“Growing old isn’t for sissies.” Usually this is the complaint of those who simultaneously battle the bureaucracy that doles out benefits to elders and struggle with a body that served well for decades until reflexes slow, joints ache, teeth crack, and a myriad of other things start going wrong. Meanwhile there are other losses–meaningful work, and sometimes those nearest to one that you’ve shared a life with.
Imagine signing up to be in the infantry at age 75. If enlistment came with the promise of a rejuvenated body and you are facing the battles and losses I’ve described, you might just enlist–even if you’ve no clue what lies ahead. This is the premise of John Scalzi’s first science fiction novel and the first of a four part series based on this premise.
John Perry and his wife Kathy both agreed to sign on at age 65. Only Kathy didn’t make it. At 75, the enlistment age in the Colonial Defense Force, John is inducted, which means leaving Earth never to return. He will fight to defend colonists from Earth on distant planets. And so begins a journey of discovering a cosmos he could never imagine, and that what you can’t imagine could kill you before you knew what hit you.
But the first surprise is a strange and delightful one. Enlistees are not repaired and rejuvenated versions of their former selves, but in fact transferred into new green versions of themselves in the prime of life cloned from their genetic material with significant biological and robotic enhancements including an onboard computer wired into their brains, aptly named BrainPal. Of course these people quickly discover that they are sexual athletes with incredible endurance who are incapable of getting pregnant.
Things get serious quickly enough with a drill sergeant that fits all the stereotypes. Recruits are told that most of them will be dead in two years. Survival depends on recognizing what can kill you before it does, including in one instance an intelligent and malevolent slime. Somehow Perry manages to lead a squadron and gain Ruiz’ reluctant admiration, a recurring pattern as he exercises quick, out of the box thinking in devising a novel firing solution in a battle against the Consu and even manages to be the lone survivor (barely) at Coral when the Rraey succeed at destroying a whole force by being able to pinpoint where ships will appear when they come out of skip drive.
As he loses friends and survives by killing many others he encounters the war weariness and questions faced by every infantryman. But in his near death experience on Coral, he encounters something else when rescued by Special Forces, the mysterious “Ghost Brigades” who fight separately from the rest of the Colonial Defense Force. One of the rescuers has the reconstituted body of his wife Kathy. The intersection of these two lives will determine the outcome of the war with the Rraey, who have become their most dangerous enemy.
In a first novel, John Scalzi manages to combine the exploration of perennial themes such as the Faustian bargains we make to extend our lives, the justifications of war and the toll fighting takes on even the victors. Scalzi portrays the human race’s perpetual propensity to colonize, to take from others, and justify this as defense. He weds this to an imaginative exploration of the implications of biotechnological developments already foreshadowed in university labs. In a plot that literally jumps to parallel universes, Scalzi holds up a mirror that makes us take a look at our own “brave new world.”