Saturday, May 21, 2005

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.


Blogger Musmanno said...

I haven't read the Scalzi book, but I took Starship Troopers (the movie) as a parody of jingoism, and based on what I've read on your blog I think I'd be inclined to view OMW in the same way.

5/21/2005 09:14:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It would be nice if you noted at the top of your entry that there may be some plot spoilers to the book in the writeup.

You wrote:

"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."

Ha! But, no, tell me, what did she really think?

I certainly cop to derivative -- that acknowledgement to Robert Heinlein at the end isn't just there for show. The book is in fact explicitly patterned after Starship Troopers. "Simplistic" doesn't particularly bother me, either -- it's not the most complicated book out there. I can understand "war-mongering," although I would note at least a couple of reviews of the book praised it for its anti-war stance, and to my mind "war-mongering" and "anti-war" are both equally accurate, which is to say, not especially. "Morally bankrupt" seems a little harsh.

As preface, there are subtextual things worth noting. The first is that, as I've noted in a number of interviews, the reason I wrote military science fiction here was almost entirely pragmatic: I went into a bookstore and stared at the SF bookshelf to see what was on it as a clue to what was being stocked (and therefore, presumably selling), and what was stocked was military science fiction. QED, I had a better chance of selling a military SF book than other sorts of sf book. And as it turned out, this was a correct assumption.

The second thing is that 95% of the book was written before 9/11 and subsequent wars; everything, in fact, but the last chapter (which was finished in 10/01), and there was no substantial re-editing after the fact. There's no doubt that the book rather conveniently fits the tenor of the times (which, saleswise, is good for me), but the review I read which states that this is book that could have only been written after 9/11 is, well, wrong. Likewise, comparisons to the post 9/11 wars, while an interesting exercise, is not likely to be accurate because the text is not informed by those events.

Additionally, I would be wary of making too many parallels between the geopolitical situation here on earth now and the astropolitical situation in OMW. The astropolitical situation in OMW is extreme -- it posits that known space is filled with sentient races and that almost all of them are hostile to nearly every other race. I chose this formulation because it's extreme, and therefore affords interesting dramatic opportunities, not because I feel it has an analogue to a situation here on earth.

In short, the book was structured a) to sell to publishers b) be entertaining for readers c) not to be especially metaphorical to conditions on Earth.

Now, all of the information above is meta-information, which is to say, it's not available in the text of the book. Based on the available text and knowing nothing else about me as a person (or my political views, etc), Karen's interpretation of the text seems perfectly reasonable, just as some of the anti-war interpretations I've seen seem perfectly reasonable, too. This is one of the fascinating things about being an author: Seeing how people process and interpret one's text.

Now, let me briefly address the points Karen has raised (as enumerated in the article):


1. I don't personally see the book as one long military ad, not in the least because the book explicitly notes the cost of these fresh young bodies -- 80% mortality over ten years -- and then backs it up by killing off the majority of the characters, and greviously wounding the ones it does not kill. A key passage here comes when Sgt. Ruiz notes that these new bodies constitute a bare minimum humans need to hold their own against other hostile races. It's certainly worth noting that the CDF doesn't spring these little details on its recruits until after they sign up. In any event, a book that has all of its main characters dead or wounded seems an odd choice for a recruitment tool.

2. Religion is certainly central to many of the alien races' motivations, as it is with our race, but I would be wary of making too many comparisons between their religions and ones here on Earth. Also, I don't know that I at all agree that they conform to the US' "traditional" enemies' religions, since among other things, most of the great enemies the US has had over the last century have been explicitly non-religious, notably Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia (whose citizens, when they were allowed to express a religious preference, were largely Christian). It's also worth noting that Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath party and Iraq's government was secular. Also, of course, our country's great friends the Saudis practice a particularly stringent form of Islam, so as a practical matter if one wishes to say our enemies are Islamic states, one must also grant that some of our friends are as well.

3. One could look at this section that way, I suppose; I rather think of it as pointing out that the unfamiliar "other" (in this case the scary-looking sea creature) can also be friendly, and one can as easily transfer that metaphor to relate to people here on earth who appear alien to us. The overarching theme, however, is not to judge on appearances but on actions.

4. I see it more of "We all felt that way at some point. We try to remember the things that make us feel human."

5. I don't believe the humans in this universe never screw up on their own; the CDF lost Coral because it underestimated the desire of the Rraey to have access to that planet's resources, and as the consequences of that underestimation take up the latter third of the book, that's fairly significant.

6. I've always personally seen Bender as an example of someone used to getting his way being whacked upside the head by a universe he could persuade to his will, rather than a poster boy for intelligent opposition to war; he's beliefs in peace are fueled by his political opportunism, in other words. Aside from that I think one of the reasons -- contextually speaking -- that one finds few people speaking contrapuntally to the military party line is twofold: It's a volunteer army (i.e., recruits understand they are there to fight), and we spend almost all our time down with the grunts, who are shipped from place to place without a good conception of the larger political picture, and who execute already-settled policy. If we spent more time with the planners, you'd likely see rather more debate over policy.

7. There's no ulterior motive to offering the book for free to military stationed in Iraq/Afghanistan. They're far from home, they're bored, I figured they'd like some reading, and this is what I have to offer. I'd offer to send them "Agent to the Stars," too -- which has absolutely zero military content -- except it's already available for free online, so there's no need to send it. I doubt service members would see the book as an inducement to dehumanize their enemy and commit atrocities, but if one did, my reaction would be: Try them for their crimes and then punt them into prison.

It's worth noting that some of the issues Karen raises here are very likely to be addressed in "The Ghost Brigades," which I'm writing now; it will, among other things, question the proposition that the CDF approach to alien species (i.e., "kill 'em all") is correct or even predicated on reality. Should be fun.



5/21/2005 10:00:00 PM  
Blogger Douglas Hoffman said...

I'd say something erudite, but right now all I can think is -- My God! Scalzi's following my blog!

I fixed the 'spoilers' warning, BTW.

Anyway, thanks for the detailed reply. I, for one, am looking forward to The Ghost Brigades.

Best regards, John.

5/22/2005 12:02:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I struggle with the thought that a book (or, more broadly, any *idea*) should be banned because of what one person suspects others *might* do after reading it.

Who, exactly, are these other people? Name one.

5/22/2005 06:30:00 AM  
Blogger Sabine said...

WOW, Doug - Now I have to go critique To Kill a Mockingbird on my blog so Harper Lee will visit me!

I haven't read all of Mr. Scalzi's comments - I don't read scifi anyway - but I'll come back and do it later. Right now I have to go paint some more #%$*^ cupboards.

I LIKE the husband/wife book review. I think you and Karen should do more of it.

5/22/2005 07:21:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Having served in the army during the first gulf war, all I can say is Scalzi's take on military life in Old Man's War is pretty accurate. I heard plenty of different opinions expressed on why we were there, what we were doing, etc. But at the end of the day, you were there to do your job and you did it without asking why - because you were ordered to, that's why.

Perhaps it is this blind obedience that leads to abuses such as Abu Ghraib. I can certainly attest to the quality of instruction we were given on how to identify lawful vs unlawful orders - about five minutes in eight weeks of basic training. So it didn't really surprise me that such atrocities were committed. To me it represents a breakdown in leadership, and I believe the chain of command should be held more accountable than it has been to date.

As for the book, I would say from a military standpoint the situations are plausible, but less complicated than true military engagements tend to be. But that's ok. He at least got the basics right.

By contrast, I was really pissed when I saw the movie Outbreak. As much as I agreed with the political message it was trying to make, I could not forgive the blatant bullshit of the plot. By not even trying to make the events plausible the movie comes across as little more than unfounded liberal paranoia. To say the writers don't understand the military is a major understatement.

5/22/2005 08:26:00 AM  
Blogger Ted Lemon said...

and ‘Bush’ and

This has nothing to do with the fascinating discussion at hand (I just finished John's book, and as a Buddhist and peacenik, I have to say that it was quite enjoyable and didn't, to me, seem to be promoting war), but are you aware that a reader of your blog who is not running Windows probably sees the above text as "and a-circumflex Euro-symbol tilde Bush a-circumflex Euro-symbol TM-symbol"?

I think you must be using an application that represents opening and closing quotes, apostrophes and the like in a nonstandard character set. Probably everybody who reads your blog on Windows sees what you mean them to see, but if you care about the other 5%, I would suggest using something other than Word to prototype your blog, or at least turn off smart quotes. The weird symbols embedded in the text are quite distracting.

Sorry to pick nits, but I thought you'd want to know, if you don't already.

5/23/2005 11:25:00 AM  
Blogger Douglas Hoffman said...

Thanks, Ted. I did indeed format elsewhere (WordPerfect), which I tend to do on my longer blog entries. I suspect I may be able to fix things by saving as a .txt file, copying-and-pasting from that.

I lean pretty far to the left, and yet I had the same reaction to OMW as you. It's an odd thing indeed. Different strokes.

5/23/2005 12:22:00 PM  
Blogger Rob Gutkowski said...

Well, this review maks me want to read the book even more, but since I am not in Afghanistan ot Iraq right now, I'll have to buy it when it comes out in paperback. (I don't buy hardbacks, they take up too much space in my rucksack.)

Actually it is refreshing to read a review from someone who didn't like the book but so eruditely explains why.

To back up the grunt level comment, during my time in Iraq, I pretty much ignored the debate back home, because it did not matter. What did matter was that I kept myself and my soldiers alivee to complete the mission, let historians sort out the rest.

That being said, I didn't leave my humanity or my ability to discern right from wrong at the border when I eenterd Iraq either.

5/24/2005 07:15:00 AM  
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Anonymous keith taylor said...

The original alalysis (Karen) is without a doubt unmitigated tripe. Talk about reaching and injecting personal agendas into what is actually nominally a good story. Sure it is simplistic and appropriate for the teenage set but an allegory for current events? Please.

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