"Old Man's War" and the Death of Science Fiction

I recently read "Old Man's War" by John Scalzi, based on recommendations it had gotten in various blogs. What a disappointment! In fact, it's just another in a string of disappointing science fiction novels I've read recently.

It's not that the story is all that bad. The plot is a bit thin and the characters need more work, but as adventure, it was OK. It's just that I expect some actual science fiction in my SF novels! I want to make a more general point here, not just beat up on this book, but I have to start somewhere.

In the novel, the main character is 75 years old and joins the army. Even in the future, 75 is considered pretty old (no major improvements in medical care). What allows him to serve is that he gets a new body! He's cloned, and his mind is transferred into the cloned body. Now forget about the practical difficulties of this technology. The odd thing is that the book does next to nothing with it. Here the author has introduced a technology that can copy people or make them effectively immortal. Another book would run with this for a couple of hundred pages, examining some of the implications (see the first half of "Kiln People", by David Brin) But not Scalzi. Instead, this technology is used just to get our hero in shape to go out and fight aliens.

It's the same way with the artificial intelligence that he has implanted in the hero's head. The AI can understand spoken instructions, translate alien languages, and practically read the hero's thoughts, but in the novel, it's nothing more than an advanced PDA, sending email and so on. Later on, he's given a hi-tech gun and armor so he can go out and fight aliens. The AI could easily command robots much tougher than the soldiers, or the old guys could teleoperate them (we can almost do that now.) I assume that Scalzi isn't too stupid to see the possibilities -- he's just not interested in them.

That's the main reason why this is so bad considered as science fiction. It's just not interested in ideas, or building a plausible world, or working out the consequences of the tech it introduces. It just wants to tell this old-guy-goes-to- war story, and the technology is just a stage prop. You could change this into a fantasy novel and it would be nearly the same (aging wizard is sent to an old folks' home and recruits his fellow retirees with a spell of youth, gives them magic swords and shields, and off they go to fight the forces of darkness.)

Since this is such bad SF, why has it gotten such good reviews? I think it's because it paints such a "traditional" future. Here's a bunch of guys who remain essentially human, and have mostly conventional battles against enemies that are complete bad guys (they eat people and would kill us all without remorse!) Pure adventure, with no ambiguity, and deeply conservative.

Science fiction was famously about "sense of wonder". I take that to mean the stories were saying "Here's a possible future, and isn't it great!" Books like "Old Man's War" have more of a "sense of nostalgia". They have people using computers, not becoming AI's themselves. They're about humans going out to fight aliens, not a future where people turn into aliens. Maybe they are just adventure stories with different props (and there's nothing wrong with that I love some of those books.) But maybe they are a reaction to the more demanding kind of science fiction, where technology is transforming, not just a prop or a tool. Maybe these books are being written (and raved over) because we are afraid of that kind of future?

You see the same conservatism even in the more far-out SF. I also recently read "Singularity Sky" by Charles Stross. On the surface, this is a much more interesting book, with a more detailed background and lots of tech that actually influences the story. And I love some of the odd touches. For example, one alien "attack" comes when phones are dropped from orbit. Pick up the phone and it says "entertain us and we'll give you anything you want." People tell the aliens stories and get things like nanotechnology in return. And the world is nearly destroyed by people getting their wishes granted.

Dig a little deeper though and you see the same kind of problem. In Singularity Sky, there's a godlike artificial intelligence called "The Eschaton." It enlists people to help it prevent uses of time travel that might keep it from coming into existence in the first place. But since the Eschaton has powers including nanotechnology, it should be able to build controls into every living person. It shouldn't need help, and there should be no way to attack it. Of course, then there wouldn't be much of a story. Instead of people taking sides, for or against the Eschaton, people would just be irrelevant, if they still existed at all. And once you strip away two or three elements like this, Singularity Sky is just another adventure story with different props. Yes, the female lead is 150 years old and still young, and there are all these tech toys, but it hasn't changed people. In this book at least, Stross doesn't want to think about what that kind of tech would do to people. The societies in the story are very traditional. He doesn't want to think about social changes either.

I'm kind of surprised that SF has turned out this way. This should be a golden age for speculation. After all, there is an incredible amount of technology being invented that you could speculate about! The news summaries off a site like KurzweilAI could have been used verbatim as background items in an SF novel of 20 years ago. Not only could you speculate endlessly, we need some more speculation. All this stuff, from robotics to biotech to nanotech is coming at us, and we really aren't thinking about it much as a society -- it's not getting into the culture the way rocket ships and computers did during SF's original "Golden Age" 60 years ago. The best we've managed along those lines is Star Trek/Star Wars, and that's just as conservative as "Old Man's War."

So perhaps I've missed the good stuff, but isn't anyone dreaming about the real possibilities of the future any more? Hasn't anyone tried to write a novel that's plausible and tries to deal with all the tech coming our way in the next generation or two? If we can't even dream about it, can we actually cope with it?

Can't we do better than "Old Man's War"?

by Michael Goodfellow.
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