In the second instalment of these Hugo musings, we have space battles, belligerent aliens (or are they?), and lots of green-skinned sex in Old Man's War, by John Scalzi. War: what is it good for?
Quite a bit, apparently, especially for the elderly. Who wants to grow old gracefully, anyway? Not John Perry. At the age of 75 he trades in the remains of his life on Earth for the alluring option of a second youth, the first ten years of which are to be spent on active duty in the messy, endemic intergalactic war between Earth's Colonial Defence Force (CDF) and, well, everyone else within flying distance. Not, you might think, an entirely attractive prospect, what with a CDF mortality rate of 75% - but worth it, we are repeatedly told, when the only alternative is decay and senility. It's better to burn out than to fade away, presumably.
Trading in [ageing] for a decade of fresh life in a combat zone begins to look like a hell of a bargain. Especially because if you don't, in a decade you'll be 85, and the only difference between you and a raisin will be that while you're both wrinkled and without a prostate, the raisin never had a prostate to begin with.
Upon joining up, Perry soon discovers that 'second youth' means his mind in a whole new body, genetically modified for combat and endurance, that the intergalactic war is much more messy than he could have imagine - and that he has a certain talent for warfare.
An admission: this is militaristic SF to the nth degree, and as such not really my cup of tea. Still, Old Man's War has much to recommend it: a droll, conversational first-person narration, fast-paced action, inventive alien cultures (insofar as we glimpse them in between explosions), and plenty of humour to leaven the machismo. (There's also intertextuality galore, of course, from the overall Heinleinism of it to the throwaway in-jokes like Privates Gaiman and McKean...). Particularly in the early stages, Perry views events with wry, irrepressible amusement, revelling in his new abilities and taking nothing too seriously:
Sixty pairs of eyes focused on a white square on the wall. Slowly, it began to move.
"I can't believe I went into space for this," Harry said.
"Maybe things will pick up," I said. "If we're lucky, we'll get another white square to look at."
A second white square appeared on the wall.
"You've been here before, haven't you?" Harry said.
Perry is an engaging protagonist, if a little too prone to wittering on and cracking jokes at every (in)opportunity. Yet the optimism and enthusiasm with which he throws himself in his new life elevates what might otherwise have been a fairly standard military tale, fully exploring what the second chance means to him. Scalzi makes his hero shrewd and cynical but not particularly introspective, capable of deep affection without sentimentality; ultimately, Perry is resilient enough to keep moving on. This is necessary, of course, when one's comrades fall in battle every other chapter; it also keeps Perry's reminiscences about his late wife the right side of maudlin, a humanising touch that doesn't dominate his thoughts.
It also means that - bar sarcastic asides and a single freak-out episode - Perry spends little time pondering the hows, whys and wherefores of his situation. It is a necessary mental trick, I suppose, for a soldier in any era (let alone one in a new body and wholly new environment who knows nothing about who he's fighting) - an unconscious layer of protection between himself and the stark reality of things. But it leaves the reader to do much of the conceptual legwork, and renders the whole thing more... shallow than I'd expected. (I realise, obviously, that I alone am responsible for my expectations). Why are they fighting? What do the other alien races want, besides (perhaps) humankind's territory and occasionally its, um, succulent roasted flesh? Why does the CDF seem to start so many of these wars to 'defend' humankind's colonial possessions?
And isn't anyone just a little creeped out by the fine print on their contracts?
Upon receiving their new body, CDF recruits are given the electronic equivalent of a glossy corporate brochure detailing their benefits and obligations. This was also my personal highlight of the novel, beautifully skewering empty marketing-speak in its the run-down of the product's features:
The result: You'll feel fresher, longer - and better able to perform your duties as a CDF serviceperson! [...] Thanks for your service to the colonies - and enjoy... Your New Body.
It also hints at the rather sinister lack of autonomy available to recipients; these bodies are not purchased, or given, but leased for a specific purpose:
The Defender Series body is designed to provide the CDF with optimum performance its entire operating life.
The prospect of being a prisoner inside one's (new) body is, alas, only implicit, and never really explored; everyone is much too busy running, fighting, eating and shagging to worry about who owns the lovely green skin they're wearing. For the most part, the soldiers live strictly day-to-day, business as usual - if never without humour. I found the gung-ho-ness wearing at times: the perpetually-yelling drill sergeants and comments like "your combat knife, your multipurpose tool, which is what a Swiss army knife wants to be when it grows up" are all a bit tediously macho. That said, such things show that certain basic details never change, even when the war is in space - there will always be ridiculous weapon fetishising, and always officers whose attitude puts me in mind of Wellington's comment in Blackadder the Third ("There's only one way to win a campaign: shout, shout, and shout again!"). It's good fun, at times, but by about two-thirds through I was longing for some sinister conspiracy to emerge. Hey, I'm Generation W (or Z, or whichever letter hasn't been taken yet) - I expect my authority figures as shadowy and mendacious as possible...
One aspect of the grunt's-eye-view that is interestingly employed is the notion of who or what one fights for. While enlisted under the banner of helping defend the human colonies, Perry and friends gradually move beyond this all-too-abstract motivation, to a much more immediate and believeable one: they fight primarily for the sake of those who fight alongside them. This is neatly paralleled by several different plot and conceptual threads regarding replacement, regeneration and such. The most obvious example is the recruits' new bodies; another lies in how swiftly the fallen members of a squad are replaced with fresh cannon fodder, and the survivors' mixed feelings about this. Another centres on a particular alien race, the Consu, and their ideas about war, death, and reincarnation (one of the few instances where what we - and the CDF soldiers - are initially shown is subverted by later revelations).
The final thread on this topic takes the replaceability of individuals to a whole (disturbing) new level, and for a while shows real potential, even if eventually the conspiracy aspects are mumbled away (boo!) in favour of yet more unquestioning acceptance (hiss!). It does, however, offer up some interesting, if very embryonic, ideas about what constitutes identity, and what role the body, so often set as second fiddle to the mind and the emotion, plays in personality formulation. Ideas, it seems, that are to be explored in a sequel...