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Well, I finally got around to Old Man’s War. As one comes to expect from Mr. Scalzi, the book contains an intriguing premise, crisp dialog and characters who could easily walk off the page and continue a conversation with you. As the beginning of the Old Man’s War series, it lays down a nice foundation for the way the universe works, imaginative aliens and a plethora of problems to resolve. The action is solid but there’s always something more, in this case, relationships. Like all good ScifFi, it makes us think about fundamental issues including age, maturity and identity. What is it that makes me me? Are we a Platonic soul stuffed into a physical creature for a time or do we have a more holistic mind/body blend that makes us who we are? What makes us an adult. How do we survive in a universe of aggressive species? When may we justly make war on others? These are some of the myriad of issues raised in Old Man’s War.

Old Man's War

I love the way Mr. Scalzi leads you to explore these issues through dialog and action. You get very little monologue or exposition in a long speech; at it’s most pedantic, you have a Socratic-style question/answer session. These discussions take place in the context of folks who care about one another in a believable way. Typically, he can move the story forward during these explanatory dialog sessions. So, I thoroughly recommend the book; for those of you who like action/thrillers, this may be your most comfortable dive into ScifFi. ScifFi lovers will love it as well.

*** Spoilers ***

Now to deal with a couple of challenges that involve revealing a bit of the book. First is the very stark, Platonic breakdown of humans. According to the world of the novel, we have souls (that do require bodies to exist) and body’s that are empty shells until animated from a soul. The soul essentially stays in tact, with the same personality, no matter where it resides. Now, I know that there is at least a shift in my personality based on sleep, coffee and food. Drop all three, and it’s not pretty. There does seem to be a tie between body and mind in the novel other than one of coexistence. Whether it’s Native Americans, ancient Hebrews or Taoist in China, there are cultures that look at the mind/body breakdown more holistically. Christian doctrine recognizes the existence of the soul or spirit without the body (the thief on the cross next to Jesus will be in Paradise that day) but look forward to the resurrection of the body. This would suggest a diminished or, at least, different life bodiless. Life in heaven includes a body. Mr. Scalzi seems to have separated the two. A current, receiving improved body is inanimate – there is no life within it. The old man’s body has life; when that life is transferred to the new body, the soul remains unchanged. It’s personality, it’s thought process is independent of the body as long as it has one. This seems unlikely; rather, I think the person would be the “same”, but the personality would be different. While he has plenty of follow-on novels in this series, it would have been pretty cool for Mr. Scalzi to have explored this impact in Old Man’s War. Indeed, he obliquely deals with it in talking about the relative age and maturity of the ghost brigade whilst recognizing that the communication process would be very different for the “ghosts” as well as emotional maturity. Fast bodies contain fast minds.

The other major issue that seemed to receive somewhat short shrift in this novel is the notion of personality. In particular, how did the ghost brigade get theirs? We have some options:

  • They don’t have true souls.
  • They came from others.
  • They came with the bodies. These are full clones with persons.

None of these options seem satisfactorily handled for the ghost brigade. Clearly they have souls; Jane shows that. These aren’t just soldiers with enough intelligence to fight. Jane is self-reflective and love has budded in her soul.

If they came from others, this would just be a case of a person getting a new body that’s not tied to their current DNA. That would suggest awkwardness, but not a group who was fundamentally different, e.g., communicating via warp speed with their BrainPal.

So this leaves that they came with the bodies. Say what? So does that mean that all of the normal CDF troops usurped the body of an existing person? Does it mean that the cloning process had sterile bodies for CDF regulars and soul-possessing bodies for the Ghost Brigade? Maybe this is explored in The Ghost Brigades, but I’m going to go out on a limb prior to reading it (which I will) and say it won’t be. [UPDATE: OK, so I heard from a friend that it does, so I stand corrected]. But since the Ghost Brigade are the elite, the special forces, why not make all clones sterile? In other words, have the entire CDF be ghost brigade. Do they need to start with dead bodies? Why? Conserving resources doesn’t seem an adequate answer. One explanation given is that the CDF Regulars remain loyal due to their maturity; they might splinter off and no longer defend humanity if they lacked the 75 years of wisdom accumulated. But that’s later dealt a bit of blow in a lunch conversation between John Perry and some special forces folks including Sam Mendel – they both fight loyally because it’s their mission, they’re still human even if a variant and they’re loyal to one another. So they really don’t need those old guys – why make the sterile clones at all, if that’s what’s happening. The alternative, some how ridding the clone of its soul to make room for another seems too macabre for words.

Now I know we’re not to over-analyze these things. It’s not a treatise but a novel. But hey – this is ScifFi – over-analyzing is what ScifFi readers do!

I went back and forth between the Kindle version and William Dufris’s excellent narration in the Audible edition. Not only is Mr. Dufris’ pacing perfect, his tone for John Perry, young and old, hits the mid-west workman-like no-nonsense mark while allowing for emotional punch when needed. I look forward to reading and listening to The Ghost Brigades.

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