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May 14, 2006

Another View of Old Man's War

Nicholas Whyte reads Old Man's War and dislikes it, which is of course perfectly fine, but also assumes that my personal politics can be revealed through its text, which is also perfectly fine, but (in this particular case) wrong. I've added a lengthy comment there, so if you're interested, go on over and check it out. This has the potential to become an interesting conversation.

Warning: the first post there indulges in heavy-duty spoilers, and my response does likewise, so if you've not read OMW, this is your head's-up.

Posted by john at May 14, 2006 09:57 AM

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John B. | May 14, 2006 11:32 AM

Well, I read OMW and from it had no idea of Mr. Scalzi's politics. I found those out from the blog. I disagree with much of his politics. I loved the book, though. Oh, and Ghost too.

Funny, politics need not spill over into his art. Of course, it spills into his blog, but I read that too.

But then, I read lots of things from those I agree with and those I don't. I expand my horizons that way. Good for the brain.

Scott Lynch | May 14, 2006 12:05 PM

Well, at least he was extremely polite about it when everyone started offering counterpoints... usually, when this sort of author/character viewpoint conflation occurs, there's no returning to sane discourse. Ever. This incident's actually pretty heartwarming. ;)

John Scalzi | May 14, 2006 12:16 PM

"This incident's actually pretty heartwarming."

Well, we're all grown-ups here (or are pretending to act like we are, anyway). And this is definitely something that's come up before, and nhw presented it in a really interesting way. So it was a good place to get into it.

I do think SF is particularly susceptible to the assumption that the character POV is the author POV, because, of course, it's been that way so many times, both on the left and the right. And when one writes similarly to Heinlein, who was a master polemicist, one can see why people make assumptions.

joshua corning | May 14, 2006 01:17 PM

What I find interesting is that Whyte made a point that he was voting against the book on the grounds that it had the "wrong" polititcs...as if it is important to keep the the wrong sort of books from winning awards rather then choosing a book on how original the ideas or how developed the world or how well written.

My favorite sci fi author is Iain M Banks and my favorate sci fi book is The Use of Weapons...me being a libertarian and Banks being...well lets face it a card carring communist..i am particulary offended by Whyte's lynch mob tactics...a good sci fi book is a good sci fi book regardless of the politics.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden | May 14, 2006 02:20 PM

"Lynch mob tactics"? That's a pretty offensive charge. I assume you're prepared to back it up.

Before the cheering section gets too far into dissing Nick Whyte, let's pause and contemplate the fact that he's an actual working diplomat, and that he's backing up his criticisms with some pretty credible reality-based arguments.

Obviously I like Old Man's War; I bought it and published it. And I don't agree with all of Nick's criticisms. But I thought some of them hit home, most notably his observation that in reality, violent provocations like Omagh often bring people together, rather than simply setting off the kind of escalation the provocateurs intended.

I'm impressed with John for engaging thoughtfully with Nick. I would suggest that other commenters could learn from John's example, rather than resorting immediately to crude insults like the "lynch mob" remark.

John Scalzi | May 14, 2006 03:29 PM

I'd agree that Nick Whyte commentary is not extreme, merely based on some assumptions that are incorrect. But what I liked about it was that it was a substantive criticism; there was thought behind it. Which is one of the reasons why I responded. I surely hope people don't think I linked to him to mock him or some such.

Ellen | May 14, 2006 03:49 PM

I was a little surprised to see in one of your comments that some people have said that it's primarily a romance -- and then less surprised, because the most memorable couple of lines from the book for me are John Perry's recollection of his wife tripping over her wedding dress. Which is not to say I didn't enjoy the rest of the book, but that bit stuck with me.

Timothy McClanahan | May 14, 2006 04:15 PM

I find it interesting that people compare your work to Heinlein's, and make the same mistake as they did with Heinlein, in this way.

JonathanMoeller | May 14, 2006 04:38 PM

A civil discussion?

Are we sure this is *really* the Internet?

Scorpio | May 14, 2006 05:34 PM

So far, OMW is my favorite of the Hugo nominees :)

I have two to go, and the first of them isn't giving you any competition.

David | May 14, 2006 05:55 PM

Whyte's comments were interesting, and got interestinger, until I came to this:

"...but the explanation of why the commander took offence seemed weak. Perhaps she just didn't like talking about anything reminding her of the massacre of her family sixty years before. (Then why join the army?)"

which sort of jolted me out of the essay in the same way that some stories kick you out of your suspension of disbelief -- (typically because you happen to know something about the subject and because of that, know that things wouldn't happen that way.)

But this one: "Why join the army?". It left me wondering if Mr. Whyte had somehow neglected to read the first 1/4th of the book he's reviewing.

I just couldn't seem to get past that and get back to the rest of the essay.

That Neil Guy | May 14, 2006 07:11 PM

Here's a question akin to the "where do you get your crazy ideas?" (Harlan Ellison famously gets his from a little old lady in Schenectady).

How much of this overarching Colonial politics that we get more of in Ghost Brigades and that makes John Perry an unreliable narrator did you have worked out in advance? How detailed is your universe in your head (or notes)? Just curious how you work.

Otherwise, the whole discussion kind of reminds me of the whole question of author's intent. The beauty of good fiction, I think, is how it can bring up different interpretations in readers that an author never intended at all. I know some writers really deliberately place every allusion, but I'd say that the majority don't. They just tell the story. From my own experience, I read an explication of one of my own short stories (that was longer than the story itself) that pointed out all the "obvious" biblical parallels to the Moses story. And I thought I'd just written a piece about Sinatra and a cocktail waitress...

joshua corning | May 14, 2006 07:42 PM

Patrick Nielsen Hayden wants a response:

I assume you're prepared to back it up.

so here it is quoted from the article:

But it is the political message behind this chapter, and, I suspect the rest of the book, that upsets me most.


So, not really recommended, I'm afraid, unless you feel comfortable with the author's politics. And I don't.

I am not particluarely upset that he gets John's politics wrong what does is that Nick Whyte sees politics as legitimate criteria for judgiung the quality of a sci fi novel...as if there is only one true political stance a sci fi novel may have to make it "good" enough for the Hugo.

John Scalzi | May 14, 2006 07:42 PM

That Neil Guy:

"How much of this overarching Colonial politics that we get more of in Ghost Brigades and that makes John Perry an unreliable narrator did you have worked out in advance? "

Some but not all. I tend to write a lot of this stuff as I go along, and I'm an opportunistic sort of writer.

CoolBlue | May 14, 2006 08:49 PM

Um, that's a rather lame review. You either enjoy a book or you don't what the hell does the author's politics have to do with it?

It reminds me of that whole dust up with the Dixie Chicks. Yeah, I didn't like the fact that they went to a foreign country and bashed Bush. But what the hell does that have to do with their music?

I liked their stuff before and I liked them after and I like them today.

The book was a good read. And what's more, I like John.

I could give a shit about his politics.

Though the debating is fun....

Catherine | May 14, 2006 09:44 PM

I liked the revier even thought I disagreed with it (again because he-the reviewer-had reasons that seemed to back up what he was saying...), and I like the way John responded.

As for overall resonance, I certainly picked up on the romance aspect, and I didn't pay as much attention to the politics, *knowing* it was only loosely based on our current situation...

I tended to looked more at the over-lying (or is that under-lying) structure of what could be going on here if the folks on earth are/were so clueless..

Hmmm, Looking forward to reading Ghost Brigades...

Jon Marcus | May 14, 2006 10:06 PM

Joshua Corning:

"So, not really recommended, I'm afraid, unless you feel comfortable with the author's politics. And I don't."

Those are words you'd use to stir up a lynch mod? Remind me never to send you to start a lynching.

Mr. Whyte speculated that a character never wanted to be reminded of the military's slaughter of her family. That's the context for the "Why join the army" question. In that context, it's a pretty valid question.

Bill Blum | May 14, 2006 10:18 PM

I like John's books, and have pimped them to many a friend, despite his on-the-record disparagement of White Castle.

Naomi | May 15, 2006 12:18 AM

I found Whyte's thoughts interesting -- I disagreed with his viewpoint but could understand why he'd reached the conclusion he did.

You either enjoy a book or you don't what the hell does the author's politics have to do with it?

I don't think it's exactly the author's politics as the politics of the book. There are books that are very strongly pushing a particular agenda. Many books like this are unreadable on their literary merits alone (I'll throw out the Left Behind series as an example of that). There are some that are good books but are nonetheless eagerly pushing ideas that I feel profoundly uncomfortable with.

I think it's legitimate to say that a book (or movie) is good overall but pushes an ideology you find repugnant and thus you hated it.

Other Stephen | May 15, 2006 05:31 AM

To take the use of political criteria in judging a book to an extreme I think means asking if a book with politics that you hate that is otherwise excellently written deserves your Hugo vote.

For example, if the author advocates terrorism (or in ages past anarchism, communism, etc) is it conceivable that anything could make up for it?

I think the answer is that it depends entirely on the approach and handling of the matter. If the author is able to make the reader accept that the ground rules of their world necessitate assuming the universal correctness of a certain political viewpoint, and the reader can take that as part of their suspension of disbelief, the the book will probably succeed. If however the author cannot write in a way that appeals to readers that do not fall into the author's exact mindset already, then it can correctly be said the the politics detract from the effectiveness of the book.

Personally I think that Ayn Rand is a great example. Without her political views, her books would be pamphlets. That's not to say that what was left would be bad writing, quite the contrary. However, when you feel like you're being beaten over the head the whole time, it's hard to enjoy a book. Even if you agree, an author can make you sick of hearing their diatribes.

I don't think that John is in danger of crossing that line, rather I think that he is, farily neutrally, throwing out various viewpoints independent of which characters have to go into the meat grinder to move the story. The only problem with that, if any, is that it runs the danger of coming across as a luke-warm, "everybody wins" approach, pleasing no one and staying safely inoffensive.

John H | May 15, 2006 09:50 AM

Nick made the honest mistake of assuming what John was writing was his own political diatribe instead of what the character might have been thinking at the time. Having enlisted in the army straight out of high school I can say the reaction of John Perry and his platoon-mates to the perceived pomposity of Bender rings true.

Military units by their very nature tend to have a pack mentality, with the older, more experienced members deciding how well the new guy is accepted - especially a newbie straight out of boot camp. I could have seen them giving Bender a blanket party if he hadn't gotten killed.

Daruku | May 15, 2006 01:46 PM

The comments on that blog were more interesting than the blog post itself :)

Patrick Nielsen Hayden | May 15, 2006 02:34 PM

What Jon Marcus said. Joshua Corning's assertion that Whyte's review deploys "lynch mob tactics" is simply abuse, and his response to my challenge does nothing to defend his behavior. Corning obviously has no idea what the words he's using actually mean.

As for "politics", some other commenters hereabouts seem to think that there's something automatically reprehensible about criticizing a science fiction novel based on its politics. In fact, of course, science fiction is a form of storytelling in which it's almost impossible not to engage, on some level, with "politics." That's because it's literally not possible to write a story set in an imagined future without, to at least some small extent, taking a position--even if only for the purposes of the story--on Big Political Questions, such as the relative value of equality and meritocracy; the importance of privacy; whether the decline of titled aristocracy is a temporary aberration or a long-term trend; whether individual freedom depends on property or is in conflict with it; and so forth, endlessly. You can't make up a plausible future without revealing at least a little of how you think the world works, and to do that is the beginning of "politics".

Here's the truth:

Science fiction is a narrative form in which people of very different, even opposed, mundane political views and allegiances can sometimes (often!) engage with one another in productive and interesting ways. As Samuel R. Delany once wrote, "Marx's favorite novelist was Balzac--an avowed Royalist. And Heinlein is one of mine."

Also: It's entirely possible, and often reasonable, to criticize a science fiction novel because its politics are stupid.

Does that mean I think every SF novel written from a viewpoint I don't share is without value? If that's the question you're now asking yourself, you're really not getting it.

Chang | May 15, 2006 04:59 PM


I think this cat rode the compare Scalzi to Heinlein train a wee bit too far. Of course, I know your weak Lefty politics clearly from the blog(Kidding, baby, kidding!), but I think he just went off on it.

David | May 15, 2006 06:33 PM

Jon Marus, no it's not a valid question for the context of this book.

The context of the question is that you're 75 years old and you have a choice of rejuvenation or "rather not be reminded" and dying -- sort of the ultimate in not having to be reminded anymore.

Unless you're an absolute fanatic (which there's no reason to suppose she was), I think you opt for choice "A", reminders or no.

Anne C. | May 15, 2006 07:19 PM

I don't agree with Whyte's post, but as John has pointed out, people's reactions to books are extremely varied. To dismiss someone's reaction to a book simply because you don't agree with it is a disservice to education and intellectual exchange (both ideals fostered by books, incidentally).

I think Whyte fell into that common reader error: confusing the book with its creator. Sure, some novelists use thier books as a pulpit or soapbox (from the right or left, respectively? ;) but others view themselves more as journalists, setting down the story as it comes to them. It is a game of "what if" that in the best case leads both writer and reader into new territory. In Whyte's case, he apparently did not like what he found there, and blamed his guide.

Scott | May 15, 2006 08:44 PM

Just vaguely related... on the topic of authorial intent...

At what point did you (writer and readers) decide that Old Man's War had an inherently Viking view of the afterlife? ("Die", ascend, party, fight indefinitely, die (properly) and call it quits.) Was it an accident? Does it matter if it was? It's not like it changes the actual story whether or not Scalzi is trying to preserve the Viking mythology?
I haven't read TGB yet, maybe it will expand on the mythology...

It took me about a month after reading it...

John Scalzi | May 15, 2006 09:00 PM

Heh. It's a coincidence, Scott. Although now that you mention it, I like the coincidence.

Scott | May 16, 2006 04:02 AM

So, there you have it boys and girls... authorial intent is for the birds. Books are filled with what they're filled with.

Also, if somebody or something named Loki betrays "The Last Colony" I'm taking a percentage.

Nicholas Whyte | May 16, 2006 09:36 AM

Well, my original post on Old Man's War pulled in 23 comments, and this thread is up to 29 (now 30, I guess), which is something of an Event. My thanks to John Scalzi for engaging with this reader's comments as thoughtfully as he has done, and to (most of) those others who have chipped in.

Obviously, I have had to revisit one of my core assumptions. I completely withdraw my assumption that John is a slavering warmonger who does not care about civilian control of the military. I also withdraw my accusation that the character of "Bender" is a deliberate piss-take of former Senator George Mitchell, and accept that the striking similarities between their two careers were not intended.

Having said that, I'm still very unsatisfied with a book that presents militarism in such an uncritical way. I admit that I came to this fresh from reading Heart of Darkness and Things Fall Apart, where we may reasonably assume that the authors are expressing their own opinions through those of the central characters. Achebe complains that Conrad "neglects to hint however subtly or tentatively at an alternative frame of reference by which we may judge the actions and opinions of his characters", and I make the same criticism of John - with the qualification that of the two characters who do hint at such an alternative frame of reference, one is a sheer caricature and both come to sticky ends.

I am also still left with the core of my original objection: that Bender is a crude caricature of a character. Neither John nor his defenders have really refuted this. John says,

Bender's salient charateristic, for me at least, was his grasping opportunism; he wasn't looking for peace for its own ends but for what he thought it could do for him (thus he injected himself into a future peace process on Earth, and did a poor enough job with it that it was easily shattered, and was attempting to do a similar thing in the book).
Other livejournal commenters characterise Bender as "an example of a certain mindset common in America" and "a spoof of self-important politicians". Nobody thinks of him as a well-rounded or even particularly credible character. One of the commenters here says that "I can say the reaction of John Perry and his platoon-mates to the perceived pomposity of Bender rings true"; and indeed it does, but Bender does not ring true in the first place. The initial set-up, of Bender accidentally getting a bad peace agreement, simply is not a credible premise. You don't get peace agreements, good or bad, by accident or by careless work.

I am also still personally annoyed about the glib setting of Bender's career slip-up in Northern Ireland. I don't mind jokes about Northern Ireland politics (see my blog posts here, here, here, and here). But I do require them to be actually funny, and this one isn't.

A couple of the respondents above criticized me for making political judgements about the book at all. Hey, folks, I make political judgements for a living; get over it. And it is a gross mistake to suggest that my sole reason for disliking the book was my perception of the political message. I have even been known to excoriate sf where I actually agreed with the political message but found the way in which it was delivered distasteful (see in particular my take on Terry Bisson's "macs"). (And if you think that announcing my intention to put Old Man's War fifth on my Hugo ballot, and recommending that readers uncomfortable with militarism avoid it, amounts to lynch mob tactics, clearly you have been fortunate in your experience of lynch mobs.)

I'm afraid I am mystified by "David"'s comments on the the argument scene between Bender and the commander (and thanks, Jon Marcus, for trying to clarify that). I did not understand the story-teller's reasoning as to why the commander took offence. We are told that Bender's remarks reminded her of the circumstances of the massacre of her family. It seems to me that if you don't want to be reminded of the violent deaths of your relatives, it is probably unwise to join a profession where many of your colleagues are likely to meet violent deaths. The commander did not seem to me an unwise person (indeed, I think her comments were very sensible, which is why I regret that John chose to kill her off on the next page). "David" seems to think that the lure of rejuvenation easily trumps childhood trauma. I simply don't believe that. So it seemed to me an unconvincing added detail to a passage in the book that I already did not like much.

Surprisingly nobody here picked up on a point made by several livejournal commentators, who disagreed with my honestly held opinion that people in their 70s are different from people in their 30s. One person accused me of the "myopia of youth". My myopia is undeniable - I have been wearing glasses since I was six - but having just turned 39, I am pleased rather than annoyed to be accused of excessive youth!

Anne C. | May 16, 2006 04:00 PM

"clearly you have been fortunate in your experience of lynch mobs"
Heh. Nicholas, you have the advantage of using language well.
I am very glad that you have provided John with your thoughtful criticism because in the end it will make John (also thoughtful) a better writer. If he were truly god-like in his brilliant talent, he would have nowhere to improve, and that would be sad for him and for us, his readers.
It also reflects well upon you that you took the time to see John is not a war-monger (unless of course, he is stirring the political pot here on his own site ;).
As for the "not sounding old" criticism, I agree with the elders who spoke out on your own blog, but felt no need to elaborate, as they expressed themselves quite well and with more authority than I have.

David | May 16, 2006 04:26 PM

Mr. Whyte wants to boil my point down to "the lure of rejuvenation easily trumps childhood trauma." and says that he simply doesn't believe that.

Perhaps that's because it omits the most salient point of the argument -- namely that the alternative is the irrevocable acceptance of near-term death. Irrespective of rejuvenation, I suspect that alone trumps quite a bit. "Do this or die" is a fairly persuasive argument, yet completely ignored in Mr. Whyte's summation.

And it's a difficult point to miss, considering the protagonist's grappling with that very question early in the book.

joshua corning | May 16, 2006 06:51 PM

lynch mob, lynch mob, lynch mob...look ma no lightning bolts from heaven have struck me down.

Instead of "lynch mob" (using as a general term of disgust) i should have been dead on specific...how about "closed minded lout".

anyway here is what Patrick Nielsen Hayden said:

In fact, of course, science fiction is a form of storytelling in which it's almost impossible not to engage, on some level, with "politics."

of course he is swinging hard at a strawman of his own imaginings...namely that anyone here ever said that Sci-fi is best when it does not have a political view...in fact i can safely say most sci-fi I read has a strong political view...and horror beyond horrors much of it has political views that I strongly dissagree with...in fact i pointed out Iain M banks as one of my favorite authors and who's political views I find very distasteful...

Yet i still recommend all of you read "Use of Weapons"

On a side note: Perhaps Nicholas wants to take away Hemingways nobel prize becouse he wrote works that glorified war?

Jon Marcus | May 16, 2006 09:02 PM


Nope no bolts from heaven striking you down. But there were quite a few people who thought less of your argument because you misused the language. Glad you clarified.

Re Patrick's comments. No one's said SF is best when it doensn't have a political view. But quite a few people have said that politics is irrelevant to the SF quality. (e.g. "a good sci fi book is a good sci fi book regardless of the politics"). Your "straw man" accusation notwithstanding, Patrick's right that "It's entirely possible, and often reasonable, to criticize a science fiction novel because its politics are stupid."

And re Hemingway, if it's straw for the goose, it's straw for the gander.

If I recall (and that's not just a snotty turn of phrase. I borrowed OMW from the library a few months ago, so I'm going from memory here) Perry wasn't anywhere near immediate death. And quite a few people chose not to join the military. So it's quite conceivable that soomeone who'd been traumatized by the military wouldn't choose to join up.

I think it's another one of those topics that John left unexplored. Fine, that's his style. But it's also valid for a reviewer to criticize that style.

Scott | May 16, 2006 11:13 PM

I think a lot of people are missing the cause for offense. It wasn't "being reminded" from my take.

It was, "You are daring to preach to me about that? I lost my family to it, and came to terms with it, and here I am following proper, legitimate orders, in line exactly with the document I signed in enlistment which forbade any sort of contientious (argh, spelling) objection to application of force, and you are going to talk to me about 'just following orders'."

Or something like that.

David | May 17, 2006 03:49 PM

Perry wasn't anywhere near immediate death, Jon?

Well, neither was his wife when she died anyway. But since the last thing Perry did before enlisting (on his 75th birthday) was to visit his wife's grave, I'd say mortality and the alternative to enlisting was very, very much on his mind.

It's also quite conceivable that someone with strong antipathy for the military (like Perry himself), might easily choose life over death despite that, reasoning that a short (for all they knew) term of military service isn't that high a price to pay for another lifetime of mostly doing other things. That's a set of options not completely unfamiliar to some people today.

Sure, there are some who choose otherwise, but they are not facing the same, irrevocable choice that Scalzi's people were. I'm not claiming that any and everyone would choose life even at the cost of a little military service, but one heckuva lot would despite their feelings, just as Perry did.

Which would scarcely be the utterly incomprehensible decision Whyte wants to make of it.

Chris Gerrib | May 17, 2006 04:23 PM

I'm the guy that said Bender was a "type." To be clear, I think you can be a "type" and still be a rounded character.

For those not following this on Whyte's blog, I said that Bender was a type of person that assumed everybody was "just like him." He didn't try to understand the cultural / social differences between humans.

This was why his "peace deal" in Northern Ireland failed (to read into the story). I would argue that he probably never had a "real" peace deal in the first place - if he did, a kid with a grenade wouldn't have ruined it.

Anonymous | May 20, 2006 03:22 AM

Jon Marcus:

Love your ironic response to JC!

Also, re the Nobel Prize i) the Swedish Academy have the absolute right to give it to whoever they like for whatever reason they like, just as I, a Hugo voter, have the absolute right to vote for whoever I like for whatever reasons I like; and ii) the latest Nobel Prize for Literature was clearly awarded at least in part for the recipient's political stance, including his position on militarism, outside his literary works. I think reasonable people can disagree on whether they made the right call on this occasion, or others.

I'm sorry if anyone thinks my making those points is loutish.


I wasn't actually discussing Perry's choice, but Visneros'. I have to say, though, that even for Perry I think the decision-making process was a bit less automatic than you seem to believe. At least, that's what I got from the book; though I may be projecting my own attitudes onto the character.


As I said on my blog (didn't respond to your follow-up because it would have simply been repeating the point), the initial set-up, of Bender accidentally getting a bad peace agreement, simply is not a credible premise. You don't get peace agreements, good or bad, by accident or by careless work.


That interpretation actually does make sense to me; thanks. I am well aware that nothing is more annoying, and difficult to deal with, than when vague acquaintances start offering free advice on medical problems from which you or your family may be suffering, or making casual remarks which happen to be more relevant to your own situation than perhaps they realised. But it really wasn't clear to me from the scene as written.

Gus | May 22, 2006 02:31 PM

Just a quick comment on the behavior of the old people in OMW... Having spent a fair amount of time with my 80+ year-old father, his wife, and a number of their cronies, their dialogue rang true to me. The opinionated banter sounded about right.

Joe | June 5, 2006 03:11 PM

Trackbacks are turned off, I guess, or I did something wrong in trying to ping the trackback, but I did weigh in on this on my own blog, so, a bit late, I thought I'd add my input.

John Scalzi | June 5, 2006 03:13 PM

Trackbacks are on, they're just weirdly scattershot in terms of showing up on my site's radar.

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