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Monthly Archives: July 2012

Stranger in a Strange Body: Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

Book #17 for 2012: Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

Cover of Old Man's War by John Scalzi

Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

Reading Redshirts by John Scalzi made me curious to see more of his work. According to something I read either on Scalzi’s blog or in his Twitter feed, Old Man’s War is his bestselling book to date and it was the inaugural volume in a series of books that so far includes four titles with a fifth on the way. (I’m going to guess that Redshirts has had such a strong roll-out in the media, complete with a profile of Scalzi in the New York Times, that it will eventually be the better seller of the two, but Old Man’s War has a seven year lead on it in sales.)

Old Man’s War is essentially a book-length shout-out to Robert Heinlein, something that Scalzi acknowledges in the endnotes, and since there are probably people reading this who don’t know (or remember) who Heinlein was, I’m going to talk about him first. Heinlein dominated the science fiction field from the late 1930s through the 1960s as no writer has before or since. Heinlein’s work was marked by vigorous, no-nonsense (and distinctly non-literary) prose, a gift for projecting the intersection of science and politics into future centuries, and a strong libertarian philosophy that was expressed in books as varied as Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land. Ironically, the latter book, with its philosophy of free love (sex being a topic that either increasingly appealed to Heinlein as he grew older or that publishers increasingly allowed him to write about), became something of a cult phenomenon among the 60s counterculture, a group for which the relatively conservative Heinlein had little use. (The short version of that story is that Heinlein supported the Vietnam War while the counterculture didn’t.) Heinlein continued writing until his death in the late 1980s, though his later books were increasingly rambling and idiosyncratic, with only a trace of the vigorous writing he was capable of when younger. For more than one generation of readers, Heinlein was known as the author of what used to be called the “Heinlein juveniles,” a series of YA novels written mostly in the 50s that served as a gateway drug for budding science fiction addicts. Scalzi mentions elsewhere that one of these, Starman Jones, is a particular favorite of his. (It’s also my personal favorite of the Heinlein juveniles, though I didn’t read it until I was in my 20s.)

One of Heinlein’s recurring topics was war, in particular the duty of individual citizens to serve in the military, a theme he explored most thoroughly in the 1959 novel Starship Troopers. I don’t know that Old Man’s War is an attempt to rewrite Starship Troopers, but it explores many of the same themes, even while managing to invert some of them. The most interesting innovation that Scalzi brings to the table is that in his future society (probably centuries from now, but I’m not sure he ever mentions a date) anyone may voluntarily join the military on their 75th birthday and fight in the wars between humans and aliens over the dozens (hundreds? thousands?) of colonizable star systems that have by then been discovered by the human race. The incentive for joining the army is that there are rumors that the colonial army has acquired advanced alien technology that will give old people young bodies again, a rumor that turns out to be — I hope I’m not spoiling anything here — true.

The main character is a retired writer named John Perry who could be a stand-in for Heinlein himself. Heinlein spent much of his life disappointed that he was not able to serve in World War II because of tuberculosis and it’s pleasant to think that Scalzi saw this book as a way to imagine a technology that would have given Heinlein his wish, or something very much like it. Much of the fun of Old Man’s War, as in Starship Troopers, is seeing how many wildly different alien races Scalzi can pit humanity against, each with its own personality, physical form, culture, technologies, but all with a single motive — expanding to new planets with minimal competition from other races. Scalzi writes about this as vigorously and entertainingly as Heinlein ever did.

But after reading two Scalzi novels I’ve noticed that there’s one thing he writes about much more effectively than Heinlein did: love. And not the intense romantic and sexual love of young people (though both Redshirts and Old Man’s War have a little of this), but the deeper companionate love of married couples, a subject not often explored in science fiction, at least not in the moving way that Scalzi explores it. Maybe this is just a sign of my own increasing age and experience with longer term relationships, but it’s this theme that most draws me to Scalzi’s work. If I had to make a wild ad hominem guess, I’d say that Scalzi is a man who loves his family very much and understands what it would be like to lose them, a feeling he conveys quite powerfully (and in unexpected ways) in his fiction. Redshirts surprised me at the end by leaving me in tears and Old Man’s War comes very close to doing the same.

Of course I’m generalizing based on two books, always a risky thing to do, but I’m guessing I’ll find this theme recurring in his other works. At least I hope I do. Without that theme Scalzi would be just a very good Heinlein clone — not necessarily a bad thing to be — but with it he becomes something a great deal more.

POSTSCRIPT: After writing the above, I read an interview with Scalzi on the Wired Web site where he says that all of his books are essentially humorous, but that the novels haven’t been packaged as such because publishers are afraid that humorous science fiction won’t sell. (He hopes that Redshirts’ recent appearance on the New York Times bestseller list will be a “kind of a wake-up call…that the science fiction audience — regardless of the long-held superstitions or beliefs of those who publish the stuff — is more than happy to entertain the idea of humorous science fiction.”) I see his point, but I’m not sure that he realizes the degree to which the impact of his books depends on the reader’s realization (or at least on this reader’s realization) that his works have a deep and not at all humorous core; they touch, in fact, on deep emotional truths.

I also realized, when reflecting on the way I’d been affected emotionally by both Old Man’s War and Redshirts, that both books have essentially the same ending, or at least depend on very similar plot developments for their emotional impact. I wouldn’t dream of giving away what that plot element is — it would be waaaaay too much of a spoiler — but it makes me wonder if Scalzi isn’t something of a one-trick emotional pony. Okay, that’s based on two examples out of, what, maybe a dozen or so books that Scalzi has written and is therefore almost certainly wrong, but even if it turns out to be correct I don’t think it’s to Scalzi’s detriment, because it’s one hell of a powerful emotional trick.

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Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Jim: Redshirts by John Scalzi

Book #16 for 2012: Redshirts by John Scalzi

Cover of Redshirts by John Scalzi

Redshirts by John Scalzi

So, not surprisingly, my enthusiasm for Project Bestseller List is already flagging. It’s not that 11th Hour by James Patterson and Maxine Paetro, the book I began reading after The Storm by Clive Cussler and Graham Brown, is all that bad — actually, it’s neither especially bad nor especially good — but that The Storm, a novel so turgid and plodding that it could be used as cement mix, stomped on all the enthusiasm that I’d built up for discovering what it is that keeps novelists like Cussler and Patterson (and Grisham and Sandford and Baldacci) selling books at such a consistently high level on the best seller list. I’d still like to read Baldacci at some point (at the very least his plots sound intriguing), but the prose in this sort of bestselling fiction is so uninspired that about halfway through 11th Hour I found myself desperate for something more interesting, something with a genuine creative spark in it, something worth reading not just because it appeals to the lowest common denominator of American readership. That’s how I wound up reading John Scalzi’s Redshirts.

First, a few words about Scalzi: He’s a science fiction writer with one of the two or three most enjoyable Twitter feeds (@scalzi) that I follow, especially when he gets into humorous insult wars with Stephen King’s son, writer Joe Hill (@joe_hill). His blog, Whatever, is so brilliantly written (and long running) that it’s produced two published books of essays, the most recent of which is entitled Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded. His blog entry from Christmas Eve 2011 (“8 Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About Your Favorite Holiday Music“) was such a clever hoax that I posted it to my Facebook timeline. What makes it so clever is that if you actually know something about the history of modern Christmas music, you’re more likely to be suckered in by the hoax than if you know nothing at all, because Scalzi has peppered in just enough factual information to lend a certain credence to the utter bullshit. For instance, Frank Loesser really did write “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” to perform with his wife as a duet at parties, but I seriously doubt that Paul McCartney wrote “Wonderful Christmastime” because he’d bet someone that he could write a song in the amount of time that it took him to move his bowels.

But I digress. Scalzi’s Redshirts can be looked on as a kind of Star Trek novel in the same way that Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead can be looked on as a kind of rewrite of Hamlet: It’s the same story but told from the viewpoint of its minor supporting characters. “Redshirts,” as some of you are doubtlessly already aware, is a Star Trek fan term, one that’s spread to the wider world of TV melodrama, that describes those anonymous characters, usually wearing red shirts and only contracted to be in the cast of the show for one episode, who seemed to exist purely to be killed during away missions, thus sparing leading characters like Kirk and Spock, who had long-term contracts on the series, from being violently eliminated during alien encounters.

In the novel Redshirts, a group of ensigns on the Starship Intrepid (read: Enterprise) begins to notice an odd pattern of deaths on their ship. There are five people — Captain Abernathy (read: Kirk), Science Officer Q’eeng (read: Spock), Lieutenant Kerensky (read: Chekhov), Chief Engineer West (read: Scotty) and Medical Chief Hartnell (read: McCoy) — who never get killed (though Kerensky has a penchant for getting horribly injured then springing back to such perfect health that he can be on another away team mission a week later), but whenever unimportant ensigns, especially those recently assigned to the ship, accompany these officers on away missions, they commonly wind up dead.

One of these “redshirts,” named Jenkins, is so stricken by the death of his wife on one of these missions that he becomes a hermit and takes up residence in one of Intrepid’s storage rooms, hacks into the ship’s computers and starts compiling evidence that leads him to the inevitable conclusion that the members of the ship’s crew are in fact characters in a TV show, one written by hack writers who repeatedly utilize cliched melodramatic tropes that require minor characters to be killed off in about three-fourths of the episodes. He gradually convinces the other minor characters that what he calls “the narrative” is the only way to explain the absurdity of much of what goes on around them.

Scalzi acknowledges within the text that Redshirts, the novel, is part of a tradition of media metafiction that includes movies like The Purple Rose of Cairo and The Last Action Hero. But it also clearly falls into the postmodernist vein of the Scream films, where the characters are aware of the cliches that they’re acting out yet powerless to protect themselves from the often gruesome demands of those cliches. Well, almost powerless: the redshirts come up with a solution that they think might save them from what they’ve come to fear is inevitable death and when they begin to implement this solution the novel goes almost totally meta (or, as one of the characters puts it, “recursive and meta”).

For approximately the first three quarters of its length Scalzi’s novel is light and entertaining fun along the lines of Ready Player One, though a bit deeper and with perhaps less of the whiff of YA novel about it. It’s a hoot to read and you don’t necessarily have to have seen Star Trek to enjoy it (though a knowledge of one-hour TV melodrama in general doesn’t hurt). But then he makes the unexpected decision to follow the main body of the novel — which by itself is more than a novella, but perhaps not quite long enough to be a published book — with three fairly lengthy codas set almost entirely in the book’s meta level and the tone of the writing changes significantly, becoming both more serious and ultimately more moving. These codas give the novel an odd structure and an extended denouement that would seem anticlimactic if it weren’t the most fascinating and readable part of the book. It’s almost as though Scalzi wants the reader to know that this isn’t a Star Trek novel and that he’s up to something far more substantial, a meditation on the meaning of life, fiction and personal choice. It’s here that I think Redshirts goes from being a very entertaining piece of humorous science fiction to being a very good novel, period. And it’s here that Scalzi proves that he’s more than just a brilliant practical joker who can very nearly convince you that Paul McCartney once wrote a song in the time it took to move his bowels.