Old Man's War

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.

(Some of this text is reprinted from John Scalzi.)

The Old Man's War series (former trilogy) takes place in a universe in which humans are a relatively small species struggling for survival and worlds to colonize. They are in constant battles with other alien races. In order to fight back, human soldiers are heavily modified through cloning, genetic and cybernetic technologies. These technologies allow for the central focus of the trilogy; that humanity's armies are primarily made up of elderly from Earth's developed nations whose consciousnesses are transferred to genetically enhanced, youthful clone bodies to fight for human survival in the galaxy.

The novels in this series are:

  1. Old Man's War (2005)
  2. The Ghost Brigades (February 2006)
  3. The Last Colony (April 2007)
  4. Zoe's Tale (August 2008)
  5. The Human Division (May 2013)
  6. The End of All Things (August 2015)

As the namesake novel, first published in 2005, explains: Elderly Earthlings sign up ten years in advance of leaving the planet. But what happens to those who don't live that long? Their genetic code used to create Special Forces soldiers, who are physically adult from birth, are specially souped up for combat, and have mental technology allowing them to communicate at faster speeds (this makes it hard for them to deal with "normal" people, since norms are slower thinkers and Special Forces soldiers aren't known for tactfulness and social skills).

John Perry and his wife, Kathy, signed up, but Kathy didn't live long enough to make it. Imagine John's surprise while in battle one day to see his wife's face.... on a Special Forces soldier named Jane Sagan.

In The Ghost Brigades (2006), a rogue human scientist turns traitor against his own race and becomes a hero to another. The Colonial Union create a clone and try to download Charles Boutin's memories into it. When it doesn't work, Jared Dirac is allowed to become a typical Special Forces soldier. But things don't go quite according to plan...

In The Last Colony (2007) and Zoe's Tale (2008), companion novels taking place during the same time period, but with different narrators, John, Jane and their adopted daughter Zoe get invited to be in charge of a new colony, Roanoke. There's all kinds of things that they haven't been told about the place, though...

The following tropes are common to many or all entries in the Old Man's War franchise.
For tropes specific to individual installments, visit their respective work pages.
  • Alien Among Us: Hickory and Dickory.
  • Alien Invasion: Not on Earth, but pretty much everywhere else.
  • The Alliance: The Conclave.
  • Anguished Declaration of Love: No in-plot examples, but Master Sergeant Ruiz mentions having had it happen to him; characteristically, the reason he brings it up is to make the point that if you're attracted to a fellow soldier, the time to talk about it is not when you both should be concentrating on not getting killed.
  • Anyone Can Die
  • Artificial Limbs: Actually, whole artificial bodies in Old Man's War, but also soldiers regularly have whole limbs replaced and regrown using nanobots.
  • Batman Gambit in multiple ways: In The Ghost Brigades, Charles Boutin's attempts to gain revenge on the Colonial Union and repeated adapting to changes in plans; In The Last Colony, they're all over the place--The Colonial Union's attempt to destroy the Conclave, John Perry's plan to defeat Admiral Eser, and the most convoluted, General Szilard's "plan" to bring the Special Forces into the open.
  • Bi the Way: Several of John's fellow recruits turn out to be bisexual. It's dealt with in exactly as matter-of-fact a manner as the trope suggests.
  • Bizarre Human Biology: Human soldiers have green skin, cat eyes and nano-bots instead of blood.
  • Black Comedy: And plenty of it. This is, after all, a war story.
  • Bloody Murder: CDF soldiers can ignite parts of their SmartBlood at will. It's mostly used to deliver a satisfying demise to alien mosquito-analogues, but Jared comes up with some more... ambitious applications.
  • Brain In a Jar: Mentioned in The Ghost Brigades as the CDF punishment for refusing direct orders.
  • Casual Interstellar Travel: Averted due to the CU monopoly on skip drive, most human starships are either warships or colony ships. Though it's implied that some other species do travel to other systems casually and the monopoly is mostly to prevent unauthorized colonization.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Weaponized SmartBlood and the use of trees climbing to avoid hostile guns in The Ghost Brigades.
  • Child Soldiers: Ghost Brigade soldiers are rarely older than fourteen, due to the unusual nature of their creation. Despite being utterly deadly, barely-human killing machines, the lack of emotional maturity does show on occasion.
  • Cloning Blues: The Old Man's War trilogy features extensive cloning, where the clones usually aren't brought to consciousness before having a progenitor's consciousness installed.
    • Technically, none of the CDF bodies are clones because they are based on highly modified versions of the original DNA.
  • Colony Drop: In The Ghost Brigades, one of the techniques used by the Special Forces to cover their tracks is drop an asteroid on it. They've apparently used this trick often enough to become very good at making it look like an accident.
    • They actually drop asteroids (with some pre-placed seismic sensors) for underground recon.
  • Congruent Memory: In The Ghost Brigades, the reason copying Boutin's mind into Jared doesn't work at first is that he's a blank slate with nothing for the mind to connect to. When he starts having experiences that relate to Boutin's (enjoying one of Boutin's favorite foods, visiting a place Boutin has been), parts of Boutin start to reappear.
  • Cozy Voice for Catastrophes: How else would we read calmly about such things as the graphic sentient mold attack?
  • Cut the Juice: In The Ghost Brigades, Steve Seaborg blows up the power generator running the Obin BrainPal jammer, and himself.
  • Defeat Means We Tolerate You For A Bit: Want answers from the Consu? You have to kill their dishonored criminals in single combat. For each one your side kills, you get one question.
  • Drill Sergeant Nasty: Master Sergeant Ruiz, who tells the recruits that he is not like those drill sergeants you see in the movies, he really does think they're worthless because he knows what humanity is up against.
    • Also some comments from other characters suggest that that might be his actual personality.
  • Drop Ship: It's military sci-fi. Everyone's got 'em.
  • Electronic Telepathy: The BrainPal, especially when used by Special Forces.
  • Evil Genius: Charles Boutin.
  • Faster-Than-Light Travel: The skip drive.
  • First-Person Smartass: John and Zoe.
  • For Science!: Why the Consu uplifted the Obin. They just wanted to see what would happen.
  • Glad To Be Alive Orgy: In The Ghost Brigades
  • Government Conspiracy (see Batman Gambit below)
  • Grand Theft Me: In The Ghost Brigades, Charles Boutin, having discovered that Jared Dirac is his Special-Forces-enhanced clone, attempts to steal Jared's body.
  • Great Offscreen War: The Subcontinental War in Old Man's War.
  • Green-Skinned Space Babe: The members of the CDF, their skin is photosynthetic.
    • Ruiz calls out minorities during his spiel at the start of basic training... then yells "BULLSHIT! You're all green!" (He has N-Word Privileges, being Hispanic.)
  • Grey and Grey Morality: And plenty of it. Interestingly, it's often the Colonial Union (i.e., humanity) that comes across as a slightly darker shade of grey, though it's a very close-run thing.
  • Hates Everyone Equally: Ruiz can come up with a reason to hate everyone except John (whom he finds a reason to like, which scares him).
  • Human Aliens: The Gamerans are an inversion.
  • Hellish Pupils: The members of the CDF have feline pupils.
  • Hermaphrodite: The Obin.
  • Higher-Tech Species: The Consu.
  • Humans Are the Real Monsters: Specifically the Colonial Union, which is often of the magnificent variety. It keeps Earth, its source of colonists and soldiers, as an isolated, technological backwater. It strictly controls communication and travel between the colonies themselves. Even set against a backdrop of hundreds of feuding alien species, very few of whom are nice guys, humanity stands out for its merciless tenacity. That said, the series does note that a lot of the more bastardly tendencies are justified by the more asshole-ish of the opposing species. For example, most alien species are depicted as eating humans and other intelligent species. Humans don't. And mostly humanity is just absolutely, completely ruthless, far from actually malevolent, which is actually required for survival because humans are one of the newest and smallest species on the galactic stage. Anything else means extinction, at best, or being farmed for meat, at worst.
  • Humans Through Alien Eyes: The opening in The Ghost Brigades.
  • Immortality Begins At Twenty: All members of the CDF look like in their mid-twenties (with green skin and feline eyes).
  • Late Arrival Spoiler: Knowing the title of book four, combined with the One Steve Limit, takes most of the surprise out of a major plot twist in book two.
  • Lilliputian Warriors: One of the alien races fought in Old Man's War are almost exactly like humans, except they're only an inch tall. They're depicted as being hopelessly outmatched by the human military in ground battles, but at the very least evenly matched in space battles. Tiny ships can only have tiny weapons, but they're also too small to aim at properly... and they're very, very cheap.
  • Lost Colony: Roanoake, though it's both deliberate and temporary.
    • Before the CU monopoly on skip drive "Wildcat" colonies were fairly common, most failed within a year.
  • Loyal Phlebotinum: The standard CDF assault rifle is designed so that it won't fire except in the hands of its authorized operator. In training, that's weapon's owner. In combat, that's any CDF soldier. This comes in handy more than once, but becomes a problem in The Ghost Brigades when the villain disrupts the authentication process, leaving the attacking soldiers stuck with guns that won't fire for anybody.
  • Machiavelli Was Wrong: And the Colonial Union gets itself into some serious trouble as a result.
  • Mad Scientist Laboratory: Charles Boutin has one in The Ghost Brigades.
  • Mad Scientist's Beautiful Daughter: Zoe, though fairly well subverted in that you meet her at the age of 7.
  • Modern Stasis: Earth
  • Neglectful Precursors: The Consu created and abandoned the Obin, and have been extremely uh, snippy every time the Obin try to get in touch.
  • Neural Implanting: Multiple instances and variations, particularly in The Ghost Brigades.
  • Never Accepted In His Homeplanet: Big time Masquerade.
  • Never the Selves Shall Meet: Special Forces soldiers can't ever meet their dead progenitors, and it's sheer accident that John even finds out what happened to Kathy's "unused" clone.
  • Numbered Homeworld: The Obin planets except Obinur.
  • One-Man Army: Daniel Harvey
  • Our Werewolves Are Different: An intelligent, humanoid yet hairy species on Roanoke are called "werewolves" because that's the closest thing they resemble. As far as we know, they don't shapeshift.
  • Physical Fitness Punishment: On the platoon's first day in training, Master Sergeant Ruiz makes a point of finding a reason to give each and every person a twenty-kilometer run, with the threat of everyone having to do it again if one person takes longer than an hour. This is partly so everyone knows where they stand with him, and partly to make the point that, with their new technological enhancements, they all can run twenty kilometers in an hour, among other feats.
  • POV Sequel: Zoe's Tale.
  • People Farms: One possible fate of a human colony conquered by aliens who think human meat makes good eating.
  • Pro-Human Transhuman: The soldiers of the CDF. During boot camp one guy asks why they're bothering to defend baseline humanity when their new bodies are the next step in human evolution. Sergeant Ruiz tells him he couldn't be more wrong, all the alien DNA in their genomes makes them sterile and thus an evolutionary "dead end". In fact one of the reasons for the advanced enlistment age is so most of the recruits would have grandkids back home they would want to protect from baby-eating aliens.
  • Psychic Link: Created through BrainPal technology for soldiers.
  • Puny Earthlings: The reason why the Colonial Union no longer uses unaltered humans as soldiers.
  • The Quiet One: Maggie
  • Radio Silence: Forced upon the Roanoke colonists in order to avoid the Conclave's attentions.
  • Sarcastic Devotee: Savitri
  • Scary Dogmatic Aliens: The Consu. Curiously enough, though, that dogma makes them less dangerous than they might be - they could easily steamroll everyone else in the galaxy, but they prefer their battles to be religiously-significant (i.e., fair) instead.
  • Shoot the Dog: How the Colonial Union justifies the various atrocities it commits. Much of the series involves deciding whether or not its actions are necessary for humanity's survival. Turns out that not only are they unnecessary (despite what initially seem like some pretty decent justifications), they're actively harmful.
  • Shout-Out:
    • In Old Man's War, two of Perry's fellow recruits are named Gaiman and McKean.
    • The Ghost Brigades introduces the Gamerans, whose collective name is itself a shout out, and who take their individual names from science fiction writers, including Stross and Martin.
    • The chap named Gabriel Brahe can't be a coincidence.
    • The Obin are an author-admitted tip of the hat to David Brin's Uplift series.
    • In Old Man's War, a whale-like species known as the Finwe gets a brief mention.
  • Space Amish: The Colonial Mennonites in The Last Colony.
  • Space Elevator: On Earth, but operated by the Colonial Union. A notable example because even though a Space Elevator could be built in the real world, the one the C.U. operates isn't physically workable (its anchor is in too low an orbit). This gratuitous violation of physics indicates to astute Earthlings that the C.U. is keeping secrets from them...
  • Starfish Aliens: Just about everything in that isn't a human. There's only one race of aliens mentioned who are roughly humanoid, and they're about an inch tall. The most advanced race in the known universe look like giant, blade-armed stingrays.
  • Strawman Political: Interestingly played with in Old Man's War. On one of their missions, John's squad gets a new recruit in the form of an ex-politician, who initially seems to perfectly fill out the military sci-fi stereotype of the obnoxious, sanctimonious bleeding-heart liberal. However, it soon turns out that his political views are absolutely correct - his problems (in the form of a raging Messiah-complex) are purely a matter of personality.
  • Sufficiently Advanced Alien: The Consu.
  • Super Soldier: The Colonial Union's soldiers require only a few hours of sleep, can hold their breath underwater for several minutes, and have a fantastic Healing Factor.
    • And that's just the basic soldier, their Special Forces have even better reflexes and reaction times, not to mention being born that way. And there are even some who can survive in hard vacuum.
  • Swiss Army Gun: Justified in that it is a Matter Replicator for several different flavors of hurt.
  • Taking You with Me: Dirac's nasty surprise for Charles Boutin after the latter took over Dirac's body.
  • Theme Naming: Special Forces soldiers have the last name of a famous person in science and philosophy (or science fiction, for the Gamerans).
  • To Serve Man: Some species, the Rraey in particular, find humans to be quite tasty.
  • Tree Buchet: Used by Special Forces soldiers to escape an enclosure guarded by automatic turrets that lacked the ability to aim up. Justified by it being a treelike lifeform on an alien planet, more elastic than actual trees.
  • Twenty Minutes Into the Future: Subverted.
  • Weirdness Magnet: Whilst it's never quite clear whether he's blessed with exceptionally good luck or cursed with exceptionally bad, John tends to be at the centre of a lot of improbable coincidences.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: Charles Boutin.
  • We Will Use Wiki Words in the Future: Mostly for the trademarked hardware that makes up a CDF soldier's body.
  • What Did You Expect When You Named It?: Roanoke, which is very much intended to act like its namesake.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Lots of 'em, in all sorts of different directions. Let's just say that this is a series that believes in giving weight to many different viewpoints in many different situations and leave it at that.
  • Wiki Walk: The Special Forces BrainPal does this to explain concepts.
  • Worthy Opponent: John gets two in 'The Last Colony', in the form of Manfred Trujilo and General Gau. By the end of the book, he's good friends with both.