I think it's the most human of all questions to ask yourself (at any stage in life really), if you could do it all over again, what would you do differently? That question takes on greater weight in the twilight years of our life and wisdom mingled with regret and nostalgia gives us an imagination rooted more in reality, but perhaps just as vivid and active as when we're children. John Scalzi's Old Man's War
explores this very topic with as much subtlety as it has force in a story that's as much Arthur C. Clarke speculative fiction as it is gritty Robert Heinlein military fiction and social commentary. On the surface that's a jarring combination, but it works wondrously in Scalzi's hands from the quiet end-of-life introspection to the fantastic reaches of an opened up universe and man's violent place in it.
Widower John Perry is in for the ride of his life. In some sense, he's been waiting for the end, not with a sense of dread, but with anticipation. On Perry's Earth, in the not-too-distant future, human beings have the opportunity to sign up for the Colonial Defense Forces at the ripe age of 75. The CDF only takes geriatrics. It provides humanity on Earth with protection from alien hostility in a universe teeming with life and guarantees humanity's spread throughout the stars and its very survival. It can do miraculous things with technology centuries in advance of what the Earth currently has. And no one has any idea how they do it. The CDF is cloaked in secrecy and the only real way to find out what's going on above Earth's horizon is to join them. In exchange for a tour of duty, older people get a "new lease on life" - whatever that means. On his 75th birthday, Perry begins the adventure of a lifetime. Old Man's War
is clearly patterned and influenced by Joe Haldeman's fantastic hard sci-fi Forever War
and Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers
. We follow Perry's adjustment from civilian life through basic to joining a squad and getting his first taste of war and beyond. The narrative does all that it's predecessors did well as well. It raises ethical questions about warfare, militarism and perceived cultural superiority, and morality when it comes to interspecies (read: international) relations with groups that seem hopelessly alien to us. On top of that, Old Man's War
also raises very interesting questions about personality and identity in a unique way by supplanting the previous life and existence of the central narrator with an entirely new one, forcing him to adapt to a radically altered state of being and environment, to develop a new sense of self while maintaining a sense of self at his core that allows him a bit of psychological respite. Mingling and intertwining elements of his past and present life lead Perry down a rawly emotional path that you can't help but empathize with, no matter how absurdly alien things become to us. It's a brilliant narrative ploy as well. It grounds the reader in the "normal" while exposing them to the fantastic and aids in the suspension of disbelief, which is very difficult to achieve in some sci-fi pieces. The concept seems hokey when you read a blurb about it, but it actually works quite well.
Being scientifically-minded, I was immediately drawn to the more literal aspects of "selfhood" presented by the narrative's central conceit - unfortunately filled with spoilers that ruin the suspense of the first quarter of the book, so warning, don't click the following link unless you've read the novel. If our sense of selves are rooted in our consciousness, of what is our consciousness composed? Can it be copied? Or transferred? In the novel, Perry's consciousness is mapped by recording his psychological and neurological reactions to certain emotional stimuli. The data is then used to create a pattern which is "transferred" to a new body that is genetically altered and adapted to be combat ready. Is the new being that inhabits the new Perry body (built in part with his DNA) and patterned after his consciousness and brain functioning in fact Perry? In other words, is it still really the same Perry from the old body in the new? Or is the "exact" copy a new Perry that is indistinguishable from the first with every mannerism and memory down to the second of the transfer (and thus unaware that he's a copy)? Is continuity essential from consciousness? And what would this imply for consciousness if it was actually the same Perry? Couldn't you copy it a million times over in a million new bodies? Would Perry, as a conscious entity be aware of all the others and experience all of their realities simultaneously? In an infinitely large universe (or multiverse) could you die, have your atoms scattered, but through a stroke of luck be reconstituted in the same configuration (brain-wise) at a different place and time and become conscious again? In a way it reminds me of the whole Star Trek teleporter debate: if you're disassembled at the molecular level and reassembled somewhere else do you die and come back? Or is the teleported version of you just a copy? My mind is thankful that Scalzi doesn't indulge this philosophical discussion for very long or I wouldn't have been able to sleep at night.
And thus while the main reason I loved this book was mainly scientific, the one problem I had with it was also, very scientific. Again, spoilers follow. The CDF's skip drive technology is based on the Many World's Interpretation of quantum mechanics. Essentially, the drive tears a whole in the multiverse and moves the occupants of the ship to a neighboring universe in the location they'd like to be in. So every time they skip, they change universes. With me so far? This presents a little bit of a problem for humanity's main goal of spreading through the universe, colonizing and holding new territories. Let's say your colony is attacked and you send word of the attack to the local CDF garrison via skip drone. That message is delivered, but in another universe that is very similar to our own, but NOT our universe. You wait for a response and you receive none, because in your universe the CDF did not get the message. In the "new" neighboring universe, they did. They send a response force to defend you via skip drive...which arrives in a neighboring, similar but not SAME universe. You die. So ultimately, in one of many new universes in the multiverse, humanity expands and thrives among the stars because of all of this back and forth, but not in yours. Also, I'd be tempted on the face of the theory that all possible universes do in fact exist to simply reason that humanity would have thrived anyway in one of them. In addition to that, since I've got the spoiler tag up, I don't feel like the explanation for why the CDF is so secretive about its extraplanetary operations was ever fully given, making the mystery of the first part of the narrative seem kind of pointless beyond a narrative gimmick. It really had no plot consequences at all, even speculatively. So, basically if you don't really have a more than average understanding of quantum mechanics then suspending disbelief in this respect is very easy...luckily for the more discerning audience, the action and development of Perry as a character take precedence and help you get over your cosmological trepidations.
Scalzi's work is a page-turner that would be a wonderfully adventurous jaunt for hardened fans of the genre and more sentimental readers interested in the more reflective aspects of fiction as a mirror of life. A surprisingly great read here at the end of the year and I'm definitely looking at finishing the series in the next couple weeks of vacation.