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  1. #1
    Lemurs!!! Moderator Erfael's Avatar
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    May '06 SF BOTM: Old Man's War by John Scalzi

    Discussion is now open for our May book of the month, John Scalzi's Old Man's War.

    As Old Man's War was Rob's nomination, he put forth a few thoughts/questions to get us rolling this month:

    Quote Originally Posted by Rob's stuff to think about
    1) How effective was John Scalzi's use of humor in the novel? Was it forced/off-putting or did it work well?

    2) How plausible is the future premise set up by John Scalzi?

    3) This may not be a 'fair' question, but is the book Hugo-worthy?

    Something else to think about: I've heard a lot about this book being inspired by Starship Troopers. While I've not read that book, I understand (maybe incorrectly) that it has a strong pro-military stance. Given the current world climate, do you feel Scalzi is making any kind of statement regarding military or war with Old Man's War?


    One last thing: I believe John Scalzi maintains an interesting blog at: http://www.scalzi.com/whatever/


    Rob has been in touch with Mr. Scalzi, and he may be dropping in in a week or so.

  2. #2
    Member of the Month™ Ropie's Avatar
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    Originally Posted by Rob's stuff to think about
    1) How effective was John Scalzi's use of humor in the novel? Was it forced/off-putting or did it work well?
    Mmm, a bunch of pensioners called the 'old farts' all sitting around reminiscing about molases and ball games, all eventually calling their Brainpals 'Asshole' just didn't do it for me on the humour level. I've heard it said that in Star Trek the foot is often hard down on the humour pedal; Scalzi practically had his foot through the chassis in places.

    2) How plausible is the future premise set up by John Scalzi?
    I find it hard to believe that we'll come aross leagues of different hostile aliens that are really just silly monsters (though I can understand the need to set them up as such for the military campaign). Given that the entire novel rests on this premise I would have to say, not very. On the other hand I found the technology employed throughout the novel to be quite convincing somehow.

    3) This may not be a 'fair' question, but is the book Hugo-worthy?
    A quick glance through the Hugos reveals novels such as A Canticle For Leibowitz, Stand on Zanzibar and The Left Hand of Darkness with which OM'sW doesn't really compare. Then again, those were different times and there is also a lot of Heinlein in there with whom people are already drawing parallels with Scalzi, but I've never read any Heinlein. I don't necessarily judge books by the awards they receive anyway.

    Despite the above I really enjoyed reading Old Man's War. It has a solid, flowing style that makes for easy reading. It was light on the setting and there were no sub-plots of which to speak but I didn't mind that as it meant the story progressed quickly. It did lose its way somewhere in the middle when it just became a straightforward battle story (not my thing) but Scalzi picks it up again for the third section and there are some very exciting twists and plot developments.

    Most of the characters are pretty thin but again I didn't mind as the character of John Perry as an old man is quite convincing (if a tad annoying) and especially nicely set up in the first few chapters. He more or less carries the entire story by himself anyway. When he is given his second chance at youth he becomes much less interesting but this is exactly what I would expect of somebody given the opportunity to relive his youth (in a war in space) so I can't really criticize it.

    Did I think Scalzi was making some kind of politcial statement about war? I don't think so - it doesn't strike me as being a preachy book in any sense, though maybe he did intend to make a point just by writing about such a destructive situation. Who knows? It would be easy to read that in to the story. It certainly didn't make me think about any current situations beyond the basic associations you make reading a book about about killing and hearing the news at the same time...

    4/5 for me for sheer readability and being able to maintain my interest in one of my least favourite SF genres (military). I may even read the sequel at some point in the future.
    Last edited by Ropie; May 1st, 2006 at 03:30 PM.

  3. #3
    the puppet master ArthurFrayn's Avatar
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    Thumbs up Funny is good, not bad!

    1) How effective was John Scalzi's use of humor in the novel? Was it forced/off-putting or did it work well?
    I thought it was a very funny book. He manages to capture that aspect of elderly middle American banter in a very convincing fashion.I thought the BrainPal/Asshole thing was very funny way of showing the collective discomfort of the new recruits in dealing with a neural computer interface and how it manifested itself in the same way for all of them. I thought the agreement the central character has to sign at the beginning of the book, and the Brainpal demo explaining the various aspects of his new physical status were very amusing pieces of satire, and not at all "boffo yaks". I'm not going to deny that the book on some level resembles Trek,specifically with it's approach to humor because I like Trek when it's good, and I think Trek often does humor effectively as well.


    2) How plausible is the future premise set up by John Scalzi?
    He starts off with a well travelled post RAH approach to this material, but manages to make it his own with a convincing take on the tech and science. He feels like he's done a bit of homework, and it is appreciated.
    He also doesn't seem to have a political agenda like RAH;he seems to more interested in the human story.

    3) This may not be a 'fair' question, but is the book Hugo-worthy?
    Someone would have to explain to me why this nomination is dubious, when a light-in-the-behind piece of character driven fiction like Ender's Game is considered one of the cornerstones of modern SF.




    This was a big surprise for me, I thought it was highly readible, thoughtful, very funny, and touching and human without being cloyingly sentimental in a way one doesn't usually see in SF.
    It's not a mind blower,the author's goals seem to be very modest and he manages to avoid a lot of the macho posturing one can encounter in military SF.He also manages to capture that sense of self contained community and personal ethics one can see in the behaviour of combat soldiers,police or firemen. There are good combat action scenes as well.

    I've already recommended this book to a ton of occasional SF reading pals, and I don't think I've steered any of them wrong.
    Four stars for this one. I'd be tempted to give it another half star, but was dissappointed that there's a sequel.I don't like to read sequels as a rule. But that's my personal, arguably unreasonable lack of consideration for the marketplace. I'd be more inclined to read his lightweight funny book Agent to the Stars before I'd read the sequel to this. Since I know he can do good funny.
    Last edited by ArthurFrayn; May 2nd, 2006 at 12:25 PM.

  4. #4
    Hyperpower! Jack's Avatar
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    1) How effective was John Scalzi's use of humor in the novel? Was it forced/off-putting or did it work well?

    I thought it worked well. It must not have been off putting, because I read right through it all, complete with a few chuckles, without any interruption in my reading. I'm pretty easily pleased when it comes to humor in my stories, and I think having the characters involved being old and thus the humor being old fashioned made it funny.

    I also thought the entire scene in the office when Perry is signing his life away was very comical, and absurd in the sense that the employee really had no idea how the company she worked for operated or what exactly it was that they did. As an archetype of the jaded office worker for a mega conglomerate corporation, she was very believable.

    2) How plausible is the future premise set up by John Scalzi?

    I haven't read so much science fiction, so the future premise worked for me. It certainly had a bit of a cartoony feel to it at times, but instead of making me grumble about futurism inaccuracies, I treated it as fun. Again, absurdist, like the race of people they were fighting who were only a few inches tall - just absolute madness that was!

    3) This may not be a 'fair' question, but is the book Hugo-worthy?

    I simply do not have the sci fi credentials to answer this question.

    It seems that the main complaints readers have against the book are the same reasons I love it: the absurd unreality of the whole thing. Was it plausible? Heck, I don't know, we (the human race) won't really know until we get there, will we? It was a fun romp through interesting places and fun alien races. 4/5 stars from me.

  5. #5
    I've been pretty outspoken on this book and the reasons I disliked it. That's not to say it's a bad book -- let me reiterate, it's quite an enjoyable book -- but I believe it to be deeply flawed.

    Heinleinian pastiches have made careers for many an author, (Niven, Pournelle, Steakley) but I have a hard time accepting them in their own right.

    My major issue with Old Man's War is the unbelievability of the military scenes. It's an army after all, and the military leadership seems awfully incompetent with regard to tactics. For instance, we are to believe that our protagonaist invents a two round burst, the first round to take down armor, the second to do the dirty work. The incorporation of the three round burst for the same purposes was developed by the U.S. Marine Corps prior to the Korean War.


    I don't think Old Man's War can be taken in perspective unless one has read both Starship Troopers by Heinlein and The Forever War by Joe Haldeman. (two Hugo award winning masterpieces that everyone should read anyway)

    Both of these books are heavy on politics and message, with The Forever War being something of a Vietnam era retort to the post-WW2 trumpeting of personal responsibility to serve ones society in Starship Troopers.

    At first glance, OMW can be mistaken for this same story updated for our own times. Unfortunately -- there is no message. Scalzi focuses on neato technology and forgets to add meat with those side dishes. Is it a fun read? Hell yeah, especially if you're not concerned with tactics. It's a grand yarn.

    I originally also took umbrage at the lack of science. In no less than three distinct instances, a character is about to explain an interesting scientific concept only to instead state 'you don't have the math to understand.'

    In corresponding with Scalzi on this point, he stated -- and proved quite succinctly, in my mind -- that this was not due to any lack of science knowledge on his part, but merely to avoid confusion. He offered up his astronomy book, The Rough Guide To The Universe as ample evidence.

    I suppose it was to move the story along quicker, but I felt cheated somehow.

    As to the questions:

    1) How effective was John Scalzi's use of humor in the novel? Was it forced/off-putting or did it work well?

    In all honesty, I didn't see much humorous in the novel. Perhaps it's due to me being a vet and being jaded to such things, but until I read this question, it had not ocurred to me that Scalzi was even attempting humor.

    2) How plausible is the future premise set up by John Scalzi?

    I actually consider quite a lot of the science to be plausible. His ideas were a definite highpoint of the book.

    3) This may not be a 'fair' question, but is the book Hugo-worthy?

    Decidedly not.

    Now that hasn't stopped books from being awarded the Hugo in the past, and won't stop it from happenning in the future, but Old Man's War does not deserve to be numbered among the likes of Starship Troopers, Ender's Game, Dune, Gateway, Neuromancer, Hyperion, and the like.

    I think that this years winner ought to be Spin by Robert Charles Wilson. I keep flip-flopping in my head whether it ought to go before Accelerando by Charlie Stross.

    In my heart, I truly want George Martin to win, only because he is so deserving for his series as a whole, and he's such a wonderful man.

    Yeah, probably Spin.
    Last edited by WilliamLexner; May 1st, 2006 at 02:36 PM.

  6. #6
    Christ Is Risen! Eperitos's Avatar
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    I have to agree with much of WL's criticism of OMW, but heck, I've read the book so I'm still going to post.

    1) How effective was John Scalzi's use of humor in the novel? Was it forced/off-putting or did it work well?

    Not well. Occasionally I chuckled while reading OMW, but all in all I thought the humour just wasn't very funny, and often really corny.

    2) How plausible is the future premise set up by John Scalzi?

    This is a tough question to answer because Scalzi doesn't go into very much detail about the future he created. We basically learn some of the technological progress that has been made, and thats it. The book doesn't say how the technology changes society. I even felt that the book didn't go into very much detail about how the army recruits change and adapt to their new lease on 'life" after their consiousness was transfered to the new bodies.

    3) This may not be a 'fair' question, but is the book Hugo-worthy?

    Generally I wouldn't answer a question like this because I don't put much credence into awards given to art, but if this is one of the top 5 books released in SF and F last year, there is no way that I would keep reading in these genres.

  7. #7
    \m/ BEER \m/ Moderator Rob B's Avatar
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    Overall, I really enjoyed the book. I though Scalzi did a number of things that worked well for me.

    To answer my own questions:
    1) How effective was John Scalzi's use of humor in the novel? Was it forced/off-putting or did it work well?

    It surprised me, to be honest. I didn't expect the amount of humor and I thought it worked well, both to make the characters seem real and balance the grimness of the situation in which the characters placed themselves.

    2) How plausible is the future premise set up by John Scalzi?

    I thought it was fairly plausible, given the blank face corporations often show their employees and how today's government operates. As for the science aspect of everything, it didn't seem outrageously fantastical. Especially given the rate at which technology seems to progress in some areas. Although I only got a sense that the story took place a couple hundred years in the future.

    3) This may not be a 'fair' question, but is the book Hugo-worthy?
    Judging against the shortlist of nominees? The only one of the five I've read thus far is Martin's book*, so that is my only comparison. I would't disagree if Scalzi won over Martin, I enjoyed both books a great deal, but for different reasons.

    Judging Old Man's War against previous Hugo-winners? I enjoyed a lot more than the following and felt it was better than:
    Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell - I thought this was VERY overrated
    Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire - good but a Hugo winner?
    A Deepness in the Sky - I didn't enjoy this one at all.
    A Fire Upon the Deep
    Gateway

    So either way, I don't think I'd have a problem with John getting the Hugo
    *I do plan on reading Spin

    As for John making a statement about war? I think there is something to be said about joining a military you know very little about to fight a war against an unkown enemy - what it takes and why these poeple join the military.

    I think the Officers in charge of Perry throughout his tenure were very stereotypical, but I didn't feel that detracted from the story as a whole.

    He spins a lot of different questions about war.

  8. #8
    BookWyrm Archren's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Erfael
    1) How effective was John Scalzi's use of humor in the novel? Was it forced/off-putting or did it work well?

    2) How plausible is the future premise set up by John Scalzi?

    3) This may not be a 'fair' question, but is the book Hugo-worthy?
    First off, I've got my over-all general review of it here, at my site.

    1) I hadn't really thought about the humor. I think I liked it, although I found the A$$hole stuff a little forced. Even if you did name your BarinPal that at first, as you progressed, wouldn't you rename it? Still, the book didn't take itself 100% seriously, and I much prefer that tone in my SF books. They need to have at least a few light bits in there, because life really isn't deadly serious all the time.

    2) I found the world-building to be kind of shallow, and I hope that'll be remedied in later books. Basically, outside of the FTL tech (which was plausible as anything else that's been used) and the new body upgrades (very cool), everything else was sketched. I find it really difficult to believe that the media news won't follow us out to the stars, and that Earth would be content with a 100% news blackout on the colonies. That seems historically impossible to me.

    3) So far out of the 2006 batch of Hugo novels, I've read this one and Accelerando. Both of them I rated 7/10. (In my mind a "7" is sort of the enjoyable high end of normal. 8 is where I start to rate extraordinary stuff.) That's a little surprising to me. I'm going to skip Feast for Crows, since I dropped ASoFaI a while ago, so I hope that Spin and/or Learning the World will knock my socks of. Still, you don't get something like Hyperion coming along just any old year.

    One other bit: I thought that the Ghost Brigade was a very interesting touch, especially where it allowed the author to draw a contrast between extremities of youth and extremities of age, leaving the physical entirely aside. Basically, John was 77, but in a mid-20s body, and Jane was 6, in a mid-20s body. I thought that contrast was well done, although it popped up so late in the book, it seemed a bit like an afterthought.

    2 other bits: John Perry is a stereotypical Competent Man hero. There wasn't much room for character growth there. That's probably why it puts so many people in mind of Heinlein. Why is an ad executive so good at everything he does in the military? It was a little over the top when even the drill sergent couldn't find a reason to dislike him. Again, unrealistic. And why were all the old people nice and mentally flexible? Some old folk get really brittle and set in their ways. I know that maybe most of that type wouldn't sign up for space combat, but are you sure *none* of them would? To get those extra years of life? Not a curmudgeon in the bunch?

  9. #9
    the puppet master ArthurFrayn's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Archren
    And why were all the old people nice and mentally flexible? ...I know that maybe most of that type wouldn't sign up for space combat, but are you sure *none* of them would? To get those extra years of life? Not a curmudgeon in the bunch?
    But they weren't. First,you had the fat guy that dies in the beginning of the book, and you have the ambassador that's killed a bit later on. And the minor pop star that wants to be squadron leader. There's 3 right there.
    Why do we need a jerk as a central protagonist or secondary character these days in order for the fiction to be believable?
    I don't hang out with jerks and I'm no hero,why should a hero do so? He deliberately tries to get away from the jerk in the beginning of the book. To me, THAT'S believable.
    Last edited by ArthurFrayn; May 2nd, 2006 at 05:09 PM.

  10. #10
    \m/ BEER \m/ Moderator Rob B's Avatar
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    You beat me to the punch Arthur, the fat guy that dies was rather inflexible and cranky. I suppose you could say the cranks were killed off, but the military (not speaking from experience here of course) has a tendency to weed out these types of folks.

  11. #11
    BookWyrm Archren's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Rob B
    You beat me to the punch Arthur, the fat guy that dies was rather inflexible and cranky. I suppose you could say the cranks were killed off, but the military (not speaking from experience here of course) has a tendency to weed out these types of folks.
    I realize what you're saying. But especially with the first guy, it was like he had no other purpose but to die. It's like: "Look! He's a jacka$$! And a rascist! And he dies! See? People die in this universe!" Same with the Senator guy. He existed for no other purpose than to illustrate the wrong-headedness of the political correctness crowd. He was a stereotype and a bit of a straw-man.

    Now, he also has some of the nice people from the original enlistee group die, but always in more dignified, off-stage ways. I mean, that one woman even got to compose her death haiku. Is that really typical of the military experience?

    Besides, looking around at the upper echelons of today's military, would you really say that military service weeds out inflexible curmudgeons, leaving only nice, funny, tactically brilliant and lucky people? Well, certainly the lucky part, but you get my gist.

    I certainly don't like jerks as my protagonists. I'm just saying that the jerks among the background characters were so overdone and over-the-top as to be totally unbelievable.

    Oh, I remember one other thing I found amusing with the book. I didn't mind it at all, but it made me smile. Often when he'd need to explain something, he'd say "Oh look, here's a high school physics teacher. Could you explain this to us?" I just loved having handy physics teachers hanging around to do infodump explication for us.

  12. #12
    Member of the Month™ Ropie's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Archren
    1) I hadn't really thought about the humor. I think I liked it, although I found the A$$hole stuff a little forced. Even if you did name your BarinPal that at first, as you progressed, wouldn't you rename it? Still, the book didn't take itself 100% seriously, and I much prefer that tone in my SF books. They need to have at least a few light bits in there, because life really isn't deadly serious all the time.
    The thing about humour is that it takes literary skill to successfully implement. Most people can write about their amazing ideas, some people can write in a fluid and readable style - as Scalzi has -, only a very few are able to combine the two with really funny humour. In my experience Iain M Banks just about manages it, Douglas Adams definitely did it (but didn't really know how to string a story together), Frederick Pohl can do it.

    Great minds who have tried and failed to make me laugh include Asimov (every bloody time), Arthur C Clarke, John Brunner, Larry Niven. SF just isn't really very funny in essence, and the most respected prose writers - eg: Gene Wolfe, Ursula LeGuin, to name just two - really seem to try and avoid it.

    I felt that Scalzi really tried to push the humour and, as Archren says, it was forced. I'm surprised anyone found it funny Maybe the scene in the enlisting office was 'light hearted', but no more.
    Last edited by Ropie; May 3rd, 2006 at 09:18 AM.

  13. #13
    Registered User odo's Avatar
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    First of all, I must say I really enjoyed reading this book. It was a quick read in a moment when I was needing it and I had a lot of fun with OMW. However, I can see many of the flaws you have been pointing out and, IMHO, the book is far from being perfect. In fact, the more I think about it the more I see the "tricks" that Scalzi used.

    Now, to the questions:

    1) I found it quite funny. Not only because it had some humorous dialogues, but specially because Scalzi systematically attacks most clichés in military SF (mostly in the first half of the book; I was a bit dissapointed when it turned out to be a more standard story in the end). As Arch mentioned, it is obvious that the book does not take itself completely seriously and I found it refreshing. Anyway, some of the (intended) jokes were just too silly (all the "asshole" thing, for example).

    2) I don't find the book plausible at all. Not only for the scientific/technological bits (if they can make those "ghost brigades", why don't they just clone a "perfect soldier" a zillion times and forget about "normal humans"?) but also because John Perry happens to make everything right and has an unveliable luck (that thing about Wheelie Whillie and then finding his wife in the ghost brigades).

    3) I haven't read any of other nominees, but I plan to do it (excepting Martin's, since I haven't read the previous books in the series). Anyway, I wouldn't be dissapointed if Scalzi wins the award (by the way, it would be one of the few SF Hugo awards in how much? five? six years?). I think that worser books have won the Hugo. For instance, I much prefer OMW to the Vorkosigan series.

    Regarding Starship Troopers, the analogies are quite obvious (and Scalzi himself acknowledges them): joining the army to get some kind of social advantage; fights against evil aliens; promotion to official; etc. However, I find OMW much funnier and I really appreciate that no pro-military message is preached (imo). I was wondering whether any anti-military ideas was present, but I would say no. At least it is not so obvious (compared to Haldeman's "The forever war", for instance).

    All in all, I find the book extremely entertaining and it came to me in a perfect moment (between very "heavy" readings). I'll give 4.5/5.

  14. #14
    the puppet master ArthurFrayn's Avatar
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    if they can make those "ghost brigades", why don't they just clone a "perfect soldier" a zillion times and forget about "normal humans"?)
    I thought about this too, and my conclusion is, just as they value life experience in combat, they also value a variety of minds to have multiple chances for a solution to complex combat problems.
    As far as their bodies go, it seems that they are pretty much all the cloned "perfect soldier".
    What the Ghost Brigades lack in experience, they make up in complete training and expendability.
    I agree though,once he introduces them to the story , it's hard not to say to yourself "why do they need anything else?"
    Last edited by ArthurFrayn; May 3rd, 2006 at 11:55 AM.

  15. #15
    Registered User odo's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by ArthurFrayn
    I thought about this too, and my conclusion is, just as they value life experience in combat, they also value a variety of minds to have multiple chances for a solution to complex combat problems.
    Sure, I agree, but why is the ratio Ghost Brigades/Normal People so low? And why are these GB so misterious? And why do the make GB from dead people? Using some "standard clone" seems more reasonable.

    Quote Originally Posted by ArthurFrayn
    As far as their bodies go, it seems that they are pretty much all the cloned "perfect soldier".
    Humm, but everyone got a body which had been "grown" from his own DNA. I see that this is quite understandable in the case of normal people, because it is plausible that adaptation to a body that is "similar" to yours is easier. But, why make the bodies of the GB all different? I think it would have been a great point if the GB had been a sort of alien-human mixture. Then it would be much more understandable all the misterium around them.

    By the way, maybe I missed the point, but how were the "brains" of GB supposed to be "grown"? I mean, was there a proccess similar to the "brain transfer" with normal people or the "brains" were grown together with the body? How do they learn the language and so on?

    Quote Originally Posted by Archren
    Often when he'd need to explain something, he'd say "Oh look, here's a high school physics teacher. Could you explain this to us?" I just loved having handy physics teachers hanging around to do infodump explication for us.
    I didn't like those infodumps that much. I found them really forced. I think it is not very plausible that someone just figure outs how that terribly complicated technology works.

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