I feel like all the reviews I write for the next month or so will all have to start with "this has been on my list forever; I can't believe I never read it before!" But that's good, because it means I'm digging into the really fun meat of my list, and so far it's paying off.
I just finished Old Man's War, by John Scalzi, which of course has been highly recommended for ages. I've never read John Scalzi before, if you can even believe that. But this book pressed all my favorite buttons--there's a certain kind of fantasy or science fiction book that mostly consists of kick-ass world building and day-to-day details in an interesting universe. That's exactly what this book did, and it did it really well.
John Perry is 75 when he enlists in the army of the galactic colonies. No one quite knows what use the army has for the elderly, but lots of people sign up, since it seems to promise some kind of rejuvenation. And it does--soldiers are remade in young bodies and sent to fight for the colonies. The galaxy, it turns out, contains way more intelligent species than fit on the habitable planets, and it's a nonstop struggle to survive as a species.
So this summary doesn't give anything away, but it also kind of misses the point. The novel is about how things unfold, and it's about life in the army, killing under orders, being part of a team, losing people you love, the meaning of the soul. It's really a very solid war book, with a lot of really great observations about war.
That in itself is interesting to me. In my world, the good guys are against war, always. Avoiding war is supposed to be the aim; a book about war, especially from the point of view of a foot soldier, is going to be about how to bring the war to an end, or a realization that your own side is just as evil as everyone else. The hero is the one who wants to negotiate, who won't fight. That notion is written off pretty quickly in Old Man's War. There are people who think that way, but it quickly becomes clear that the way the galaxy works is kill or be killed, and the very alienness of the aliens makes negotiation only a distant possibility. You don't even really hold it against the politicians that there's nothing to be done about it; plenty of races eat people.
Watching all these different battles, with different enemies, Scalzi presents you with all these different sides of this kind of struggle--religious fanaticism, hopeless battles (from both points of view), arms races. There are observations about the advantages of having people with a lifetime of experience in battle--their sense of perspective, their understanding of the gray areas between right and wrong, their enthusiasm for their new young bodies. The solution to the "youth is wasted on the young" problem is quite charming, and the enjoyment that these "old farts" get out of being young and healthy and genetically enhanced is pretty fun to romp through.
I wish I had more deliberate, well-argued points to make about the book. But really, it had me thinking about what a privilege it is for me to live in a world where things aren't a zero sum game. I can give to charity and want everyone to have plenty because, at my exact place in the world, there is enough to go around. It really is a problem of distribution. Not every place in history, not every hypothetical situation is like that. Sometimes there's no best option, just the least awful.
You'd think a book that had me thinking these thoughts would be the opposite of fun, but this was a total romp. I'm headed right out for the next one.