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May Books 6) Old Man's War

6) Old Man's War, by John Scalzi

After reading Robert Charles Wilson's Spin, I declared that I knew which novel was getting the top vote in my Hugo ballot. I now know which of the nominees is getting the lowest vote, though the middle three will need a bit of sorting out.

It's not that I actively dislike military sf. It's not particularly my thing, but I will read it from time to time, as I will occasionally read horror, romance, etc. My preference is for well-thought out fantasy sagas, and for sf of the Asimov's variety. And I think Scalzi does the military stuff here rather well: even if the plot and structure and ideas of the book are mainly a homage to Starship Troopers (Heinlein gets an explicit thank-you in the afterword) and a response to The Forever War (Haldeman is, however, not mentioned), there is more actual evidence of serious thought of what military strategy and tactics might look like in the standard sf interstellar setting than in either of the precursors.

Two things lost me however. One was a fairly minor flaw, comparable to the flaws of other Hugo nominees. Quite simply, the characters are supposed to be 75 years old when they are recruited to the space army, and then get rejuvenated to become fighting machines. Nothing wrong with that, but I found the dialogue between the 75-year-old characters simply unconvincing, sounding more like what you would hear around the table from sf fans in their mid-thirties. They just did not sound old, and that robbed some of the credibility from the set-up, and removed some of the zing from the rejuvenation process.

That on its own might well have left me pondering Old Man's War's merits equally with Learning the World, Accelerando, and A Feast for Crows. But one passage in the middle of the book not only failed to convince me on its own terms but also exposed a glaring weakness in the set-up. Of course, my own experience gives me a particular vantage point here, but I think it's worth going into details. If you don't want spoilers, LOOK AWAY NOW!

The specific problem is the character of Thaddeus Bender, who believes that the military solution is being invoked too readily:
two-time Democratic senator from Massachusetts; former ambassador (at various times) to France, Japan and the United Nations; Secretary of State in the otherwise disastrous Crowe administration; author, lecturer, and finally, the latest addition to Platoon D. Since the latest of these had the most relevance to the rest of us, we had all decided that Private Senator Ambassador Secretary Bender was full of crap.
Bender's background is one that, for obvious reasons, interests me:
"In my first term as Senator, I went to Northern Ireland as part of a trade junket and ended up extracting a peace treaty from the Catholics and the Protestants. I didn't have the authority to make an agreement, and it caused a huge controversy back in the States. But when an opportunity for peace arises, we must take it," Bender said.

"I remember that," I said. "That was right before the bloodiest marching season in two centuries. Not a very successful peace agreement."

"That wasn't the fault of the agreement," Bender said, somewhat defensively. "Some drugged-out Catholic kid threw a grenade into an Orangemen's march, and it was all over after that."

"Damn real live people, getting in the way of your peaceful ideals," I said.
The conversation ends with Bender unintentionally offending his commander with the following sentence:
"Much evil has been done under the guise of 'just following orders'... I hope we never have to find ourselves using the same excuse."
It turns out that the commander's own family were brutally massacred by men who were "just following orders".

Bender dies less than ten pages later. He walks into a stadium filled with angry aliens (angry because our heroes have just landed in their capital city and are smashing it up), and offers to make peace with them; needless to say, he is cut down at once, and our heroes retaliate by killing all present.

In a postscript, the commander tells the narrator that Bender had a point when he said that the military are probably being used too much and diplomacy by other means too little, but that the answer is to follow orders long enough to get into a position where you can give them. She herself is then killed off on the next page.

I'll save the politics until the end, because I want to start by analysing the caricature that is Bender. Working backwards, we have the following:
  1. The peacenik who walks into a hostile crowd and gets cut down. A standard figure of fun in military fiction, I imagine. Reminiscent here of a couple of scenes from The Life of Brian.

    But of course totally ludicrous to portray anyone behaving in that way who had been engaged with international diplomacy as Bender is supposed to have been. Anyone who has been near a position of responsibility - especially who, it is implied, as Secretary of State had been the best thing in the US government - would know not to engage with the other side a) against direct orders, b) without having identified clearly who your interlocutors are, c) without in fact having an idea of what deal might be possible at the end.

    Bender breaks all of these cardinal rules of peacemaking diplomacy, and while it is imaginable that a peacenik activist who had no actual experience of real peace processes might get it that badly wrong (cf my discussion of the characters simply not sounding old enough, above), it fatally undermines the character's believability - and raises real questions about the author's overall message, which I'll get to - that a supposed senior statesman does not.

  2. The peculiar exchange with the commander about "just following orders". It's not at all clear to me why this turns into an argument: both characters seem to agree that the Eichmann excuse is wrong. Again, I'll save the politics for later, but the explanation of why the commander took offence seemed weak. Perhaps she just didn't like talking about anything reminding her of the massacre of her family sixty years before. (Then why join the army?)

  3. The Northern Ireland bit. This really did offend me. It is entirely true that the two worst marching seasons we have had in my lifetime came a) in 1996, immediately after the beginning of the talks, and b) in 1998, immediately after the Good Friday Agreement had been signed. What I remember from 1998 is that, after the horrible incidents in Ballymoney, when three boys were burnt to death in a sectarian attack, and Omagh, when 29 people were killed in a no-warning bomb, the community actually came together, and there was a very strong mood (since, alas, largely dissipated) of trying to make the new agreement work. Since then, although the agreement has not been exactly 100% successful, the violence has pretty much ended rather than breaking out again as Scalzi would have predicted. Damn real live people, as none of his characters is likely to say, getting in the way of his militaristic preconceptions.

  4. The American bit, including a bit more on Northern Ireland. Bender is presumably supposed to be a mixture of George Mitchell (who was indeed originally sent to Northern Ireland by President Clinton on a trade mission, and did indeed return with a peace agreement), and the two present senators from Massachusetts, Kennedy and Kerry, both of whom are hate figures for the American right. (And isn't that use of "two-time" rather than "two-term" an interesting choice?)

    Possibly unlike John Scalzi, I have actually seen George Mitchell in action. I was a researcher for one of the delegations in the Northern Ireland peace talks which he chaired, from the start of June 1996 until I went to work for Uncle Sam in Bosnia at the end of that year. Mitchell is quite simply one of the most impressive politicians I have seen in operation. His gravitas, combined with a certain personal humility, put him head and shoulders above anybody else in the room in terms of quality of statesmanship, including the representatives of the British and Irish governments. (And, I have to admit, my own party.)

    Former senators, especially former Democratic senators, especially those who have gone off to try and do good in places that John Scalzi doesn't know much about, are rather easy targets for writers who don't like senators, especially Democratic senators, on principle. Quite apart from the fact that I disagree with what I understand to be the political message, this is simply lazy writing.

But it is the political message behind this chapter, and, I suspect the rest of the book, that upsets me most. Let me be clear: I am not a pacifist. I supported NATO in its campaign on Kosovo in 1999, and the US in its campaign in Afghanistan in 2001. But I think Clausewitz had it right when he said that war must be considered as a political act, in a political context - "Der Krieg ist eine bloße Fortsetzung der Politik mit anderen Mitteln". Politik is completely absent from Old Man's War. We have absolutely no idea of who is in charge of the army, or who appointed them, or how the policy might be changed. The only character who raises these questions in a sensible way is the commander who is then killed on the next page.

Meanwhile even the slightest thought of peace-making is for dummies who get their come-uppance by making futile pacifist gestures. Give war a chance, and don't ask what it is actually for.

(I didn't mention, did I, that the army into which our heroes enlist is actually called the Colonial Defence Forces? I must say that the scene where they take revenge on Bender's killers by slaying the entire stadium had certain resonances for me, which possibly didn't help my mood.)

So, not really recommended, I'm afraid, unless you feel comfortable with the author's politics. And I don't.

Edited to add: OK, prodded by autopope and davidweman's responses below, I popped over to Scalzi's blog and had a read: and it's pretty clear that his political views are, in fact, a lot closer to mine than is apparent from the novel. Which in my view makes the situation slightly worse. There is already enough of this militaristic stuff out there being written by people who believe in it.

Further edited: Ulp, see reply by Scalzi himself below!

Finally edited to add: See my follow-up post dealing with some of the points made here and on Scalzi's blog.


( 34 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 14th, 2006 11:59 am (UTC)
Big howling spoiler point here: I've spoken to John about this, and one thing is pretty clear -- the narrator in "Old Man's War" is unreliable, and furthermore, he doesn't even know how unreliably wrong his view of the world is. In fact, his lack of knowledge into who the CDF are fighting on behalf of is apparently a major plot point in the sequel. All is not what it seems.

Your point about the political caricature is well made. But I'd note in passing that John is American, and most of the Americans I know -- who do not include any political activists -- have a much more distant relationship to their politicians than we do. Each US senator represents about 3 million constituents on average, and each congressman represents upwards of a million; that makes them far more remote from the people they represent than legislators in small countries. I think this feeds through into the cultural zeitgeist and, in combination with a corrosive media culture that pays more attention to hairstyles than policies, inculcates an attitude that national scale politicians are remote and irrelevant.
May. 14th, 2006 12:25 pm (UTC)
This is fair to a limited extent, but I have to question the writing in any book which has an unreliable narrator as a main plot point and doesn't manage to make that evident in the text, without it being necessary to speak to the author or read the sequel in order to find it out. Then again I haven't read the book, so I'm going only on the review here.
(no subject) - nwhyte - May. 14th, 2006 12:39 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - nwhyte - May. 14th, 2006 12:39 pm (UTC) - Expand
Your Comments on representitives... - (Anonymous) - May. 22nd, 2006 04:40 pm (UTC) - Expand
May. 14th, 2006 01:08 pm (UTC)
I have only read two or three of his blog posts, but I was under the impression that Scalzi was a bog standard US prgressive.
May. 14th, 2006 01:44 pm (UTC)
Re: Funny
Indeed, you're right.
May. 14th, 2006 01:42 pm (UTC)
(Spoilers continue to follow)

"So, not really recommended, I'm afraid, unless you feel comfortable with the author's politics. And I don't."

First: I'm delighted to have a thoughtful reading of the book and such interesting analysis, even if it ends with you not recommending the book. Thanks. This was fun for me to read.

Second: As I know the author's politics better than you, I'm in the position of saying that your assumptions regarding what they might be are *wildly* inaccurate.

I don't think you can be blamed for that: Science Fiction is filled with would-be ideologues who like to drop tales of morality into their books, thinly disguised as plots, and military science fiction in particular is well-known for having right-wing authors. You appear to not unreasonably have made the assumption that I'm one of them. But there are things to know:

1. As Charlie noted in the previous entry, John Perry is an unreliable narrator. It's not that he's a liar or dissembler, but that his point of view through the entire book is grunt-level, and at the level of a grunt who has been dropped into a situation where he literally does not know the lay of the land. I find it gratifying that you as the reader are asking questions about the politics of the CDF (and implicitly of the Colonial Union, for whom it does its military thing), because these are questions I left hanging out there, implied in the world that's created.

2. It wouldn't do well to try to map the politics of the Old Man War universe to this one. The OMW universe starts with particular political assumptions (among them, the idea that the universe is uniformly hostile to humanity) and builds from those assumptions. These worldbuilding assumptions have almost nothing to do with the current political situation here on earth.

3. Related to point #3, former Senator Bender is not meant to be a stand-in for George Mitchell, any more than he's a stand-in for the robot character of Bender on Futurama, for whom he is named (what can I say, I'm not creative with names; John Perry isn't named for me but for the keyboardist and former singer of the rock band Journey). Nor is he a commentary on either Kerry or Kennedy.

Bender's salient charateristic, for me at least, was his grasping opportunism; he wasn't looking for peace for its own ends but for what he thought it could do for him (thus he injected himself into a future peace process on Earth, and did a poor enough job with it that it was easily shattered, and was attempting to do a similar thing in the book). Naturally, it appears you came off with a different take on the matter, which is fine. However, as I said, assuming that the senator in the book is a commentary on a senator in the novel is bound to result in error. Bender is not Mitchell in a new coat, put in front of a firing squad.

4. Because it seems you've read the book to some extent as modern political commentary, you've come to a conclusion about my personal politics (and, incidentally, my knowledge of world political affairs) which doesn't have much to do with anything relating to reality. As food for thought, allow me to refer to you my endorsement of John Kerry for president, which I posted on my personal site: http://www.scalzi.com/whatever/003003.html. It's a reasonable precis of my personal politics and if nothing else, will assure you that I don't have it in for Massachusetts senators.

As a matter of worldbuilding, I would note there are lots of nooks and crannies in the universe I created that I briefly note (or at least signify) and then leave largely unexplored. This is for two primary reasons. First, of course, there's only so long one can make a book. Second, I think it's *fun* to leave lots of blank spots on the map, for people to explore and speculate about -- and, not trivially, for me to flesh out in later books. Do this well, and you have some fun books (do it poorly and you have the prequel trilogy of Star Wars). Hopefully I'll be making fun books.
May. 14th, 2006 02:37 pm (UTC)
Crumbs, I'm not used to getting detailed critiques of my critiques from the author on the day of posting! Thank you very much, John, for your good-tempered response to what is essentially a rather negative review. I concede that, on the evidence of what I read in your blog, you are not, in fact, the raving militaristic nutcase that I portray you as, above; and in all probability if we sat down over a beer or too (Belgian, of course), we would find that we have much in common, politically.

I appreciate that for you, Northern Ireland is a minor background setting with a peculiar religious conflict, against which you were trying to make a point about a minor character. For me, it isn't; it's my homeland, and a place where I spent years of my life trying to put things right. It's not the first time that I have been fatally distracted from the point an author was trying to make because of my knowledge of one particular part of the background. Perhaps I should relax more and think less when reading for leisure.

I accept your word that you were not aiming at George Mitchell in particular as a target, but I am sure you can understand what resonances were evoked for me by a comic relief character who is sent to Northern Ireland on a trade mission and comes back with a peace deal which is immediately followed by horrible violence during the marching season. Was it truly unintentional on your part that the fictional Bender's career matched the real Mitchell's on those key details?

I also have to accept your word that the novel's omission of any discussion of the political control of the CDF, or of any meaningful critique of the indiscriminate use of violence, was in fact a cunning plan on your part, all to be explained in the sequel. Too clever for me, I'm afraid.

You suggest that I am wrong to "read the book to some extent as modern political commentary". I think it's completely unrealistic of you to expect readers to exclude any potential parallels with today's politics from their minds as they read. There are enough warbloggers and military masturbators out there who don't have the intellectual equipment to seriously critique their own ideas. You clearly do have that intellectual equipment, and (though it is not clear from the novel) don't share those ideas; and I'm sorry that you didn't find space in Old Man's War to do so other than by implications so subtle that I missed them.
(no subject) - scalzi - May. 14th, 2006 03:57 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - nwhyte - May. 15th, 2006 09:16 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - scalzi - May. 14th, 2006 03:58 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - pnh - May. 14th, 2006 06:35 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - (Anonymous) - May. 19th, 2006 08:52 am (UTC) - Expand
May. 18th, 2006 09:21 pm (UTC)
FWIW, that's how Bender read to me, as well
and the whole thing came off as a cheap shot at the antiwar left and a pandering to the conservatarian milsf brigade, with a kind of wimping-out with the commander's concession which was really wierd and disturbing given your posts - kind of like hitting the mandatory prostitution/gang-rape of female service personnel in Haldeman's Forever War, which was compounded by the fact that Haldeman once flirted boozily but charmingly with me at a con party. The second book was a little less of a bitter disappointment, but that's about all I can say, damning with faint praise. It really did come across exactly as White described, and only the fact that I'd read "Whatever" belied that.

Since you can't assume that everyone who reads your books has read everything else you've written, you might want to consider what exactly you're doing from a technical point of view (and whether or not you *want* to convey a "John Ringo Lite" vibe.)
And to me too - (Anonymous) - Jun. 14th, 2006 06:10 am (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 1st, 2008 10:07 am (UTC)
As Charlie noted in the previous entry, John Perry is an unreliable narrator. It's not that he's a liar or dissembler, but that his point of view through the entire book is grunt-level, and at the level of a grunt who has been dropped into a situation where he literally does not know the lay of the land.

It is more than that though, isn't it? He is utterly uncritical and passive, he thinks less about his situation than any reader. We are told he has 75 years of life experience - including as a staunch anti-war protester - but he might as well be a Special Forces newborn.
May. 14th, 2006 02:32 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I agree heartily with John's first point. The book is interesting enough that even if you don't agree with the politics (which I guess in the end, you actually might), there's enough meaty premises to make you stop and think about things a bit. I actually did buy into the narrator being 75 years old, especially because he wasn't wise-an-old but a guy who reflected a lot on his life and still realized he didn't know enough. My biggest problem with the book was the fast and furious nature of the aliens, one after another. It felt like JS was running down a checklist of ideas (political, culturual, biological and technical) to blast at the reader. Most likely he was tying to convey the grand sweep of a long campaign of a grunt at war with half the galaxy, but simply wasn't allowed to devote enough chapter space to it (damn those publishers for limiting page counts).
One thing I love reading - messing with the reader (and the protaganist) because of unreliable narration. I write mysteries, so naturally, I do that a lot. That's a lotta fun when the reader realizes something the narrator doesn't.

May. 14th, 2006 02:37 pm (UTC)
With you on the Northern Ireland bit. I myself met Mitchell at a media bash (albeit briefly) but he impressed.
May. 14th, 2006 06:11 pm (UTC)
What Bender means to me
I'm an American, and to me Bender came off as an example of a certain mindset common in America. It's the naive idea that "everybody is just like us." People who hold to that idea don't investigate the motivations / cultural norms / societal structure of the other culture, and as a result make dumb decisions.

To use a relatively non-controversial example, consider the US policy towards American Indians in the 19th century. Various political and military types made treaties with chiefs, not understanding that in most Indian tribes the chief had very little real power. If his braves wanted to "go off of the reservation" they did, whether he approved or not. (The same politicians failed to understand that the settlers wouldn't abide by the treaties either, but that's a different problem.)
May. 15th, 2006 09:11 am (UTC)
Re: What Bender means to me
I'm afraid I think that reinforces my point that Bender is a crude caricature.
Re: What Bender means to me - rachel_swirsky - May. 15th, 2006 10:49 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: What Bender means to me - ninebelow - Jul. 1st, 2008 09:48 am (UTC) - Expand
(Deleted comment)
May. 14th, 2006 09:56 pm (UTC)
Consarn it, you whippersnapper! I had the same thought.

After thinking about it, I decided that speech-differences we experience as "old" are the result of vocabularies that vary between generations--slang, fad expressions, words that fall out of use--and small grammatical changes (whom? how people handle the first person singular of will and shall? The subjunctive?) that you notice when fifty or more years separate their childhoods or young-adulthoods.

If we're setting something in the last hundred years or so, we'll notice what those changes are, and process certain speakers as older or younger. But a hundred years in the future, what will those cues be? We'll have to make that up (as a writer, I mean) and if most of the speakers in your story come from the same generation you probably won't see an aged-based difference in their speech.

In short, I don't think that there's a default "old" register that's apparent without speech patterns of other generations as contrast. I expect most people to speak pretty much the same way when they're eighty as they do when they're thirty.
(no subject) - nwhyte - May. 15th, 2006 09:14 am (UTC) - Expand
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This statement is false - artw - May. 17th, 2006 09:05 am (UTC) - Expand
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May. 15th, 2006 02:53 am (UTC)
I read The Ghost Brigades last week. When I read OMW, I thought that the Colonial Union was a lot creepier than the protagonist was necessarily aware of (or in a position to be aware of). My thought after TGB was that the Colonial Union was actively evil and engaged in a wide range of morally despicable acts.

And, I thought that we were intended to read it that way, though the voice of the CU excuses its actions and choices near the end.

(I had some more thoughts on this, but decided to put them on my own LJ.)
( 34 comments — Leave a comment )

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