book review: Old Man’s War

This is perhaps the last book I’ll get to read (quickly) for pleasure until my summer class ends.  Oh, I’ll pick one out to read, but with teaching requirements now encroaching on my free time, I won’t be able to rip through them as quickly as I’ve been doing since mid-May.

Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi, 2005

photo 1If you’ve never read Robert A. Heinlein’s classic (of both science fiction and critique of communism) Starship Troopers, you might want to hold off on that.  Scalzi’s Old Man’s War is – and it pains me to say this – a better version of that story.

Well, perhaps “better” is a loaded word.  It’s not exactly the same story, but it’s pretty damn close.  The differences aren’t all that significant – except for one.

Heinlein is clearly preaching in Starship Troopers.  Scalzi doesn’t presume to do so.

The similarities are numerous, though.  In both books men and women fight side by side as absolute equals.  There are boot camp sequences.  The warriors have super-human capabilities (in OMW, through genetic engineering; in ST, through their jumpsuits).  They face vicious alien bug enemies (though OMW features some non-bug enemies as well).  Both stories feature dropships and military camaraderie – you could layer Scalzi’s description of why the Colonial Defense Force (CDF) troops don’t immediately accept replacements over Heinlein’s description of why the Mobile Infantry (MI) troops don’t immediately accept replacements and practically be reading the same book.  I take that as homage rather than ripoff, though, because I really dig both books.

Scalzi also wrote one of my favorite – and I mean all-time favorite – sci-fi books, Redshirts. Absolutely great book.  It’s because of that book I wanted to read something else he wrote, to see if he’s really that good (spoiler alert: HE IS).  I’m not a big fan of series, though, so I picked up this stand-alone book (which, apparently, he wrote a sequel to, but I didn’t know that when I got this).

The premise of Old Man’s War is pretty simple.  Humans are expanding throughout the universe, colonizing as they go.  They must protect themselves from any number of hostile races they have suddenly found themselves competing against for territory, from the vaguely birdlike Rraey to the very scary beetle-like Corsu.  To effect this protection, Earth’s senior citizens sign up to leave the planet at age 75 and venture forever off world to fight – and die – for the colonists.

The gimmick, though, is that when you sign up, you get a fresh, new body to do the fighting in… and it’s glorious.  You’re young again.  When you finish your term of service (up to 10 years), you’ll get another new, but entirely human, body in which you’ll live out the rest of your (un)natural life, growing old again and dying in your due time.

The geriatric warriors reminded be a bit of the blue folks in that movie Avatar – even though Scalzi’s genetically-modified old-man (and -woman) warriors are green.

This book is both funny and poignant, lofty and disturbing, and even though it’s kind of a cliche, I have to say it’s a real page-turner.  I read it in one sitting, starting at 9 pm and not stopping until the wee hours (I think it may have been 1 am).  Fantastic book.

The science aspects of science-fiction are present here, which I dearly love.  Skip drives, alternate universes (or are they?), tachyon fields, and even some math.  Ray guns, space ships, and all that, but the plot pivots on a weird cross between gladiator games and a soccer game-ending shootout.

One of the themes of the book is the human reliance on technology; I’m not entirely sure if Scalzi thinks it’s a negative, but he certainly paints the picture of what can happen when we rely to heavily on technology without understanding how (and why) it does what it does.

There’s lots of violence (with some gory wound descriptions) and plenty of sex (though none too graphic) that would push this book into older teen territory.  Younger readers might not understand the dilemma faced by the main character, John Perry, as he realizes his role in the universe, but it’s far more lightly developed than in Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and that, I think, makes this book a lot more fun to read. Not as thought provoking, certainly, but a lot more fun.

(now I’m all caught up on my book reviews – three in one day…ooof!)

book review: Dune

There are classics of science fiction and then there are CLASSICS.  If you enjoy the genre, you owe it to yourself to read the CLASSICS, if only to learn where the modern writers get their inspiration.

Dune, by Frank Herbert, 1965

Before I get into this review, which encompasses more than just the book, let me break into an aside for a bit.

I’ve had 6 weeks off school, the break between the end of the spring semester and the beginning of my summer class.  I decided to use that time to read, read, read and opened myself up to new material. I  asked friends to help celebrate my birthday this summer by sending me books – I’d read whatever they sent, then send them something to read.  I’ve read some books that I never would have otherwise picked up, and have enjoyed almost every book that I received.  I’m hoping to get some more, too (hint! hint!).

Since I finished the first batch of books sent or given to me – 9 of them! – but classes hadn’t started up yet, I decided to dive into my pile of recently-purchased books (I can’t resist a good used book store) and see what was there.  Apparently I really needed to read Dune, because I bought it TWICE in the last six weeks!  The upside of that is that I have an extra copy to give away now.

photoDune is one of those books that, if you’re a fan of science fiction, history, fantasy or epic stories, you simply have to read.

The greatest thing about Dune is that Herbert drops you into a fully functioning (though dysfunctional) galaxy-spanning society. It is both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, and Herbert doesn’t waste a lot of time trying to explain the things you haven’t encountered before.  He drops you right into it and you’re fully immersed from page one.

The story is pretty straightforward – political intrigue and courtly maneuvering, with healthy doses of betrayal, magic and mysticism thrown in for good measure.  The characters positively crackle with life and the situations are wrought with tension.

Paul Muad’Dib, nee Atreides, is the main character, but we experience the maelstrom of people that surround him, including his parents, sister, concubine, friends and enemies, both civilized and otherwise.

I imagine this book seemed a lot more exotic in 1965 when it first came out than it does now.  Herbert infuses the book with Arabic words that invoke Islam; while “jihad” is a word we’re all familiar with in 2014, in 1965, many Americans would have had to figure out what he meant by examining the context.  I actually found this aspect of the writing somewhat distracting, but the story is compelling enough that it didn’t matter too much to me.

This really is a fantastic book with very few hiccups in the plot.  I’ve heard and read largely negative opinions of the sequels, so I think I’ll be stopping with this book, but it’s an excellent book all around.

Having never read this book before, I quickly discovered how absolutely shitty that Dune movie really was.  The mini-series wasn’t much better but did adhere more to the story.  Still, both can be judged not by what they included (or, as in the case of the theatrical film, made up entirely), but by what they left out.  I realize you can’t translate a book to film word for word, but still … I don’t know how either team could justify leaving out that very intense dinner party scene when the Atreides have just arrived on Arrakis.

The film especially glad-hands the fate of the Atreides’ Mentat, Thufir Hawat.  He goes from loyal to captured to traitor in the movie with no explanation – and that’s it. Bam.  Weak.  I doubt I’ll be able to watch that movie ever again despite being a big fan of Sean Young.

One question I have for Herbert (which I might ask if he was still alive) is why Paul gets two Fremen names (Usul and Muad’Dib) but nobody else does.  Paul has a pet nickname for Chani, but we never learn her “other” name, nor that of Jamis, Stilgar, or any of the other Fremen.  The planetologist Kynes has a Fremen name, Liet, but that doesn’t count because he has a human name, too, and we never learn his other Fremen name.  It’s a little thing, but it bothered me.

Something that I really found interesting was the religious aspect of the story.  Paul is clearly the Fremen messiah and a cult begins developing around the Lisan al-Gaib, the person of this Fremen prophecy.  To that end, there is one passage that really struck me in a powerful fashion:

“When religion and politics travel in the same cart, the riders believe nothing can stand in their way. Their movement becomes headlong – faster and faster and faster. They put aside all thought of obstacles and forget that a precipice does not show itself to the man in a bland rush until it’s too late.”

It’s credited as a Bene Gesserit proverb, but it’s amazing how Herbert could see in 1965 that religion and politics are difficult bedfellows.

The book features a good bit of violence and some disturbing imagery (the test with the Box at the beginning of the story pops immediately to mind), but there’s very little sex (if any, really) in the book.  There’s some courtly romance, but this wasn’t Herbert’s strong suit.

summer book exchange #9: Christmas Truce

There’s stories, rumors, apocrypha, legends and myths. Telling the difference between them – for historians – is critical and often difficult.

Christmas Truce, by Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton, 1984

photo 2There have been dozens of books, articles and movies written about the legendary Christmas Truce in World War I. This book, though a bit older, is one of the better ones.

In 1914, the governments of Europe merrily sent their sons off to fight what they were sure would be a very short war filled with honor and glory. “We’ll be home by Christmas,” they all cheered, certain of their impending victory.

Then they discovered the realities of machine guns, artillery and poison gas. Those who died, many have said, were the lucky ones, because the rest of us had to live forever in a new and unpleasant world.

Christmas Truce examines day-by-day the break in the fighting that spontaneously happened in December 1914. Soldiers who had only the day before been eagerly trying to kill each other stopped fighting, shook hands, exchanged gifts, and some even played in pickup soccer games.

Brown and Seaton present here a good examination of the before, during and after of the impromptu truce. The pacing of history books is often monotonous, dragging facts through the molasses of time, but the authors’ work in television has apparently given them some insights into how better to pace a book to keep the reader interested.

The book is well and thoroughly researched. If you’re interested in WW1 history, this is one to pick up.