I read quite a bit of SF, but Iâ€™m not really a â€œfan,â€ in the sense that Iâ€™ve never been to a Worldcon or cast a vote for the Hugos. However, I just belatedly looked at the 2006 Hugo nominees, and I was really surprised to see John Scalziâ€™s Old Manâ€™s War is one of the finalists for best novel.
I happened to read this book when it appeared on the new books shelf of my library, and I found an amusing enough bit of literary junk food. But the thought â€œHey! This is the best novel of the year!â€ never crossed my mind.
Iâ€™m not offended by the militarism of the book, as some people were â€“ heck, I was fine with it when Seaton destroyed the whole Chloran galaxy in Skylark DuQuesne. Iâ€™m just appalled by the mediocrity of Scalziâ€™s book, now that itâ€™s a Hugo nominee. The writing and characterization are adequate at best, and letâ€™s just say that the plot has been done before. And the science is not good â€“ this is SF at the Star Trek level. The aliens are basically people in makeup, and the technology is just souped up versions of present day stuff â€“ apparently there have been no revolutions after the cell phone in this universe.
Wars with alien species on distant planets seem a lot like 20th century wars, which is pretty far fetched given that even war in the 21st century is not much like 20th century wars. Just as an example, letâ€™s say you had advanced nanotech and you wanted to use it militarily. What would you do? Create a smart mist that turns enemy forces into gray goo? Nah, in Scalziâ€™s world they just make rifles that manufacture bullets on the fly â€“ and theyâ€™re not even nanotech bullets that do something cool like subvert the enemy forces they hit, theyâ€™re just plain old bullets.
I mean really: quality SF should make futuristic stuff seem futuristic. I really got a kick out of the line â€œSimply grasping how such weapons were in some way disadvantageous to something loosely analagous to an enemy would have required such a comprehensive remapping of the human mind that it would be pointless calling it human anymoreâ€ in Alastair Reynoldsâ€™s Absolution Gap. Scalziâ€™s future just seems like the 1990s with starships and aliens added. (BTW, if you want to read a good space opera, with a nicely twisty plot, interesting ideas, and even decent characters, I recommend starting with Reynoldsâ€™s Revelation Space)
Maybe the explanation is that this is a weak year and Scalziâ€™s book really is the fifth best book. But I donâ€™t buy it. John C. Wrightâ€™s very strong Orphans of Chaos was eligible. Even Karl Schroederâ€™s somewhat unsatisfying Lady of Mazes seems much more like a Hugo nominee (although it shouldnâ€™t win).
I guess Iâ€™m left wondering what the Hugo voters saw in Scalziâ€™s book that I donâ€™t.