Well, part of the point of re-reading this was to take a small break from more dense stuff, so I will keep this short:
Scalzi acknowledges his debt to Robert Heinlein, and on this third read I still don’t know how deeply that acknowledgement is meant to go: As a collection of military SF tropes, yes, Old Man’s War is Heinleinesque. As a matter of tone, yes, that too. As a matter of world view, it’s a little harder nut to crack.
When I was serving, every soldier who read was probably reading Tom Clancy, a submarine nerd who glorified war without any apparent reflection. He probably helped me maintain a sort of moral equilibrium because he was so plainly deluded about the nature of the military and the people in it, or at least so thoroughly saw it as his mission to uphold the “warriors” he was depicting as moral paragons, that it was not possible to read any of his output without looking around the barracks at your actual everyday reality, snort, and keep reading to see how the story came out.
Scalzi is not Tom Clancy. He makes references to a “bad war” in his future history, and is careful to note that his main character was against that one, but for the nightmare Hobbesian struggle that is the war consuming the wider galaxy because it is an existential matter for humanity.
Tonally, Old Man’s War is sort of the military SF equivalent of, say, Zombieland: When his colonial troopers go to war against a race of one-inch-tall people, tossing them into buildings and stepping on them; or when an invading race brings along celebrity chefs to televise the ways you can cook a Terran, you’re sort of cued to relax a little: Scalzi’s galaxy at war is a little absurd, even if he remains more reverent of his upstream material than Paul Verhoeven was.
There’s a grabbag of other tropey classic and military SF stuff that might or might not work for people, but that are key to the military SF experience: battlefield promotions for gumption and smarts, humorless bureaucratic foils, the drill sergeant who softens up at the end, etc. etc. There’s at least one scene where the subversive self-awareness that keeps Old Man’s War on the right side of the moral scale yanked me out of the story.
So, basically the perfect “cooldown” book. There’s a little food for thought and it’s more than a slavish homage to what came before. Sometimes it spends more time than it should trying to distinguish itself from its upstreams. It doesn’t really leap into the plot, but it understands that a lot of the appeal of SF to its biggest fans is in the world-building and EPCOT-like tour of the future, so it’s not a huge ding that we spend some time gawking at the scenery.
Finished just in time for the weekend, and something more dense.
Finished reading: Old Man’s War by John Scalzi 📚