John Scalzi has a new book out (well, newish…I’m a little behind schedule), The Ghost Brigades. It’s a sequel to Old Man’s War, so before reading the new one, I decided to re-read OMW (I generally do this with sequels and series–as a new one comes out, I start from the beginning and re-read before getting to the new one, although it does get time consuming with some of the multi-volume folks like Peter Hamilton, George RR Martin, and Patrick O’Brian). I also wanted to confirm my response to a discussion about the book that was going on between Scalzi and Nick Whyte.
Most of that discussion centered on one particular character and one specific incident in OMW, but overall Whyte’s contention (somewhat softened after the comments–from other readers and from Scalzi himself) was that the book is militaristic, and portrays pacifism, or even diplomacy, as just for dummies, who get a much-deserved slaughtering, both figurative and literal.
The incident and the character that prompted this criticism from Whyte made me a bit uncomfortable, too–but I did not read it as being nearly so conclusively portrayed. To me, while that particular character was maybe a bit cartoonish, the incident and the response to the incident from the other characters was much more ambiguous (thus much more realistic). These questions (violence, self-defense, cultural sensitivity vs. cultural preservation, and individual judgment vs. following orders or working as a team) are real-life questions, and they’re relevant and important now, and in my reading of Scalzi’s book they’re not really resolved (as they shouldn’t be), but rather depicted with their complexities and ambivalence. The characters were uncomfortable about the incident (well, those who survived were), and I was, too. Maybe Scalzi was, too. That’s the way things should work in a good novel, I think.
Even beyond that, though, the thing that really seemed to be missing from that discussion (and from most of the reviews that I’ve seen) is that Old Man’s War is a love story. Oh, sure, there’s all kinds of technological and military speculation, and some great whiz-bang cultural innovations and commentary on geopolitical topics, and natural extensions of current trends, and odd aliens and FTL travel. That’s all great, and it’s one of the things I want in SF. But the other thing I want in SF (or any literature) is to feel something. Scalzi’s story starts with a man at his wife’s graveside. For me what was strongest in the novel, and the thread that kept it all together, was the main character’s deep connection to a lost love, the little moments and memories that make being married to someone you love and spending your life with her so wonderful. The book had me near tears, several times, because of the strength of that eternal human emotional connection, and because Scalzi captures it so accurately and intimately.