-3, page 218, Susan killed
+15, page 219, dozens of ringleaders executed. Some fed to fish while alive. (mass killings plus torture)
+10, page 220, Perry started out realizing the horror of war, decides he’s no longer worried about becoming “less human than he was before”. Because humans murder. So it’s OK if that’s what he’s doing.
+10, page 227, Rraey’s bring a celebrity chef to cook humans.
-10, page 238, main ship, Medesto, destroyed
-10, page 238, the shuttle crew and passengers killed.
-3, page 238, Fiona’s head decapitated
-3, page 239, Alan dies
-10, page 249, 90,000 people died in previous scene
+10, page 293, Rraey ate a third of the trade delegates (diplomacy doesn’t work)
+3, page 308, Mendel kills Consu
+3, page 308, Goodall kills Consu
+3, page 309, Aquainis kills Consu
-3, page 310, Sgt Hawking decapitated
+3, page 311, Jane kills Consu
+3, page 313, Consu says “Now I go to my death” because he spoke to humans
+10, page 331, Rraey personel killed from above
+9, page 331, Perry kills 3 Rraey
+10, page 331, Rraey personel killed in foxholes and trenches
+10, page 331, Rraey picked off in the open
+9, page 332, Perry shoots Rraey in leg, one center mass, one running away
+3, page 333, Jane grenades Rraey in shed
+12, page 338, Perry shoots Rraey with rocket, in the head, with a grenade, and a second grenade
+6, page 340, Perry kills two Rraey with automatic fire
+6, page 340, Rraery aircraft shot down