Welcome to the Old Man's War preview page. I'm John
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Man's War? | What's it
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What is Old Man's War?
And who are you?
It's my first
published novel, and it's put out by Tor Books, one of the largest
science fiction and fantasy publishing houses in the world. I'm
John Scalzi, a writer and author. Although Old Man's War is
my first published novel, I have written a number of non-fiction
books (including the best-selling humor book Book of the Dumb
and its sequel Book of the Dumb 2), and I've been a
full-time writer since I've left college. You can find out more
about me at my
bio page, and by reading Whatever,
which is my online journal/blog/whatever.
What is Old Man's
I'll quote the book jacket here:
John Perry did two things on his 75th birthday. First he visited his wife's grave. Then he joined the army.
The good news is that humanity finally made it into interstellar space.
The bad news is that planets fit to live on are scarce-and aliens
willing to fight for them are common. The universe, it turns out, is a
So: we fight. To defend Earth (a target for our new enemies, should we
let them get close enough) and to stake our own claim to planetary real
estate. Far from Earth, the war has gone on for decades: brutal,
Earth itself is a backwater. The bulk of humanity's resources are in
the hands of the Colonial Defense Force, which shields the home planet
from too much knowledge of the situation. What's known to everybody is
that when you reach retirement age, you can join the CDF. They don't
want young people; they want people who carry the knowledge and skills
of decades of living. You'll be taken off Earth and never allowed to
return. You'll serve your time at the front. And if you survive, you'll
be given a generous homestead stake of your own, on one of our hard-won
John Perry is taking that deal. He has only the vaguest idea what to
expect. Because the actual fight, light-years from home, is far, far
harder than he can imagine-and what he will become is far stranger.
What are people saying
about Old Man's War?
Here's the excerpted starred review from Publishers Weekly
(you can see the full review on Amazon.com's page for Old Man's
a lot of SF writers are more or less efficiently continuing the
tradition of Robert A. Heinlein, Scalzi's astonishingly proficient
first novel reads like an original work by the late grand master... The
story obviously resembles such novels as Starship Troopers and
Time Enough for Love,
but Scalzi is not just recycling classic Heinlein. He's working out new
twists, variations that startle even as they satisfy. The novel's tone
is right on target, too—sentimentality balanced by hardheaded
calculation, know-it-all smugness moderated by innocent wonder. This
virtuoso debut pays tribute to SF's past while showing that well-worn
tropes still can have real zip when they're approached with ingenuity.
An excerpt from the review from SFReviews.net (see the full
Old Man's War is a tremendous, confident SF debut... Openly patterning itself after Heinlein's
Starship Troopers, Old Man's War takes an exciting tale of alien conflict and dresses it up intelligently with such themes as individual identity, what makes one human, the significance of mortality, and the ethics of life extension. Economically told at just over 300 pages, the story, peopled with remarkably well-drawn and memorable characters, never flags for an instant and steers a steady course without veering into self-importance or maudlin sentiment. Its a top-drawer first novel that should put Scalzi high on your "Writers to Watch" list.
SFRevu.com called Old Man's War
"Refreshingly crisp" and
...it behooves you to catch Scalzi now, both to encourage this promising author and to enjoy his strong start.
And here are the jacket blurbs from some most excellent science
"Gripping and surpassingly original. It's Starship Troopers without the lectures. It's
The Forever War with better sex. It's funny, it's sad, and it's true."
"John Scalzi is a fresh and appealing new voice, and Old Man's War is classic SF seen from a modern perspective--a fast-paced tour of a daunting, hostile universe."
--Robert Charles Wilson
"I enjoyed Old Man's War immensely. A space war
story with fast action, vivid characters, moral complexity and
cool speculative physics, set in a future you almost want to live
into, and a universe you sincerely hope you don't live in
-- Ken MacLeod
Enough of your
self-puffery! Show us some writing, damn you!
Fine. Here's that sample chapter I promised.
The Era of War
can take a shot," Watson said, sighting over his boulder.
"Let me drill one of those things."
said Viveros, our corporal. "Their shield is still up. You'd
just be wasting ammo."
is bullshit," Watson said. "We've been here for hours.
We're sitting here. They're sitting there. When their shield goes
down, we're supposed to do what, walk over and start blasting at
them? This isn't the fucking 14th Century. We shouldn't make an appointment
to start killing the other guy."
looked irritated. "Watson, you're not paid to think. So shut
the fuck up and get ready. It's not going to be long now, anyway.
There's only one thing left in their ritual before we get at
What's that?" Watson said.
going to sing," Viveros said.
smirked. "What are they going sing? Show tunes?"
Viveros said. "They're going to sing our deaths."
if on cue, the massive, hemispherical shield enclosing the Consu
encampment shimmered at the base. I adjusted my eyesight and
focused down the several hundred meters across the field, as a
single Consu stepped through, the shield lightly sticking to its
massive carapace until it moved far enough away for the
electrostatic filaments to collapse back into the shield.
was the third and final Consu that would emerge out of the shield
before the battle. The first had appeared nearly twelve hours ago;
a low-ranking grunt whose bellowing challenge served to formally
signal the Consu's intent to battle. The low rank of the messenger
was meant to convey the minimal regard in which our troops were
held by the Consu, the idea being that if we had been really
important, they would have sent a higher up. None of our troops
took offense; the messenger was always of low rank, regardless of
opponent, and anyway, unless you are extraordinarily sensitive to
Consu pheromones, they pretty much all look alike.
second Consu emerged behind from behind the shield several hours
later, bellowed like herd of cows caught in a thresher, and then
promptly exploded, pinkish blood and bits of his organs and
carapace momentarily splashing against the Consu shield and
sizzling lightly as they drizzled down to the ground. Apparently
the Consu believed that if a single soldier was ritually prepared
beforehand, its soul can be persuaded to reconnoiter the enemy for
a set amount of time before moving on to wherever it is Consu
souls go. Or something along that line. This is a signal honor,
not lightly given. This seemed to me to be a fine way to lose your
best soldiers in a hurry, but given that I was one of the enemy,
it was hard to see downside for us in the practice.
third Consu was a member of the highest caste, and his role was
simply to tell us the reasons for our death and manner by which we
would all die. After which point, we could actually get to the
killing and dying. Any attempt to hasten things along by pre-emptively
taking a shot at the shield would be useless; short of dropping it
into a stellar core, there was very little that could ding a Consu
shield. Killing a messenger would accomplish nothing other than
causing the opening rituals to be restarted, delaying the fighting
and killing even more.
the Consu weren't hiding behind the shield. They just had a
lot of pre-battle rituals to take care of, and they preferred that
they were not interrupted by the inconvenient appearance of
bullets, particle beams or explosives. Truth was, there was
nothing the Consu liked better than a good fight. They thought
nothing of the idea of tromping off to some planet, setting
themselves down, and daring the natives to pry them off in battle.
was the case here. The Consu were entirely disinterested in
colonizing this planet. They had merely blasted a human colony
here into bits as a way of letting the CDF know they were in the
neighborhood and looking for some action. Ignoring the Consu
wasn't a possibility, as they'd simply keep killing off colonists
until someone came to fight them on a formal basis. You never knew
what they'd consider enough for a formal challenge, either. You
just kept adding troops until a Consu messenger came out and
announced the battle.
from their impressive, impenetrable shields, the Consu's battle
technology was of a similar level as the CDF's. This was not as
encouraging as you might think, as what reports filtered back from
Consu battles with other species indicated that the Consu's
weaponry and technology was always more or less matched with that
of their opponent. This added to the idea that what the Consu were
engaging in was not war but sports. Not unlike a football game,
except with slaughtered colonists in the place of proper
first against Consu was not an option. Their entire inner home
system was shielded. The energy to generate the shield came from
the white dwarf companion of the Consu sun. It had been completely
encased with some sort of harvesting mechanism, so that all the
energy coming off it would fuel the shield. Realistically
speaking, you just don't fuck with people who can do that. But the
Consu had a weird honor system; clean them off a planet in battle,
and they didn't come back. It was like the battle was the
vaccination, and we were the antiviral.
of this information was provided by our mission database, which
our commanding officer Lieutenant Keyes had directed us to access
and read before the battle. The fact that Watson didn't seem to
know any of this meant he hadn't accessed the report. This was not
entirely surprising, since from the first moment I met Watson it
was clear that he was the sort of cocky, willfully ignorant son of
a bitch who would get himself or his squadmates killed. My problem
was I was his squadmate.
Consu unfolded its slashing arms -- specialized at some point in
their evolution to deal with some unimaginably horrifying creature
on their homeworld, most likely -- and underneath, its more
recognizably arm-like forelimbs raised to the sky. "It's
starting," Viveros said.
could pop him so easy," Watson said.
it and I'll shoot you myself," Viveros said.
sky cracked with a sound like God's own rifle shot, followed by
what sounded like a chainsaw ripping through a tin roof. The Consu
was singing. I accessed Asshole and had it translate from the
honored adversaries (it began),
We are the instruments of your joyful death.
In our ways we have blessed you
The spirit of the best among us has sanctified our battle.
We will praise you as we move among you
And sing your souls, saved, to their rewards.
It is not your fortune to have been born among The People
So we set you upon the path that leads to redemption.
Be brave and fight with fierceness
That you may come into our fold at your rebirth.
This blessed battle hallows the ground
And all who die and are born here henceforth are delivered.
that's loud," Watson said, sticking a finger in his left ear
and twisting. I doubted he had bothered to get a translation.
isn't a war or a football game, for Christ's sake," I said to
Viveros. "This is a baptism."
shrugged. "CDF doesn't think so. This is how they start every
battle. They think it's their equivalent of the National Anthem.
It's just ritual. Look, the shield's coming down." She
motioned towards the shield, which was now flickering and failing
across its entire length.
fucking time," Watson said. "I was about to take a
to me, both of you," Viveros said. "Stay calm, stay
focused and keep your ass down. We've got a good position here,
and the lieutenant wants us to snipe these bastards as they come
down. Nothing flashy -- just shoot them in the thorax. That's
where their brains are. Every one we get means one less for the
rest of them to worry about. Rifle shots only, anything else is
just going to give us away faster. Cut the chatter, BrainPals only
from here on out. You get me?"
get you," I said.
A," Watson said.
Viveros said. The shield finally failed, and the field separating
human and Consu was instantly streaked with the trails of rockets
which had been sighted and readied for hours. The concussive burps
of their explosions were immediately followed by human screams and
the metallic chirps of Consu. For a few seconds there was nothing
but smoke and silence; then a long, serrated cry as the Consu
surged forward to engage the humans, who in turn kept their
positions and tried to cut down as many Consu as they could before
their two fronts collided.
get to it," Viveros said. And with that she raised her Empee,
sighted it on some far-distant Consu, and began to fire. We
to prepare for battle.
systems check your MP-35 Infantry Rifle. This is the easy part;
MP-35s are self-monitoring and self-repairing, and can, in a
pinch, use material from an ammunition block as raw material to
fix a malfunction. Just about the only way you can permanently
ruin an Empee is to place it in the path of a firing maneuvering
thruster. Inasmuch as you're likely to be attached to your weapon
at the time, if this is the case, you have other problems to worry
put on your war suit. This is the standard self-sealing
body-length unitard that covers everything but the face. The
unitard is designed to let you forget about your body for the
length of the battle. The "fabric" of organized nanobots
lets in light for photosynthesis and regulates heat; stand on an
artic floe or a Saharan sand dune and the only difference your
body notes is the visual change in scenery. If you somehow manage
to sweat, your unitard wicks it away, filters it and stores the
water until you can transfer it to a canteen. You can deal with
urine this way too. Defecating in your unitard is generally not
a bullet in your gut (or anywhere else), and the unitard stiffens
at the point of impact and transfers the energy across the surface
of the suit, rather than allowing the bullet to burrow through.
This is massively painful but better than letting a bullet
ricochet merrily through your intestines. This only works up to a
point, alas, so avoiding enemy fire is still the order of the day.
your belt, which includes your combat knife, your multipurpose
tool, which is what a Swiss army knife wants to be when it grows
up, an impressively collapsible personal shelter, your canteen, a
week's worth of energy wafers, and three slots for ammo blocks.
Smear your face with a nanobot-laden cream that interfaces with
your unitard to share environmental information. Switch on your
camouflage. Try to find yourself in the mirror.
open a BrainPal channel to the rest of your squad and leave it
open until you return to the ship or you die. I thought I was
pretty smart to think of this in boot camp but it turns out to be
one of the holiest of unofficial rules during the heat of battle.
BrainPal communication means no unclear commands or signals -- and
no speaking to give away your position. If you hear a CDF soldier
during the heat of battle, it's because he is either stupid or
screaming because he's been shot.
only drawback to BrainPal communication is that your BrainPal can
also send emotional information if you're not paying attention.
This can be distracting if you suddenly feel like your going to
piss yourself in fright, only to realize it's not you who's about
to cut loose on the bladder, but your squadmate. It's also
something none of your squadmates will ever let you live down.
only to your squadmates -- try to keep a channel open to
your entire platoon and suddenly 60 people are cursing, fighting
and dying inside your head. You do not need this.
forget everything except to follow orders, kill anything that's
not human and stay alive. The CDF makes it simple to do this; for
the first two years of service, every soldier is infantry, no
matter if you were a janitor or surgeon, senator or street bum in
your previous life. If you make it through the first two years,
then you get the chance to specialize, to earn a permanent
colonial billet instead of wander from battle to battle, and to
fill in the niche and support roles every military body has. But
for two years, all you have to do is go where they tell you, stay
behind your rifle and kill and not be killed. It's simple, but
simple isn't the same as easy.
took two shots to bring down a Consu soldier. This was new -- none
of the intelligence on them mentioned personal shielding. But
something was allowing them to take the first hit; it sprawled
them on whatever you might consider to be their ass, but they were
up again in a matter of seconds. So two shots; one to take them
down, and one to keep them down.
shots in sequence on the same moving target is not easily
accomplished when you're firing across a few hundred meters of
very busy battleground. After figuring this one out, I had Asshole
create a specialized firing routine that shot two bullets on one
trigger pull, the first a hollow-tip, and the second with an
explosive charge. The specification was relayed to my Empee
between shots; one second I was squeezing off single standard
issue rifle ammo, the next I was shooting my Consu killer special.
loved my rifle.
forwarded the firing specification to Watson and Viveros; Viveros
forwarded it up the chain of command. Within about a minute, the
battlefield was peppered with the sound of rapid double shots,
followed by dozens of Consu puffing out as the explosive charges
strained their internal organs against the insides of their
carapaces. It sounded like popcorn popping. I glanced over at
Viveros. She was emotionlessly sighting and shooting. Watson was
firing and grinning like a boy who just won a stuffed animal at
the state farm BB shoot.
oh -- sent Viveros. We're spotted get down--
Watson said, and poked his head up. I grabbed him and pulled down
as the rockets slammed into the boulders we'd been using for
cover. We were pelted with newly-formed gravel. I looked up just
in time to see a chunk of boulder the size of a bowling ball
twirling madly down towards my skull. I swatted at it without
thinking; the suit went hard down the length of my arm and the
chunk flew off like a lazy softball. My arm ached; in my other
life I'd be the proud owner of three new, short, likely terribly
misaligned arm bones. I wouldn't be doing that again.
shit, that was close," said Watson.
up," I said, and sent to Viveros. What now? --
tight -- she sent and took her multipurpose tool of her belt.
She ordered it into a mirror than used it to peek over the edge of
her boulder. Six no seven on their way up --
was a sudden krump close by. Make that five -- she
corrected, and closed up her tool. Set for grenades then follow
up then we move --
nodded, Watson grinned, and when Viveros sent Go -- we all
pumped grenades over the boulders. I counted three each; after
nine explosions I exhaled, prayed, popped up and saw the remains
of one Consu, another dragging itself dazedly away from our
position, and two scrambling for cover. Viveros got the wounded
one; Watson and I each plugged one of the other two.
to the party, you shitheads!" Watson whooped, and then
bobbled up exultantly over his boulder just in time to get it in
the face from the fifth Consu, who had gotten ahead of the
grenades and had stayed low while we mopped up its friends. The
Consu leveled a barrel at Watson's nose and fired; Watson's face
cratered inward and then outward as a geyser of SmartBlood and
tissue that used to be Watson's head sprayed over the Consu.
Watson's unitard, designed to stiffen when hit by projectiles, did
just that when the shot hit the back of his hood, pressuring the
shot, the SmartBlood, and bits of skull, brain and BrainPal back
out the only readily available opening.
didn't know what hit him. The last thing he sent through his
BrainPal channel was a wash of emotion that could best be
described as disoriented puzzlement, the mild surprise of someone
who knows he's seeing something he wasn't expecting but hasn't
figured out what it is. Then his connection was cut off, like a
data feed suddenly unexpectedly shut down.
Consu who shot Watson sang as it blew his face apart. I had left
my translation circuit on, and so I saw Watson's death subtitled,
the word Redeemed repeated over and over while bits of his
head formed weeping droplets on the Consu's thorax. I screamed and
fired. The Consu slammed backwards and then its body exploded as
bullet after bullet dug under its thoracic plate and detonated. I
figured I wasted 30 rounds on an already dead Consu before I
Viveros said, switching back to her voice to snap me out of
whatever I was in. "More on the way. Time to move. Let's
about Watson?" I asked.
him," Viveros said. "He's dead and you're not and
there's no one to mourn him out here anyway. We'll come for the
body later. Let's go. Let's stay alive."
won. The double-bullet rifle technique thinned out the Consu herd
by a substantial amount before they got wise and moved to switch
tactics, falling back to launch rocket attacks rather than to make
another frontal assault. After several hours of this the Consu
fell back completely and fired up their shield, leaving behind a
squad to ritually commit suicide, signaling the Consu' acceptance
of their loss. After they had plunged their ceremonial knives into
their brain cavity, all that was left was to collect our dead and
what wounded had been left in the field.
the day, 2nd Platoon came though pretty well; two dead, including
Watson, and four wounded, only one seriously. She'd be spending
the next month growing back her lower intestine, while the other
three would be up and back on duty in a matter of days. All things
considered, things could have been worse. A Consu armored
hovercraft had rammed its way toward 4th Platoon, Company C's
position and detonated, taking sixteen of them with it, including
the platoon commander and two squad leaders, and wounding much of
the rest of the platoon. If 4th Platoon's lieutenant weren't
already dead, I'd suspect he'd be wishing he were after a
clusterfuck like that.
we received an all clear from Lt. Keyes, I went back to get
Watson. A group of eight-legged scavengers were already at him; I
shot one and that encouraged the rest to disperse. They had made
impressive progress on in him in a short amount of time; I was
sort of darkly surprised at how much less someone weighed after
you subtracted his head and much of his soft tissues. I put what
was left of him in a fireman's carry and started on the couple of
klicks to the temporary morgue. I had to stop and vomit only once.
spied me on the way in. "Need any help?" he said, coming
up alongside me.
fine," I said. "He's not very heavy anymore."
is it?" Alan said.
him," Alan said, and grimaced. "We'll, I'm sure
someone somewhere will miss him."
not to get all weepy on me," I said. "How did you do
bad," Alan said. "I kept my head down most of the time,
poked my rifle up every now and then and shot a few rounds in the
general direction of the enemy. I may have hit something. I don't
you listen to the death chant before the battle?"
course I did," Alan said. "It sounded like two freight
trains mating. It's not something you can choose not to
I said. "I mean, did you get a translation? Did you listen to
what it was saying?"
Alan said. "I'm not sure I like their plan for converting us
to their religion, seeing as it involves dying and all."
CDF seems to think it's just ritual. Like it's a prayer they
recite because it's something they've always done," I said.
do you think?" Alan asked.
jerked my head back to indicate Watson. "The Consu that
killed him was screaming 'redeemed, redeemed,' as loud as he
could, and I'm sure he'd have done the same while he was gutting
me. I'm thinking the CDF is underestimating what's going on here.
I think the reason the Consu don't come back after one of these
battles is because they think they've lost. I don't think this
battle is really about winning or losing. By their lights, this
planet is now consecrated by blood. I think they think they own
why don't they occupy it?"
it's not time," I said. "Maybe they have to wait until
some sort of Armageddon. But my point is, I don't think the CDF
knows whether the Consu consider this their property now or not. I
think somewhere down the line, they're going to be mightily
I'll buy that," Alan said. "Every military I've ever
heard of has a history of smugness. But what do you propose to do
Alan, I haven't the slightest idea," I said. "Other than
to try to be long dead when it happens."
an entirely different, less depressing subject," Alan said,
"Good job thinking up the firing solution for the battle.
Some of us were really getting pissed off that we'd shoot those
bastards and they'd just get up and keep coming. You're going to
get your drinks brought for you for the next couple of
don't pay for drinks," I said. "This is an all-expense
tour of Hell, if you'll recall."
if we did, you would," Alan said.
sure it's not that big of a deal," I said, and then noticed
that Alan had stopped and was standing at attention. I looked up
and saw Viveros, Lt. Keyes and some officer I didn't recognize
striding towards me. I stopped and waited for them to reach me.
Lt. Keyes said.
I said. "Please forgive the lack of salute, sir. I'm carrying
a dead body to the morgue."
where they go," Keyes said, and motioned at the corpse.
"Who is that?"
him," Keyes said. "That didn't take very long,
was excitable, sir," I said.
suppose he was," Keyes said. "Well, anyway. Perry, this
is Lt. Colonel Rybicki, the 233rd's commander."
I said. "Sorry about not saluting."
dead body, I know," said Rybicki. "Son, I just wanted to
congratulate you on your firing solution today. You saved a lot of
time and lives. Those Consu bastards keep switching things up on
us. Those personal shields were a new touch and they were giving
us a hell of a lot of trouble there. I'm putting you in for a
commendation, private. What do you think about that?"
you, sir," I said. "But I'm sure someone else would have
figured out eventually."
but you figured it out first, and that counts for something."
we get back to the Modesto, I hope you'll let an old
infantry man buy you a drink, son."
like that, sir," I said. I saw Alan smirk in the background.
then. Congratulations again." Rybicki motioned at Watson.
"And sorry about your friend."
you, sir." Alan saluted for the both of us. Rybicki saluted
back, and wheeled off, followed by Keyes. Viveros turned back to
me and Alan.
seem amused," Viveros said to me.
was just thinking that it's been about fifty years since anyone
called me 'son,'" I said.
smiled, and indicated Watson. "You know where you're taking
him?" She asked.
just over that ridge," I said. "I'm going to drop off
Watson and then I'd like to catch the first transport back to the Modesto,
if that's okay."
Perry," Viveros said. "You're the hero of the day. You
can do anything you want." She turned to go.
Viveros," I said. "Is it always like this?"
turned back. "Is what always like this?"
I said. "War. Battles. Fighting."
Viveros said, and then snorted. "Hell, no, Perry. Today was a
cakewalk. This is as easy as it gets." And then she trotted
off, highly amused.
was how my first battle went. My era of war had begun.
about those extras you promised?
Here's one: An essay I wrote on writing, in the wake of finishing Old
Man's War, and after I had gotten some comments from my
Lessons From Heinlein
A number of readers have commented that Old Man's War is strongly reminiscent of two classic science fiction novels: Joe Haldeman's
The Forever War and Robert Heinlein's Starship
Troopers. In both cases, the comparison is deeply flattering, although in the case of
it's an entirely coincidental thing, since I haven't read the novel and
(horrific as it is for an sf reader and writer to admit) I'm only
vaguely aware of the plot. I'm aware there's a war going on, and I
think there's the matter of long distances taking a long time to
travel, but beyond that -- nope. Drawing a blank (although I have read
other Haldeman stories and have enjoyed them, which is how I know the
comparison is flattering).
The Starship Troopers correlation, on the other hand, is emphatically
not a coincidence, since Old Man's War
is modeled after that novel in several ways. The most obvious is of
course the military setting and the introduction of a starry-eyed
protagonist into that milieu, and the subsequent progression from
recruit to grunt to seasoned veteran. More generally, however, Old Man's War follows roughly the format of a number of Heinlein "juvenile" novels (of which
was one originally): It's meant to have the "boy's own adventure" feel
that RAH jammed into those books. One could easily say it's a classic
"juvy," just with a 75-year-old as its hero.
adopted the "juvy" format for a couple of reasons. First and foremost,
I like the format, which lends itself to classically linear
storytelling and a pace that allows the reader to get comfortable with
characters and situations. Second, I like the irony of marrying the
format to the story of a senior citizen, whose motivations and
interests are emphatically not the same as those of, say, Starship Troopers' Johnny Rico, who is fresh out of high school when he joins the military.
The flip side of so consciously appropriating such a well-known sf format as Heinlein's juveniles is that
Old Man's War
cannot be accused of being breathlessly original, either in concept or
execution. I think that's a fair enough assessment. To speak of novel
in musical terms, it's best described as a variation on a theme or an
improvisational riff off a classic tune. I don't think there's anything
wrong with approaching a science fiction novel in this way; writers
intentionally chain themselves to established formats all the time, or
re-imagine old concepts and old stories in new, subtly altered ways.
Given the persistence of Heinlein juvies on the bookshelves, there's a
market for the format. I think readers will note the points of
departure from the original formula and judge them on how successfully
the riffing works.
In a general sense, I think Heinlein is a fine writing teacher -- his
enduring popularity after many of his sf contemporaries find themselves
slipping out of print suggests there's something about the writing that
is atemporally appealing; that is to say, as fresh today as when it was
first written. And whatever that is, it's worth study and worth
emulating (so long as it's married to one's own individual narrative
gifts; no point writing exactly like the man, after all).
But one has to be careful not to focus on the wrong lessons. One of
science fiction's misfortunes is that what many people take away from
Heinlein is the man's penchant for "hard SF" wonkiness and his
polyamorous libertarianism. Few of the writers who try to replicate
these aspects of Heinlein's corpus do it very well, and indeed, with
the latter of these subjects, Heinlein himself had a tendency to go
overboard. In any event, not everyone likes reading (or writing) hard
SF or polyamorous libertarianism.
More enduring lessons from Heinlein come in how the man handled
characters -- both in how they existed in his writing and how they
talked and interacted with other people. If I could boil down what I
see as Heinlein's Theory of Characters. It would come to these four lessons:
1. Your Characters Don't Exist in the Story; Your Story Exists For Your Characters.
Starship Troopers concerns itself with obligation and duty, but it's
about Johnny Rico's development as a person who recognizes the importance of these qualities.
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
addresses freedom and the cost of achieving it, but in the context of
the relationships between its main characters (which include a
self-aware computer). Friday mulls over what makes humans human by
providing us a warmly human heroine who worries that she's not human at
all. The character is the context; Heinlein books that are more about ideas than people (such as
I Will Fear No Evil or Job: A Comedy of Justice) aren't anywhere as good.
2. Make Room in Your Characters For Your Reader.
One of Heinlein's great talents was creating characters that the
readers felt they could be, either because the character was a more or
less average person (Troopers' Johnny Rico is a perfect example of
this), or because even if they were special in some way they were still
nevertheless subject to uncertainty and doubt (Friday fits here). Heinlein was also smart about
immersing his reader into his characters by degrees, rather than
frontloading the character development and dumping a complete character
into the reader's lap before the reader knew how to handle it. It's
like boiling a frog: Do it slowly enough and the frog doesn't realize
it's in hot water. By the same token, if you get your reader
comfortable with your character bit by bit, by the end you can do
anything you want and the reader will willingly follow.
3. Make Your Characters Talk Like People Talk.
This is not to say that you populate your characters' speech with
"ummms" and "uuuuhs" and fractured sentences and grammar. But you do
help your readers by not torturing them with strange usage. Nearly all
of Heinlein's books feature recognizably contemporary language usage,
and that fact is a great part of their appeal -- the reader can focus
on the story rather than the language used to tell it. This is probably
the lesson that will be the most ignorable, since not every story wants
or needs language with an easy-to-read, contemporary feel. But on the
other hand, unless you've got a reason to make your language difficult,
4. Make Your Characters Act Like People Act.
A corollary to lesson three: Give them doubts, fears, amusements, petty
fears, indecisions, conflicting thoughts, space to learn and grow. This
note is especially evident in Heinlein's juveniles, which makes sense
because their "heroes" are meant to be teenagers. But Heinlein does it
with his adult novels, too -- Valentine Michael Smith famously has to
learn how to laugh in Stranger in a Strange Land and copes with a continual failure to fundamentally grasp human nature. The plot of
depends on its character's doubts and needs. Characters who are
recognizably people are a comfort to reader, since it implicitly
suggests that extraordinary things can happen even when one is having
Now, bear in mind that not
every story is going to be well served by this Theory of Characters.
One major science fiction classic that would be flatly ruined by it
would be Frank Herbert's Dune, an outsized story if there ever was one,
in which even the primary character of Paul Atreides is ultimately
little more than a very mobile and integral chess piece. One also
shudders to think of the mess this theory would have made of the Lord of the Rings books.
But by attempting to incorporate the ideas found in this theory, your
average writer has the opportunity to try something interesting:
Incorporate big events into stories on a human scale. Heinlein did this
on a regular basis, even in his juvenile fiction -- and indeed the
format of his juvenile books feels implicitly designed to support this
This theory also informs Old Man's War.
It touches on topics such as the utility of war, the responsibilities
we have towards others (particularly those we don't know and will
probably never know), and the uses of both youth and old age. But
ultimately what it's about (or what I think it's about; as a writer I
cheerfully acknowledge that readers don't have to get out of the novel
what I wrote into it) are the relationships that make us fully human.
One of my favorite comments about the novel came my friend Erin, who
read an early version of the novel and noted that the novel comes on
like a sci-fi action thriller but is really a love story. This is
exactly right and I was thrilled that this fact came through in the
Whether Old Man's War
is actually successful is another matter entirely, and I'll leave that
up to the reader to decide. Certainly it doesn't try to be exactly like
Heinlein. For better or worse, I'm my own writer, and even if I could write exactly like Heinlein, why would I
want to? He left enough books lying around. But as I've said, I'm happy
to play with some of the forms he's championed and see what I can do
with them. If you're thinking of writing a book, think about fiddling
with them as well. You might be surprised (and happy) with what you
come up with.
sold. Where do I buy this book?
It should be
available at any bookstore, and if it's not, you should tell them
to order for you (they love ordering stuff. Just ask them!). Or
you can get it online. Here it is on Amazon,
Thanks, and I
hope you enjoy it!
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