Thursday, May 8, 2014

Old Man's War (a book review post)

Disclaimer: Portions of this review are going to sound like I liked the book much less than I did. Just know from the beginning that I liked the book. I'm going to read the next one. But I'm still going to talk about the things that bothered me as I was reading. Mostly because they allow me to talk about some writing things within a context that gives an example of what I'm talking about.

Also: Although this is a traditionally published book, (if I have my facts straight) it started out as an indie book published serially on Scalzi's blog where it was "discovered," so I'm sort of looking at this from the aspect of covering an indie writer, albeit an indie writer that has made it big.

But let's get on with the review.

The first thing to note is that the book is in first person. Now, this is my own bias, but I'm beyond tired of first person stories. Unless there is some specific reason for first that can't be accomplished in third (like the tone of The Dresden Files and the fact that first person is part of the whole detective genre thing), I'd rather not see first person for a long, long time. Like I said, this is my own thing and may come from the fact that almost all I see is first person stories from the middle schoolers I work with despite how often I tell them to write in third. I only mention it at all because it does cause an internal groan from me at this point when I open a book and it's first person.

The next thing springs out of the first thing. There's this thing that frequently happens with sci-fi writers (sometimes fantasy, too, with magic systems). They come up with these brilliant sci-fi ideas, and they want to share them with you. Like, for instance, if I want to have a teleporter in my story, but I can't just have the teleporter because that's been done a lot, right, so I have to have some cool idea about how a teleporter works; that's what makes it mine. And, if I have the idea, I want to share it with you. In a third person story, this isn't such a big deal, because you can include a description in the narrative and it doesn't necessarily seem out of place. However, in a first person story, it's usually like inviting someone into your house then explaining how the TV works and the computer works and the cell phone works. The thing is, most of us don't have more than just a vague idea of how those things really work, so when a character in a book who is just a normalish guy starts explaining how high tech gadgets work, then it feels out of place.

Fortunately, Scalzi doesn't quite fall prey to that trap. Rather than have John Perry explain all that stuff to us, he has it explained to him, which makes Scalzi's desire to share his clever ideas mostly acceptable. Actually, the first clever idea is more than acceptable, because there's a political reason for the tech, and that was interesting. The second clever idea is also acceptable because it's something that's happening to Perry, but they start becoming gratuitous after that because they're things that most people wouldn't have an interest in knowing and are actually frequently accompanied by "you don't have the math" to explain why Perry doesn't and can't understand the things being explained to him, yet he persists in having the people give the explanations while maintaining that he doesn't know what they're talking about.

The other thing I had an issue with was that Perry was the cleverest guy around. Which isn't of itself an issue except that he would point something obvious that no one else had ever thought of. This is actually a major plot point in the book, that Perry notices something that decades worth of people, many who should have been much smarter than him, have completely dismissed as irrelevant or trivial. It was a thing I couldn't buy into. There wasn't even a "yeah, we noticed that, but we don't know what it means," which could have worked. Instead it was, "yeah, that's nothing. It doesn't mean anything." Which, of course, was wrong.

Beyond that, I had a difficult time having any emotional investment in the book. I was never worried about Perry or, even, really cared about him. I think it was the first person and the style he used within the first person. It had that feel of someone sitting right in front of you telling a story, but, you know, the guy is right there in front of you, so you know everything comes out okay in the end, so to speak. It made it hard for me to engage beyond a surface level.

That said, it was a great surface level book. The world (multiverse) that Scalzi has created is interesting, and I want to see where he's going with the meta-story. Perry's voice as the narrator was engaging so, even though I wasn't worried about him, I did want to know what was happening. It was engaging right from the beginning, too, so there was never any point where I thought I might not be able to get into the book. The parallel opening and ending was a nice touch.

In short, it's a quick, light read. If you like space opera, you ought to read this book.

The new issue of Indie Writers Monthly is out!
You should pick up a copy today! I know I will!


  1. Not sure whether I would like this or not. Mind you I know what's going to happen in Apollo 13 and that it all comes out right in the end, but I still sit on the edge of my seat when I watch the movie.

  2. A Facebook "friend" read this recently and liked it, though I don't think his review was as comprehensive.

  3. You hit a number of my pet peeves, including first person. I've never read a first person book that I really loved. And info-dumps are info-dumps even if done in dialog. I enjoyed reading your review though! :)

  4. Cool. Sounds like I'd like this. And awesome that a new issue of IWM is out! Hope it's going well for you guys!! :)

  5. Rajiv: Thanks!

    Jo: I don't remember that movie causing me any stress, but it's been a while since I've seen it.

    Pat: It's a good book. Definitely intriguing enough to make me want to know what's going on in the big story.

    Lexa: I like the Dresden books quite a bit and they're first. It fits the tone of the books.

    Pk: It's going okay. I think everyone is overworked, so to speak.

  6. Not stress exactly, but even though I remember it happening and watching the news, and having seen the movie several times, I am still on the edge of my seat until they are safe. After all, someone might change the ending LOL

  7. I don't mind first person, and I could ignore the info dumps, but the main character realizing all the important stuff is one of the things that grates my nerves. Still, I might check it out just to see what he's done with the multiverse thing.

  8. Jo: A movie like that for me was Argo.

  9. Jeanne: I don't mind it if the MC is supposed to be super smart or something, but Perry's mostly normal, definitely not a genius or anything, so there's no real good reason why someone else wouldn't have figured out the particular point years and years before him.

  10. Your review amounts to "I could read it quickly and he had some good ideas" as far as positives/recommendations go. It didn't sound like those balanced out the negatives you discussed at length. I'd be interested in seeing a part 2 where you weigh those good/bad things and explain why the bad didn't outweigh the good. Because based on this review, I'm not going to mark the book as one I want to read.

    Your comments on first person actually are broader than you intend. EVERYTHING you opt to do as a writer should have a good reason. First person is the easiest way to write -- it alleviates any responsibility to explain what other characters are thinking (or allows you to do it simply: "I told him exactly what I was thinking," Third Person Said To Me.) That's why your kids in class choose that.

    I tend to write in third person with limited viewpoints into other's heads; that's easy, too. Third Person Omniscient is probably the hardest but best way to write. First person can be effective if you're trying to make the reader uncomfortable (as I was with "Temporary Anne," e.g.) It sounds like here the writer had a reason for it as the story seems like it was intended to put you in the character's shoes as a newcomer (?) to this world. Although you're pretty sketchy on plot details so it's hard to tell.

    Another reason part 2 would be appreciated.

    As for explaining all this tech, Larry Niven does that a lot, too. In the most recent one I read from him ("Building Harlequin's Moon") it started to get a little intrusive, and I think that was the problem here: the writer didn't find a good way to work it into the story and make it interesting and a plot point. So if what you've got is a great tech idea or magic system, maybe just explain it in an appendix to the book. That way people who want to read it will, and it won't drag the story down with umpteen pages of "And then the ions go to the calibrator..."

  11. Briane: After I read the second one, I'll try to touch on what you're asking for in a part two review.

    Actually, I think third omniscient is easier than any kind of restricted third. It's why so many people have a problem with head hopping. Maintaining your story to just what one character knows is very difficult (and why Rowling cheats with Harry's dreams and such).

    And, yes, I do agree that everything a writer does should be done with intention.

  12. I find it easier to do limited. I say people find it easier because you can just say "harry thought Hermione Looked dumb" rather than having to try to find a way to show that.

  13. Briane: Well, that's true, but you can do that same kind of thing in 3rd omniscient. And in 1st.

  14. Sounds intriguing. I haven't given much thought to whether I prefer 1st or 3rd person. I can see how too much 1st would drive one crazy, though.

  15. TAS: Well, first can be good when it's well and appropriately; it's just usually not needed. I mean that in that it doesn't add anything to the story, and I think it ought to.

  16. I've found if you don't really bond with the characters, it's tough to like a book. I have to care about what happens to the people I'm reading about to really enjoy myself. If I don't, I won't make it past the first couple of chapters.

  17. I tend to gloss over technical explanations of such things because I don't actually know if they are true and would work. First person, I agree, can be a bit boring.

  18. I read Scalzi's Redshirts after many many friends recommended it, and I liked it but did not love it. Have been wobbling over whether to read Old Man's War; I heard it's better. I also don't like techno-info-dumps, though I suspect sci-fi writers do them because most of their readership eats that stuff up. Anyway, in spite of your caveats, it does sound like a good read.

  19. Stephanie Faris: Well, it was an interesting story, and I wanted to know what happened, but, yeah, I just didn't care about any of the characters.

    Sally: As long as they are hypothetically true, I'm okay.

    Stephanie: I want to read Redshirts but not if it's not as good as Old Man's War. Redshirts won the Hugo, so I'll be upset if it's less good than OMW.