Old Man's War: The Distaff View
Regulars here know that a few days ago, I gushed over John Scalzi’s novel Old Man’s War, calling it, among other things, “an old-fashioned pulpy joyride”. I thought it was a hoot. So much of a hoot, in fact, that I convinced Karen to read it. She zipped through it in two days, called it entertaining, and set it aside. A day later, she came in to the office and declared that she’d been thinking things over in the shower that morning and had decided that Old Man’s War was derivative, war-mongering, simplistic, and morally bankrupt, and that all extant copies of it should be burned. Mind you, I suspect Scalzi would be delighted if some extant copies were burned – preferably in Mississippi, and ideally with tons of publicity. Burned books never go out of print, and the smoke casts an unnaturally favorable patina on all remaining copies. Just look at that bit of slag, Catcher in the Rye. (Where do the ducks go in the winter? South, dickwad!) But back to Karen. I think she has an interesting viewpoint, and I’d like to share it with you. Here are her arguments.
1. The book reads like one long ad for the US military. The recruits in OMW are outfitted with new, young bodies that are faster, stronger, and have heightened senses relative to us ordinary humans. Karen finds an uncomfortable resonance between these soldiers and the folks depicted in those commercials showing US recruits over-achieving, physically and militarily. The few, the proud.
2. Some of the aliens – the Consu in particular – have a discomfiting similarity to traditional US enemies. They are religious fanatics who feel they will, with death, go to a better place (think suicide bombers, from kamikaze to present day Iraqi insurgents). The Consu religion is an odd blend of Islam and Buddhism. They believe in reincarnation, but they also believe their death will improve them.
3. Early in their training, the Colonial Defense Force recruits are taught that the cute, fuzzy, Bambi-like alien is the one to fear. (Like many of Scalzi’s aliens, the Salong – ‘a vaguely deerlike creature with cunning, almost human hands, and a quizzical face that seemed to speak of peace and wisdom’ – has a taste for human flesh.) Karen: “This provides a justification for soldiers to kill innocent-appearing people, because you just can’t know who is and isn’t your enemy.”
4. The protagonist, John Perry, suffers pangs of conscience after stepping on hordes of inch-tall Covandu. His lieutenant’s response is, essentially: We all felt that way at some point. We all got over it. Then there’s a redirect, and our protag substitutes sadness over his dead wife for his moral misgivings re: being turned into an inhuman killing machine.
5. The military commanders are blind-sided from time to time, but they never screw up through their own faults. They know best. We never learn the brass’s motives, and the only soldier to question those motives ends up dead in a hurry (see 6). There’s an elaborate scheme for justifying all of the bloodshed, shunting responsibility away from the humans, onto the aliens. Message: It’s not our fault. We’re in a war for our own survival.
6. There is no intelligent, respected counter-voice to the military party line. The only soldier who thinks diplomacy deserves a chance is an obvious straw man, an inexperienced asshole who must be motivated not by a desire to ‘give peace a chance’ but by his own ego. “We had all decided that Private Senator Ambassador Secretary Bender was well and truly full of crap.” You know from the start that this guy ain’t gonna end well. After the inevitable happens (at the hands of a chanting “congregation” of civilians – another hint of religious fanaticism), our protagonist says, “He’d probably say he died for what he believed in.” His superior officer – and the only person even a bit sympathetic to Bender’s point of view – declares, “Bender died for Bender.”
This superior officer, Viveros, believes Bender had the right goal (peace) but the wrong methods. Her plan is to “Stay alive. Make it through our term of infantry service. Join officer training and work our way up. Become the people who are giving the orders, not just following them.” In the meantime, it’s business as usual. There’s no room in this man’s army for order-disobeying creeps like Bender.
By the way: after the alien civilians take out Bender, they thereby become enemy combatants and are promptly mown down.
7. Karen thinks the clincher is the fact that Scalzi has agreed to provide to our service men and women, free of charge, an electronic version of OMW. A quote from Scalzi’s blog: “From my perspective I may give up a few dollars in sales, but these folks are giving up a lot more doing their thing in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is just a small way to say ‘thanks.’”
I’m inclined to take him at face value. Karen sees darker motives (conspiracy-loving vixen that she is). She says, “Why do you think he’s doing this? Because he sees them as his intended readership.” My counter-argument: anyone who wants to read your book is a worthwhile reader. But she worries that OMW will, by its gung ho mentality, encourage our troops to disengage their brains, just follow orders, and (potentially) commit atrocities.
***There, Karen: does that about sum it up? (Karen: “Pretty much. Since I didn’t read it with a hatchet job in mind, there might be other things.”) For my part: I see her point, but for me, OMW was sufficiently SF that I didn’t read in any deeper meanings. I thought it was a romp . . . but hey, I’ve said that already. Funny thing is, I had just the opposite reaction to the film Starship Troopers. Though some folks labeled it a parody of jingoism, I didn’t think the parody was sufficiently obvious. Compare that to Team America: World Police, in which the author’s message is summed up in a weltanschauung composed of dicks, pussies, and assholes*. Although a dick might go around screwing lots of pussies, it takes a dick to screw an asshole; and if the dick doesn’t screw the assholes of the world, then those assholes are just going to shit all over everything. Hard to miss the satire in that line. One parting comment. Search Scalzi’s blog on words like ‘Iraq’ and ‘Bush’ and you’ll discover he’s as big a lefty as yours truly. Why, then, would he write something as reactionary as OMW? I don’t know, but I suspect he didn’t have any dark motives; I think he merely tried to write a fun novel in the tradition of Starship Troopers. By that metric, OMW is a success. D. *I defy anyone to use ‘weltanschauung’ in another sentence which includes the words dicks, pussies, and assholes.