Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Science Fiction for Newcomers: Old Man's War

A while back I ranted that it was damned hard to find a science fiction story I could recommend to sci-fi novice friends of mine as a ‘jumping in’ point.  Since then I’ve immersed myself in science fiction – both to find a good starting point and because I would have anyway.  I’ve read books that are amazingly complex yet never lose touch with their humanity (A Fire Upon the Deep), grim takes upon what makes us who we really are (Altered Carbon), and the sometimes terrible deeds required to keep utopia in bloom (Use of Weapons).  Through all of this, I found science fiction that challenged me and kept me coming back for more, but nothing that I could hand to a fresh fish and say, “Here ya go, Charlie, get reading!”

Then I picked up Old Man’s War by John Scalzi and voila! I had found the object of my quest.

John Perry signed up to join the military when he turned 75.  There were rumors of war raging out in the stars, colonies that needed defending, and word was that the Colonial Defense Force would supply you with a brand new body if you signed up.  A brand new young body.  Having recently lost his wife and feeling no real ties to Earth, John bids adieu to Terra Firma and heads off into the unknown.

The Earth of John Perry’s time is very similar to our own.  One day he’s living somewhere in Ohio, and the next he’s tossed out into the stars with no real knowledge of what awaits him.  From this vantage point, he takes the reader with him through orientation, meeting new friends, and finding out just what is required of you if you want that beautiful young body.  Old Man’s War introduces the concepts of consciousness transference, sterile post-human existence, the warlike nature of intelligent beings in general and humans in particular, and the interstellar land-grab, just to name a few.  However, the book does all this with grace and humor, and never once becomes heavy-handed.  By filtering all these serious ideas through the smart, amiable John Perry, Scalzi is able to cram in a hell of a lot of broad science fiction elements without it ever becoming A Message or an infodump (two of the things I dread most in science fiction, personally).

This is the kind of military science fiction that even sci-fi novices should be able to relate to.  It’s similar to Stargate or even Transformers in that “there’s a whole galaxy of life out there and here I never knew” sort of way.  Once you’ve read Old Man’s War, you’re ready for the second book The Ghost Brigades, which is heavier on the science and a touch more ‘out there’ on the protagonist.  The two books together do a great job of spinning you up to light speed.
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  1. Never read this one. I'll have to pick it up.

    I recommend "The Fuzzy Papers" by H. Beam Piper. Or the complete collection, just called "Complete Fuzzy."

    It is science fiction, but its very light on the science fiction. It struggles more with the concept of sapience in the fuzzies. As the Charter for the space corporation can not mine and destroy a planet with a sapient being on it.

    It is a very good read, introduces a lot of concepts used in other science fiction, while still not feeling too sci-fi at all.

  2. What about Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card?

  3. @Kanth: Yes! I love Little Fuzzy. Heck, Little Fuzzy itself is even free for ereaders since it's in the public domain.

    @Anne: You know, I've recommended Ender's Game to a couple of people but at this point, the concept seems to feel a bit dated. Or in some cases, they aren't interested in reading about a kid. My boyfriend - who is mostly a non-fiction type of guy but has just discovered epic fantasy - found it tough going and put it down halfway through. I'm going to make him read Old Man's War once he finishes A Dance with Dragons.