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May 22, 2005

Old Man's War: A Recruiter's Wet Dream?

Blogger Douglas Hoffman read Old Man's War and liked it, so he gave it to his wife to read. Her reaction:

She zipped through it in two days, called it entertaining, and set it aside. A day later, she came in to the office and declared that she’d been thinking things over in the shower that morning and had decided that Old Man’s War was derivative, war-mongering, simplistic, and morally bankrupt, and that all extant copies of it should be burned.


Hoffman enumerates his wife's reasons for despising the book, which I invite you to read, because I think they're interesting, and if I weren't actually the guy who wrote the book (and therefore have inside information), I could certainly see how the complaints seem perfectly reasonable. I respond at length there (without snark, even!), so I won't get into it here, but naturally, I don't think the book is as bad as all that. But go over and read. It's a really interesting perspective on the book. Note that the discussion has some mild spoilers, so if you don't want to know certain plot details, you might want to skip.

Posted by john at May 22, 2005 01:07 AM

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Douglas Hoffman | May 22, 2005 03:09 AM

Well, I guess there are no hard feelings, huh? I didn't think you'd be too upset (no such thing as bad publicity, and all that), but I confess that my gut clenched when I saw the "John Scalzi said . . . "

And, no, you weren't the least bit snarky, although I'm not sure I can say the same about my/Karen's post.

When is Ghost Brigades coming out, by the way?

Best regards,


Brandon | May 22, 2005 06:19 AM

I think the phrase "one track mind" should come into play somewhere in this discussion.

Also, why can't people just take obviously escapist fiction at face value? No offense, you understand, but the book was 90% fluffy goodness. There wasn't a message to be had except "Kill everything trying to kill you and then ride off into the sunset with the girl."

John Scalzi | May 22, 2005 11:08 AM


Ghost Brigades is slated for next March.

And yup: No hard feelings. I keep telling people I'd rather have an interesting and well-considered negative reviewed than a mindless positive one, but people keep not believing me. Mind you, I prefer positive reviews in a general sense. But an interesting negative review is the next best thing.

Doug Hoffman | May 22, 2005 11:25 AM

"One track mind": is that the best you can do? My wife is tough as nails. She can take worse than that.

If you look at my review of OMW, Brandon, you'll see that I'm in full agreement with your point of view on this. I'd even go higher than your 90% figure, and I'd put OMW right up there with Snow Crash, The Black Company, and Gemmell's Legend as all-time favorite joy rides.

My wife's point is that in the present age -- not just post-9/11 but post- and intra-Iraq fiasco -- we need to be careful with our messages, especially when it comes to martial fiction*. I understand her point of view, but I'm not at all sure I agree with it. I was more than a little stunned by her demand for a widespread book-burning but I'm pretty sure that was hyperbole on her part (and I still maintain that a well-publicized, small-scale book burning is about the best thing that can happen to a book's sales).

*Yes, I understand John's point that OMW was written pre-9/11.

John Scalzi | May 22, 2005 11:28 AM

"I still maintain that a well-publicized, small-scale book burning is about the best thing that can happen to a book's sales."

Possibly, although -- contrary to your assumption -- I'd prefer not to have the book burned. Yes, it promotes sales, but it is a profoundly hateful act, and some things aren't worth the trade.

My assumption was that your wife, intelligent person that she is, was merely engaging in hyperbole.

mythago | May 22, 2005 07:50 PM

Speaking of being careful about our messages in the modern age--in the US, where we routinely deal with yahoos wanting to ban books and punish authors because they Bear A Terrible Message For The Children, suggest Genesis is not literally true, are written by homosexuals, etc., I'd think one would want to be very careful of statements about 'burning books'--even if it is meant as hyperbole.

Brandon | May 22, 2005 08:04 PM

I wasn't intending on insulting your wife, really, I was just surprised that no one said it.

Also, tell your wife that if you let the events of the modern day determine what you write and how you write it, then the terrorists have won.

Douglas Hoffman | May 23, 2005 10:50 AM

As far as I'm concerned, given the restriction of civil liberties here in post-9/11 America, the terrorists have won, and in a far more profound way than you suggest. There's a difference, IMO, between altering our fiction based on the mood of the times, vs. making laws restricting our freedom. Fiction influenced by politics: this is old news. Look at the rash of great movies, fiction, and even television programming that spun out of a reaction to McCarthyism. Look at some of the crap (as well as some of the gems) the Cold War/Red scare spawned.

Tripp | May 23, 2005 11:58 AM

I think the question comes down to this: In this day and time should we have a book showing a grunt's eye view of war?

Put that way how can the answer be "no?"

Patrick | May 23, 2005 02:20 PM

I think part of the problem is that, rather than this book specifically, the norms of escapist sci fi itself really do glorify violence and an us v. them attitude.

Its part of the genre that a good number of sci fi books, movies, and plot lines basically revolve around the entire "its a cruel world out there, and to survive you have to be even crueler! The Other is an unambiguously evil and fundamentally unknowable enemy! Violence is the only solution! And violence is AWESOME! Dying violently is pretty cool too, as long as you do it heroically!"

Thing is, I usually enjoy those books and movies. I'm not always sure how to take that fact though.

Tripp | May 23, 2005 04:02 PM


The problem is that violence is glorious.

Andrew Wade | May 26, 2005 01:24 AM

Violence is indeed ... stimulating. But there are many approaches to violence; the norms that Patrick listed are not the only possible ones. There's film noire, where the protagonist is generally fairly evil too, unlike the current (disturbing) norms where it doesn't matter how the protagonist acts; he's still good by definition. The other doesn't have to be "unambiguously evil and fundamentally unknowable". Star Trek TNG had a couple of episodes that provided a (very superficial) view of Romulan society, and fundamentally evil they weren't. In Demolition Man two societies were in conflict; neither was really the us or the them. In the X-men movies there is plenty of violence, but neither Magnito's gang nor the xenophobic normals really fit the evil mould. In Three Kings none of the parties is particularly good, but none is completely evil either. Unfortunate violence between sympathetic parties is all to rare in North American fiction (except perhaps comic books; but I'm not terribly familiar with them). I like watching anime (Japanese animation), and the pervasiveness of jingoism in North American battle/war stories stands out in comparison. It is quite common for "bad guys" to be given a sympathetic treatment in anime, it is indeed quite common for no side to be "bad guys" in war stories. The same is unfortunately not true in North American entertainment, and unfortunately I see the norms of good guys v.s. bad guys invade our political culture.

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