John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War is, the buzz has it, like modern-day Heinlein. And the buzz is, in this case, correct: Scalzi’s book reads a lot like a Heinlein novel. This is not a good thing.
Like a Heinlein novel, Scalzi’s novel is smugly preachy. The first chapter spends a few paragraphs snidely putting down a woman who is a) not at all relevant to the story or the characters and b) long-since dead. The snide put-downs continue (there’s a particularly grating scene where the main character smacks down a racist Jesusy hick by quoting Bible verse at him, followed by all the good characters laughing and congratulating themselves on their awesomeness; it’s like a bad Usenet thread), but are occasionally interrupted by tedious digressions into How Science Works, like this one, which explains the totally novel and unheard of concept of a “beanstalk”:
“What do you mean physics isn’t holding it up?” Jesse said. “Believe me, this is not what I want to hear right at this moment.”
Harry smiled. “Sorry. Let me rephrase. Physics is involved in holding up this beanstalk, certainly. But the physics involved aren’t of the garden variety. There’s a lot going on here that doesn’t make sense on the surface.”
“I feel a physics lecture coming on,” I said.
“I taught physics to teenagers for years,” Harry said, and dug out a small notepad and a pen. “It’ll be painless, trust me. Okay, now look.” Harry began drawing a circle at the bottom of the page. “This is the Earth. And this” —he drew a smaller circle halfway up the page— “is Colonial Station. It’s in geosynchronous orbit, which means it stays put relative to the Earth’s rotation. It’s always hanging above Nairobi. With me so far?”
And I nodded off. When I woke up, I discovered that the Thrilling Science Lecture went on for another three pages of raw tedium, and very nearly set the book aside right there. But I wasn’t quite able to, because I was wondering to myself: How do the space drives in this novel work? Will we find out?
Finally Ed... piped up. “I’m not following you, Alan. I thought that the skip drive just took us up past the speed of light or something like that. That’s how it works.”
“Nope,” Alan said. “Einstein’s still right—the speed of light is as fast as you can go. Besides which, you wouldn’t want to start flying around the universe at any real fraction of the speed of light, anyway. You hit even a little chunk of dirt while you’re going a couple hundred thousand klicks a second and you’re going to put a pretty good hole in your spaceship. It’s just a speedy way to get killed.”
Okay, look, I was just—
Ed blinked and then swept his hand over his head. “Whoosh,” he said. “You lost me.”
“All right, look,” Alan said. “You asked me how the skip drive works. And like I said, it’s simple: It takes an object from one universe, like the Modesto, and pops it into another universe. The problem is that we refer to it as a ‘drive.’ It’s not really a drive at all because acceleration is not a factor; the only factor is location within the multiverse.”
—kidding! I was totally fucking—
“Alan,” I said. “You’re doing another flyby.”
“Sorry,” Alan said, and looked thoughtful for a second. “How much math do you guys have?” he asked.
“I vaguely recall calculus,” I said. Ed McGuire nodded in agreement.
“Oy,” Alan said. “Fine. I’m going to use small words here. Please don’t be offended.”
“We’ll try not to,” Ed said.
“Okay. First off, the universe you’re in—the universe we’re in right htis moment—is only one of an infinite number of possible universes whose existence is allowed for within quantum physics. Every time we spot an electron in a particular position, for example, our universe is functionally defined by that electron’s position, while in the alternate universe, that electron’s position is entirely different. You following me?”
—making a joke! Nobody in the entire goddamn world wants to know how the stupid drive works. Look, it’s a skip/jump/warp/hyperspace drive; we’ve seen them a zillion times before. There is nothing — nothing! — novel or interesting about a stupid fucking space drive, and there’s certainly no need to prattle on and on about it. And if there were a need to give us the pointless infodump, there’d have to be a better way than by having your characters be stupider than—
“Not at all,” said Ed.
“You nonscientists. Well, just trust me on it, then. The point is: multiple universes. The multiverse. What the skip drive does is open a door to another one of those universes.”
“How does it do that?” I asked.
(The scene goes on for another three pages, but quoting the whole thing probably pushes the limit of fair use excerpting, so you get a reprieve. Lucky you.)
To be fair to the book, I have to admit that there were parts of it I enjoyed; the bits that read like a rip-off of Ender’s Game (suggested alternate title: Elder’s Game) were fun. Also on the plus side, it was compellingly readable, and I whipped through it in no time flat.
But... you know how I’m always saying that the nice thing about Dave Duncan and James Alan Gardner and Terry Pratchett is that they give you highly readable books that don’t make you feel bad about reading trash? Well, Old Man’s War is the sort of highly readable book that does make you feel bad. If you’re stuck on an airplane without a better selection, it’ll serve; in any other circumstance, you can probably find something better to read.