Bite-Sized: John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War

I completed John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War lately.

There’s a rule that Scalzi seems to follow, and it falls in line with another book which I completed lately – Frederik Pohl’s Gateway. That rule is – alien randomicity is fun. This also seems to be the principle behind Roadside Picnic (and any Stalker related material) as well as the Call of Cthulhu RPG.

While Pohl’s novel was all about exploring the psychological consequences of randomicity and the greater unknown on a person’s head though – Scalzi’s Old Man’s War is simply about milking as many alien worlds and battles for all the fun you can have, while throwing snarky joking characters into the mix, and expounding on all those general themes of military SF like the horrors of war etc…

So that makes Scalzi more or less the minimal standard for having character-oriented SF that uses its ideas for something more entertaining. It’s a pity – I also picked up the Three Body Problem lately (I’m on a military SF binge for some reason) – and that was astounding in its ideas and the science was probably ten times harder but it didn’t reach the level of fun that Scalzi was able to generate in 300 pages.

An issue to some would probably be that the character voices and personalities aren’t exactly well-distinguished. The snark carries over to more or less everyone in the novel. This, though, isn’t necessarily a problem if you know how to play it correctly. Romeo seems to suffer from this at times too, when he’s trying to maximize the jokes in the scenario and all of the characters start doing the same high-flown Romeo comedy exchange. He gets over this hump by relying on basic character stereotypes and modulating them away from their premises in order to develop something else. The rest of it comes in the strength of his themes, poetry, and psychological observations.

But Scalzi is touching on the same kinds of things that you’d expect in a lot of other Military SF, like the death of comrades and facing up against uncertain and inhuman enemies. That’s his limit. A higher level writer would probably be mixing up things that don’t seem as central to the narrative, but builds up the narrative still. Lately I’ve been diving into Kundera as well, and he’s a writer that makes frequent digressions and ironic ruminations, drawing from other philosophy, literature, and using metafictive techniques – but he still manages to maintain an emotional base because of how he fits it all together – and isn’t overbearing in his poetic prose.

I’m not, of course, saying that a person needs to have that kind of repertoire to be a good writer. Pohl tried to create a second layer to Gateway, for example, by interspersing a conversation between a therapist robot and the protagonist in between the action. The problem in that was that it felt like Pohl was writing in that ‘new wave sci-fi’ vein where everything is steeped deep in Freudian sexual angst and stuff like that. It made those portions of the novel a drag to go through.

But, if that kind of ‘experimentation’ is the alternative – then it may be a good thing that Scalzi doesn’t try to over-reach and focuses on merely making gripping good fun.

I also have to do a brief examination on the Action front. Scalzi does come up with some interesting (and also funny) battles and innovative solutions. Yet you won’t really see any of the ‘grand skirmishes’ that comes with other kinds of insane military-focused action fiction. Neither does he understand the art of Chuuni, so he doesn’t milk the action beats for all their worth. The battles will either be descriptive with character thoughts laden in, or they’ll lead up to a punch-line (e.g. Bender getting fried while trying to open diplomatic communication with an alien race).

It seems to be that the secret to writing good action is actually the opposite of the sacred “Show, don’t Tell” rule. That’s because good action is, really, anything but the action itself. Action is fun because there are extended stratagems based on human intellect behind what appears to be a mere series of physical moves. You wouldn’t find a chess game, sports or fighting game fun unless you knew the exact value-exchanges and tactical intentions of the two players.

So there was this scene in Old Man’s War which was five one-on-one battles between top-class supersoldiers and aliens with nasty bladed arms. The actual depiction of the battles themselves were nothing but a flurry of body part descriptions. There was no explanation (the same kind Kawakami might pull) as to why these moves were important. Neither was there any overtly cool/Chuuni descriptions – except maybe a bit in the last battle. Perhaps the later books in the series will have larger and cooler battles, but for now it doesn’t seem like it.

Of course it could also be because they want to convey all the ‘horror of war’ stuff and tone down on the fun action aspect – making all the battles either gritty or ironic dark humor – but those aren’t really mutually exclusive since Hanachirasu can pull it off while keeping both grit and dark humor.

Overall Scalzi definitely stands as the basic template for how to do fun but also dramatic and gritty Military SF – but he also represents quite a few things that have to be unlearned for anyone who’s planning to break the bounds of the genre. At the very least – he created that magical effect within me where I thought I would be just having a light read before sleeping, and found myself going through all 300 pages in a single session.

It also reminds me that I still have yet to touch Legend of the Galactic Heroes.