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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.

Comments

scalzi
May. 14th, 2006 03:58 pm (UTC)
"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."

Well, this gets into a separate question of what writers should expect from their readers, doesn't it. What I've found *very* interesting is the wide range of reader responses to OMW. Your take on it is that it's right wing and militaristic, but I've also seen well-reasoned commentary to suggest that it is a *repudiation* of the right-wing militaristic point of view as well. I've had other commentators suggest that the book could only have been written after 9/11 -- when in fact it was 95% written before then, and the chapter written afterward (the last one) serves basically to cap off everything that happened before. I've had other people say something to the effect of "that's a fun book," without any further consideration of it politically. And then I've had people say "you know, it reads like military science fiction, but it's really a love story," which makes me happiest of all.

I don't expect people will leave their political preconceptions at the door when they read my book. However, I find that there is such a *range* of political preconceptions that people come in with that as a result the responses are equally varied. I think more than most military science fiction, this book comes with an ambiguous moral point view, not only because it sticks to a single point of view but also because I thought it would be fun and interesting for people to fill in the gaps themselves. Is the militaristic point of view of the book valid? Does the narrator of the book have enough information to know what he is doing is moral or not? What is the system of government in the novel and what is the moral vision by which it is led? As the book is written, there are lots of ways to answer this, depending on one's own point of view.

Now, as the author, I agree that this is a writing choice that can leave people unsatisfied or annoyed, but I'm okay with that, not only because it leaves me space to explore in further books, but also because I *like* the role that ambiguity plays in the reading of the book. I like that some people can read the book and come away thinking it was a light read and nothing more, while others can come away finding it morally repugnant and others come away thinking it's one of the best science fiction books they read in a while. I have my own opinions on the value of the book, of course, but I like that the response to the book has been more than the binary "love it/hate it" thing you often get. Will I do it with every book? Not planning to, really. But it was fun to do with this one.
pnh
May. 14th, 2006 06:35 pm (UTC)
"I don't expect people will leave their political preconceptions at the door when they read my book. However, I find that there is such a *range* of political preconceptions that people come in with that as a result the responses are equally varied. I think more than most military science fiction, this book comes with an ambiguous moral point view, not only because it sticks to a single point of view but also because I thought it would be fun and interesting for people to fill in the gaps themselves. Is the militaristic point of view of the book valid? Does the narrator of the book have enough information to know what he is doing is moral or not? What is the system of government in the novel and what is the moral vision by which it is led? As the book is written, there are lots of ways to answer this, depending on one's own point of view."

I will note, since John doesn't, that what we learn of the Colonial Union in the sequel, The Ghost Brigades, turns out to have a lot more moral and political ambiguity than one might guess from the necessarily worms-eye view of John Perry in the first book. This isn't a defense against nwhyte's criticisms, just an observation.

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