If you enjoy military sci-fi with an intriguing world, lots of action and a protagonist whose bone-dry humour makes you grin even as blood and bullets are flying – then Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series should be on your ‘Must-read’ list. Not least, because Scalzi’s fascinating angle makes these books interesting even if you aren’t a major fan of the sub-genre. That said, I wouldn’t advise starting with The Last Colony as there are several major plot twists in each book to keep the narrative tension humming. Although if you do decide to dive in at Book Three, Scalzi has incorporated a masterly summary of ‘the story so far’, which I wish other authors of multi-book series would emulate.
A citizen of Earth, seventy-year-old John Perry, enlists as a Colonial Union soldier after the death of his wife. As promised, his consciousness is uploaded into a highly efficient body in the peak of condition. However, there is a catch to this renewed youthfulness. Perry discovers that out in space, Humanity is surrounded by a variety of other intelligent beings all wanting to colonise the same limited number of suitable planets. The result is bloody warfare. After serving his allotted time, Perry, his wife and adopted daughter finally settle down to live peacefully as administrators and farmers. Until the Colonial Union ask Perry and Jane to head up a new colony.
But en route to their destination, Perry realises that things don’t add up. The Colonial Union have provided more food than is usual for a seed colony and there is a hold full of obsolete equipment. When they arrive to discover that the planet filling their viewscreens isn’t the one they had planned on settling, it starts to become apparent that the Colonial Union are playing a dangerous game of hide and seek with the newly formed alien alliance – and their little colony is the playing piece…
Perry is definitely a cut above the average protagonist. His sharp humour and intelligently drawn character pulls the reader in – and compares favourably with Robert Buettner’s Jason Wander series, which by the fourth book seems to have run out of impetus. This is partly because Scalzi’s series doesn’t merely offer the reader more of the same in each book. The issues surrounding uploading human consciousness into a new body are thoroughly explored in the previous two books, while this tale examines the political situation that Scalzi has created. In most military sci-fi, politics and politicians are only a micron further up the villainy scale from whatever alien foe our valiant forces are fighting. And this series is no exception. If anything, Scalzi is even more grittily cynical about the casual manner in which the Colonial Union sacrifice their troops.
I very much like his world, where Earth is allowed to stagnate in a relative backwater, producing cannon fodder for the battles raging around the surrounding universe in cloned bodies equipped with progressively more sophisticated survival traits. While the action and frantic tempo required in this sub-genre never falters, Scalzi nevertheless manages to raise some issues regarding the morality of using human beings – and some aliens – in such a cold-blooded manner. It’s a neat trick to pull off and I am now looking out for his other books.