This is a great series for audiobooks, even if I didn’t always enjoy specific voice acting. It is a richly developed universe where you’re always finding new neat little tech ideas and strategies & tactics always work out. There are larger themes of independence, nationality, personal responsibility, governmental corruption and international politics as intergalactic politics, without any uncomfortable play on stereotypes. It seems more superficial than some older science fiction, but that may be because the first book, Old Man’s War, could easily have been a stand alone military science fiction book in a vein somewhere between Starship Troopers and The Forever War.
While this series is heavy on dudes and dude-action, the female characters are handled well & respectfully (at least to this male reader). Women & men are dealt with equally by the Colonial Union – Jane Sagan is introduced early by saving John and is shown to be scarily good at ass-kicking. Zoe Boutin and her friend basically rule their social circle in the books that focus on her, and to Scalzi’s credit, while those stories are heavy on teen romance (barf), he stays away from stereotypes like girls hating each other, back biting, etc. The two girls are simply good friends. In another book, Harry Wilson refers to thinking of his sort-of-touched-on-but-not-made-a-thing romantic interest Danielle Lowen as Dani when they are off the clock, but Lowen when they’re working, out of respect. I’m sure there are some of the Fedora-set that might take offense to this, but who cares. For me, it’s refreshing not having to wince at language used and references made about female characters.
Ethnicity of some of the characters was affected a bit by some decisions of the voice actors. There were a few moments I felt like I was watching The Phantom Menace with heavy stereotypical Asian accents subbing for alien ones, but it got better over the series. At the beginning of The Last Colony there’s a rough scene as the obviously white voice actor butchers sub-continental accents for two characters in a scene, but a third sub-continent-originating character becomes a mainstay and the accent seems more realistic.
All in all, there are fantastic science fiction moments in the Old Man’s War series, well threaded together by interesting plots and characters. Some of the larger themes are interesting; some of the more interesting stuff is skipped. If you’re looking to listen to something other than music for a while, you could do much much worse than this series. I guarantee you’ll have a few smiles and a few fist-pump-yes! moments.
Book By Book Short Reviews
This is great book, a classic science fiction novel. It uses an unaware first person narrator (John Perry) whose learning about his new circumstances worldbuilds effectively for the reader. We are introduced to two of the three principal characters of the first part of the series – John, an elderly man from Earth who is given a new, vibrant body and told to fight for the Colonial Union, and Jane Sagan, a Special Forces super-soldier grown from the DNA of John’s dead wife but carrying none of her memories. We are also introduced to the nexus character for the second half of the series, military research specialist Harry Wilson, another elderly Earther in a new, green body. John learns about the Earth’s true place in the universe between battles with a wide variety of aliens & shows effective tactical thinking in many entertaining situations.
Another excellent book. Ghost Brigades delves into the Special Forces specifically by following a soldier, grown from a still-living traitor’s DNA & grafted with an imperfect copy of his consciousness. The soldier is used by the Colonial Union to try to determine the traitor’s plot, meanwhile fighting alongside a Special Forces unit lead by Jane Sagan, introduced in the first book. It expands on information previously given, and introduces Zoe Boutin, an important child character in the next two books. The actions scenes in this book are fantastic.
A good book, although it is more informative than strictly entertaining, told again first person from John’s view. He & Jane have adopted Zoe & retired from military life, as a new force in the universe comes into resolution. A 400-species Conclave has formed to bring order to our hotly contested end of space, and their announced moratorium on new colonies has pushed the Colonial Union into a corner. John & Jane are sent to run a new, secret colony that the Conclave is hunting for; meanwhile Zoe comes to terms with her status with the Oban, a race helped by her traitor father, and is generally an annoying teenager. This book has less fun action and more critical tactics, but there are a few good scenes.
The weakest book of the series by far. If you thought “hey can I read a whole book from the point of view of that annoying precious teenaged girl from the third book”, then this is for you. It leans heavily on the two girls always being right at two boys who are always wrong, a framework that becomes extremely obvious & tedious as we go along. We get the major events of The Last Colony from Zoe’s perspective, so it’s not even new material, although there are a few interesting fill-in-the-gaps moments. The voice acting pulled me out of the story a few times as I realized I simply did not enjoy listening to her.
- The Sagan Diary
The first sort-of fill-in material in the series, this is a series of journal entries & personal writing from the perspective of Jane Sagan. There are a few interesting parts, but much of it feels like bad teenaged journaling (super soldiers are born fully grown, Jane Sagan is 6 years old when we first meet her). The voice actor chosen for this audiobook made dramatic choices I wouldn’t have agreed with, and the whole thing again pulled me out of the story frequently with “what the hell was that” moments.
- Questions for a Soldier
Still looking for this one.
- After the Coup
This was included in The Human Division audio book. It’s the first story to centre on Harry Wilson, introduced in the first book, although he was a tertiary character in Ghost Brigades. This is a short story introducing the Colonial Union diplomatic team that will make up the bulk of the characters for the remainder of the series, by way of an entertaining fight demonstration with a new species.
A collection of related & sequential short stories & told occasionally from the first person viewpoint of Harry Wilson. Because of their duplicity, the Colonial Union has lost Earth & tries to keep the other colonies in line. The Conclave is struggling with its own internal conflicts, and behind the scenes a new group challenges the two powerful organizations with subterfuge and deception. There are some better and worse parts of this book as the short stories are not all of the same quality; some of them develop characters unnecessarily, given how many interesting elements of the series go by without further expansion. Like The Last Colony, this is in some ways more informative than entertaining. A few of the stories are told from the viewpoints of nobodies watching the main characters do interesting things, which.. didn’t work for me.
Another collection of stories more than a coherent novel, but this one makes better perspective choices. We are introduced to a ship’s pilot who has been taken hostage as a brain in a jar. We get a lot of information about that behind-the-scenes group and their plans before this character escapes & joins up with Harry & the gang from After the Coup. The stories shift perspective & much of the rest of the book is told from the ambassador’s & Harry’s points of view. As a book in the Old Man’s War series, it’s pretty good, but as a finale, it’s kind of a disappointment. I’ll explain why below.
Series Criticism & Things I Wish Were Developed More
The principal criticism I have of the series as a whole is its heavy, heavy reliance on deus ex machina to resolve conflicts. There are more than a few points where bad shit is happening and then something surprising happens and then everything’s okay, followed up by some brief retelling about why it maybe wasn’t just magic hand-waving that saved the day. The first few times it shows the characters as multi-level thinkers who haven’t been totally forth-coming to the reader and it kind of shakes out logically; as the series goes on it becomes really obvious when this is going to happen and tedious to get through while it’s happening.
Another issue I have is how much Scalzi left on the table. To me, there are some incredibly interesting parts of the story that are just… not ever expanded.
- the Consu – they are portrayed as a god-like powerful alien race with advanced science and technology, but who match tech levels of the races they fight. There is some information given about their battle religion & how much of their culture hangs off of it, but the only Consu we get to spend any time with is an unpleasant dick & doesn’t do much to expand or explain the why or what of his species. Which is fair for an individual character, but as it’s the last time in the series we hear directly from or of the Consu, it feels like an unresolved note. The Consu are frequently used in the first part of the series as the deus ex mechanism, hand-waved away by how advanced they are. It just seems so utterly underused.
- John Perry & Jane Sagan – at the end of The Last Colony, John skips into Earth space, pulls back the curtain on the Colonial Union’s lies, and then they both…. go off and live happily ever after in the Conclave? That’s a terrible wrap-up for the two main characters of the first half of the series AND the motive force for the conflict in the second half. That’s not a resolution at all, that’s an author saying “k i’m sick of these two characters”.
- Zoe Boutin & The Oban – I know I said that the story from Zoe’s viewpoint was annoying, and it was, but the Zoe character has a very interesting relationship with a newly-conscious race, the Oban. The Young-Girl-As-Saviour is not necessarily a new trope – there’s a broken version of it in Dune with Paul’s sister Alia. But I thought there was a lot of space to develop the Oban as newly woke, and the relationship between them and Zoe & what she would mean to them over time, changing with her actions, their actions, cultural fads, etc. Did the Oban join the conclave? Does Zoe take up residence on their planet, for safety or stability? But again, this story line simply and disappointingly disappears at the end of Zoe’s Tale.
- the leadership of the Colonial Union – it’s one thing to leave the military branch as opaque; that’s sort of common in military stories, that the chain of command is never forthcoming and the soldiers never know what the larger tactics are. That’s fine when relegated to a story like the first two books. But when the Colonial Union’s governance is utterly opaque while their actions run the gamut (saviour, oppressor, shit-disturber, patsy, shrewd tacticians & clown-faced buffoons) that seems like something missed, or poorly planned. Because their thinking is never explained past “humanity’s future as a whole”, there were times I thought the Colonial Union was led by AIs (cold, calculating sociopath machines), benevolent (to us) aliens (maybe the Consu?), run of the mill idiot politicians and clairvoyants. It’s one thing to leave a group shrouded in mystery, but it’s another thing entirely to do to a reader to simply have them be opaque and poorly explained.