Decision Making: A reflection upon John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War

In my new life, I am reading a lot, and I want to blog about some of the books which I encounter. I will usually focus on those which affect the way I think. And I just finished – literally 5 minutes before sitting down, while making a cup of tea – John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War. I was listening to OMW on Audiobook which is how I could read while making tea. Lucky for me. This was an entirely captivating read, and I could write a book about this book’s themes and motifs.

Scalzi is a writer I have only recently discovered. I read Redshirts earlier this year, mostly on the recommendation of Librin Latone and found Scalzi to be an incredibly creative storyteller and ethical thinker. Now, for some the term ethical may not seem high praise about an author, so let me explain what I mean. He writes with a clear intention to create a new world, invite me into an incredible story which must stand on its own internal merits, and ask all consuming questions about how stories, lives and characters shape ethical questions. Ethical writers create narratives which do more than entertain or help us escape life; they shape how we perceive and create meaning in our own lives. Futuristic stories have the potential to foster conversations about the ethical considerations which must shape our pursuit of progress. The imagination of science fiction, the exploration of not-yet-possible technology, explores the boundaries of what it means be human and how we differentiate between allies and enemies.

Old Man’s War explores these ethical questions directly and indirectly through motifs and recurring themes. Directly, the plot and conversation of the characters address the feelings of elderly folks choosing between certain death and an absolutely unknown possibility. The only character that we meet directly who does not choose this unknown is the young woman who staffs the recruitment and enlistment office for those who choose to leave for the stars on a vague promise that they will be made young and strong again. What has she observed in her daily interaction with the elderly that the rest of us cannot see?  What does she perceive from behind that computer as she facilitates the end of each recruit’s first life?  How can anyone make irrevocable decisions with such limited information, does she consider her position to be uniquely wise or informed?  Scalzi’s genius is raising this universal dilemma through a quintessentially minor character; Limited perspective or not, every person makes radical and irrevocable decisions based on very limited information. What information might I have missed that would have radically changed my decisions in life, for the better or worse? 

Scalzi continues to explore decision making through a series of plot twists about death and rebirth. *Spoiler alert* the vague and mysterious process of rejuvenating seventy-five year old retirees into nimble soldiers requires that scientists take the subject’s DNA, grow a replacement modified and battle-ready body, and transfer the consciousness into its new host. In his new body, Perry observes his old self physical-home from his new eyes and asks with concern why it/he is still breathing. Perry’s concern contrasts with the doctor’s almost flippant response about brain death and slowly extinguishing brainstem functions. Again, we have a minor character’s whose experience in the process of death and rebirth is limited yet deeply in depth; and this character whose information is based on personal experience and knowledge responds not in rejection of the possibilities, but slight impatience to continue the routine miracle of rebirth. How many miracles did I miss today because I’ve seen them before and have forgotten their wonder?

For all of its science fiction about technologically-aided rebirth, this is no story about the transcending of humanity beyond our physical limitations. Scalzi uses food throughout the book to illustrate both the odd abundance and the inherently limited material construction of a life where human bodies are discarded and replaced like new shoes. Donuts are served in every-other paragraph for the first several chapters. Before their death-rebirth, the recruits feast on and joke about their deliciously artery-clogging meals. After their rebirth, the generous but now healthier food options continue, and the metaphor expands to include gratuitous sex and improbable physical feats. All call the reader to consider the meaning of life as indivisibly transcendent and mundane.

This material construction is also found throughout in the graphic and empathetic way war and injuries are described. Scalzi’s description of a fight between two soldiers left my side aching in sympathy for the loser’s cracked ribs, and images of punctured livers, slashed temples, oddly colored Smartblood™, an amputated-and-replaced-leg, and even a floating soldier lost to space were too visceral for my personal taste. But I can appreciate the inherent power in images graphic enough to elicit discomfort and distaste; physical life is inherently gross, and Scalzi refuses to take refuge in an idealized and sanitized future.

In the light of this dusty and hands on approach to material life, three other parallels on death and new life take on a more potent message: the Colonists, Jane Sagen, and the Consu.  Of all the humans on Earth, only overpopulated countries are permitted to depart for new worlds; therefore, a large number of the colonial volunteers are from the Indian subcontinent.  I find it relevant to consider that these therefore would, in part, consist of those whose worldview is shaped by theologies of reincarnation, karma, and rebirth.  However, interestingly enough, the only Colonials which Perry observes are “what [he] would guess were Pakistanis or Muslim Indians” (p37).   Where do the Hindus go?  Are they not colonials?  It’s a tantalizing cultural parallel which is not fleshed out in this volume.

The parallel is expanded somewhat in the theology of the Consu.  Consu are an alien civilization who believe all other species are lesser races and contagiously unclean.  The entire goal of a lesser being should be to die a glorious death in combat (ideally with a Consu) and thereby earn a place as a one of the blessed Consu.  Through a belief in death and rebirth, the Consu treat their own lives as expendable and others’ deaths as a gift of redemption.  Military leaders take an intentionally non-evaluator posture about this religious belief, interested only in so much as it aids their mission; however, Scalzi’s juxtaposition of the graphic descriptions of the material experiences of the characters and the internal life of his protagonist stand in stark contrast to the military’s dismissive posture.

Where the Consu accept an even greater uncertainty, humanity has created a death and rebirth cycle focused upon treasuring consciousness and memory. For Consu and karma-believing human theologies, neither consciousness nor memory are essential to a person’s eventual redemption nor rebirth.  For the colonial military if one sheds a body but retains memory and conscious, a life has continued; if consciousness and memory are gone, the life is ended and the DNA becomes CDF property for experimental reuse. This is seen in the CDF’s recycling of DNA from recruits who register an intent to enlist but die any time before their actual rebirth. The CDF uses that DNA to gestate a solider.  But the human value of consciousness and memory affects the identity of these soldiers. When Perry meets a special-forces soldier whose modified body is based upon his late wife’s DNA, she becomes obsessed with learning about her DNA-predecessor and later alludes to a desire to move into a similar position in Perry’s life.

Scalzi’s exploration of eschatology* is most satisfying in its refusal to accept simple answers. Enlistment as a reborn CFD soldier only delays death, and 3-in-4 will die during their term of service. No sanctimonious chaplain stands by to remind Perry of his own theoretical heavenly end. Nothing indicates whether the narrator or writer believes in the success or hollowness of Consu reincarnation.

In the OMW’s universe, like our own, decisions must always be made on incomplete information.

Yet, Scalzi rejects the futility of ignorance and valorizes the ability to observe keenly and and draw new conclusions.  Perry’s initial battle with the Consu is successful because he notices a need for two-shot firing and modifies his weapon; his life is later saved when he predicts an inevitable shot and flees.  One of Perry’s best friends frightens and impresses military brass by identifying previously unknown technology and helping them modify strategy Reading the story, I began to wonder how Perry’s almost prescient powers of observation reflect Scalzi’s own self-image.  (Redshirts is based upon a not-dissimilar plot devices where a single character notices and acts upon information in front of all but previously taboo to acknowledge).

I suppose this reflection should conclude.  My take away?  I’ll never have all the information, and will always live based upon constructions of reality – religious, political, and cultural – which will define how I see the information in front of my face. Scalzi reminds us of our need to live the best we know how, the recurring need in any life to be willing to notice that which we take for granted, and the comfort that all information cannot be collected, remembered and maintained. But, just as we learn we cannot see from all perspectives at once, we do not need to be all things. Everybody dies and nothing is gained from fretting about it.  Just be. Just try.

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