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Books: Old Man’s War

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

catwithhat.pngI finished reading Old Man’s War by John Scalzi last night. It’s another military sci-fi book. Yes, I know – this is not a healthy habit and I need to quit today. Maybe tomorrow.

The book’s interstellar politics can be easily described through the board-game monopoly: many alien species like planets similar enough to our own tastes that first contact typically occurs over territory disputes; humans are essentially boxed in from all sides by other species; if humans wish to remain competitive in a few centuries’ time they better start invading. It’s interesting how ethics are fundamentally based on self-preservation.

Earth is essentially excommunicated from all human colonies. This is to prevent disease as well as the culture shock of inter-species war of this scale. For example one encounter involved some bad aliens landing on an unarmed colony and enslaving all the colonists (enslaving in this case meaning caging everyone, milking the males, impregnating the females, and finally cooking up some human-flavored veal).

So the universe is a bad place where humans are not that popular. The military’s attrition rate stays around 80% mainly because every war they fight is completely different from the last. So enlistment takes place on Earth where no-one has a clue what they are in for. People sign up because it’s the only option to leave the planet. And that’s where the title comes from: enlistment is only accepted on the applicant’s 75th birthday. The recruit is then genetically modified to become a soldier who will (hopefully) be capable to compete with all the unknown alien badguys out there. I swear it makes more sense in the book.

The book is a quick read, about eight hours. It’s not “life-changing good” but still very enjoyable. The characters feel genuine and are hilarious which is what makes this book so much fun.

Books: The Forever War

Friday, February 22, 2008

stormtrooper.jpgI finished a book!

The Forever War is one of those military sci-fi books I read so much yet am too embarrassed to discuss with my real friends. Overall I would give it a 7/10, enjoyable but nothing too special. The author knows his physics, especially general relativity, which provides most of the interesting concepts behind this. He also served in the Army during Vietnam and it shows as the main character is painfully ostracized from society.

But for me the book really excels when it discusses the time-dilation effects of an interstellar war. The first veterans arrive back on Earth after a single skirmish thirty years after they left, but only two years from their perspective. Enemy reinforcements will unexpectedly arrive with equipment decades ahead of what the humans have, or show up to fight with weapons almost a century out of date. Soldiers are sent to worlds so distant and numerous that they often don’t even bother naming them.

There are other topics explored such as conscription, military sociology and culture, eugenics, and the economics of war. Interesting quirks in the world described are heavy drug use and fraternization, but he was a college student in the sixties so what can you do? It’s not as philosophically deep as Starship Troopers (the empirical standard to measure these stories by) but still fun. It took me about 12 hours to jog through it.