The Skylark of Space

The Skylark of Space is frequently called the first Space Opera. Whether it is or not probably depends on how you define “space opera,” and even then it will be subject to debate. Certainly some of the works of Burroughs, Wells, and Verne contain elements of space opera; we could probably argue forever about what divides “space opera” from “scientific romance.”

We do know that The Skylark of Space was the first novel by E. E. “Doc” Smith, with the collaboration of (Mrs.) Lee Garby (because he wanted to get the female parts right). It was written during the period of 1915 and 1920, rejected by Argosy in 1922, and picked up by Hugo Gernsback for publication in Amazing Stories in 1928. At the time Gernsback called it, “the greatest interplanetarian and space flying story that has appeared this year…The story is chock full, not only of excellent science, but woven through it there is also that very rare element, love and romance.” Gernsback apologizes for blowing the story’s horn so vigorously, but blow it he does. It’s clear he was thrilled to get it. And by that time Gernsback had been editing Amazing for two years and editing magazines for twenty, and he knew a story that was fresh and new when he saw it.

For the purposes of this essay I read the version of Skylark uploaded to Project Gutenberg, which is the version published in Amazing. It is almost certainly abridged from the paperback edition, and there is always the question of how much “editorial assistance” the story got. For the record, Gernsback has a bad reputation as a businessman, but there seem to be few complaints that he had a heavy hand with the blue pencil.

The Gutenberg version also includes Gernsback’s comments at the start of each of the serialized sections.

The plot

Richard Seaton, genius and all around All-American fellow, is at his day job with the Bureau of Standards when he accidentally discovers what we might now call “cold fission;” he annihilates metallic copper by catalyzing it with Element X, an element outside the Periodic table that he has been analyzing. By releasing the intra-atomic force, he can create untold amounts of power.

Another scientist, Marc DuQuesne, who is almost equally brilliant scientist but completely amoral chap who is secretly in the employ of “Big Steel,” a trust that desires to control all the power sources of the U. S. learn of Seaton’s breakthrough. “Big Steel” obviously wants control of Seaton’s discovery, and so they unleash the full panoply of dirty deeds to obtain a small quantity of Element X.

Both parties soon realize that unlimited power will allow space flight. Seaton and his best friend, the inventor and millionaire Martin Reynolds Crane, begin to build a spacecraft. By cornering the area’s supply of copper and sabotaging the metals used in the Seaton-Crane ship Big Steel manages to get their spaceship built first; DuQuesne gets the task of getting his hands on the rest of the X, and he carries out a plan that involves kidnapping Seaton’s fiancee, Dorothy Vaneman, and setting off in his spaceship, not knowing that the Forces of Good have planted a “object-compass” on his person, allowing them to detect what direction he is in from any distance.

Seaton and Crane immediately (literally days later) complete a larger, more powerful spaceship that they christen the “Skylark,” and set off in pursuit.

DuQuesne (and also his henchman, Perkins, and Perkins’s kidnap victim, Margaret “Peggy” Spencer) have, through the plucky actions of Vaneman, fallen into an orbit around a distant star whose gravity well that they cannot escape. Seaton and Crane track them down, liberate the women, and strike a deal with DuQuesne: so long as they are in space he is to work with them. He agrees, warning that all bets are off on the return to Earth. (Perkins, in the mean time, has been killed by DuQuesne in self-defense.)

By using almost all the fuel in the Skylark they are able to break away from the star trapping them, but this leaves them hurtling across the cosmos at speeds of dozens of lightyears an hour, knocked unconscious by the tremendous acceleration. Seaton awakens first and is able to stop the Skylark, but now they must replenish their supply of copper before they can return.

They arrive at a planet that possesses both copper and the very useful element X. Unfortunately, the planet’s fauna is vicious, and it is inhabited by a being possessed of mental powers so advanced that he decides to dematerialize the Skylark crew for being an insufficient mental challenge; given a head start, they manage to escape, along with a substantial supply of X.

Still in need in of fuel, they select a star system because its star shows green in its spectrum, indicating a high proportion of copper. Finding planet Osnome, they arrive to see a convoy of air battleships being attacked by fearsome flying beasts which the Skylark crew fights off, earning the good will of Nalboon of Mardonale. Nalboon, though, is a bad man who keeps his captured enemies as slaves; one of them, Dunark, proves to be the Kofedix, or Crown Prince, of Mardonale’s rival nation on Osnome, Kondal. Dunark builds a device that allows him to exchange memories with Seaton. Knowing what Dunark knows (and having learned his language), Seaton tells the others that Kondal is the victim and Mardonale the enslaver; they use their X-powered hand weapons to escape to the Kondal city of Kondalek.

In Kondalek the Skylark people are honored as guests. They supply the Kondallans with a locally rare compound very useful to them, salt, and are appointed to high rank. While there, Seaton and Vaneman, and Crane and Spencer are married by the customs of Kondal.

Good times in Kondalek are interrupted when the Mardonale fleet of air battleships attacks the city. With great effort the Skylark and her crew destroy the Mardonale fleet. They are honored by the Kondal and richly rewarded with jewels unique to Osnome, a hold full of platinum (which Seaton and Grant vow to use for scientific purposes), and all the copper they need to refuel the Skylark.

The Skylark returns to Earth where DuQuesne, true to his word (and having also been made wealthy enough by the Kondallans to free himself from Big Steel), bails out of the Skylark at 30,000 feet, neatly setting up a sequel.

The Characters

In fairness, it has to be said that Seaton and Grant are as Mary Sue as they could be. Seaton is the most brilliant scientist at the Bureau of Standards; he is straightforward and a complete Boy Scout, even to the point where he is trusted completely alone with a woman to whom he is only engaged. (Remember, this was a century ago!) He is also both a dead shot and also a quick draw expert with a hand gun. In the Skylark he is the last to pass out from gee forces and the first to recover, and he is clearly the alpha male of the crew.

Grant is independently wealthy and a brilliant inventor. He is Bruce Wayne with a manservant named Shiro instead of Alfred and no cape. His only flaw is that he is shy with women. Together Grant and Seaton are also the doubles tennis champions of Washington, D.C., in a day when the only professional sport was baseball. In other words, they are also among the greatest athletes of the world.

Marc DuQuesne is interesting in two ways. First, he is a classic 1920’s bad man direct from Central Casting: he has black hair, a black beard, heavy black eyebrows, and dark skin (although he is not African-American); his nickname is “Blackie.” All he needs is a black cowboy hat to complete the stereotype.

But he also has two other characteristics. He is highly intelligent, almost as brilliant as Seaton himself. And he is a complete pragmatist. He makes no bones about the fact that he will do anything that advances his own interests, including murder and kidnapping, without compunction. His finest characteristic is that his word is his bond. When he and the others are trying to survive against hostile environments, he fights fiercely by their sides. When they return to Earth, he escapes.

Dorothy Vaneman is no shrinking violet. She is intelligent and loving, holds a Ph. D. in music, and is a virtuoso upon the violin. Peggy Spencer has been gathering evidence against Big Steel, in revenge for their mistreatment of her father, by posing as a secretary. Of her it is said that not only is she an expert stenographer, she is also, “One of the best looking women in Washington.” The women are not fainters and rarely screamers. But when the chips are down, the boys do the dirty work.

Of the aliens, only the unnamed mental entity is noticeably “not like us,” and he serves as a reminder that it’s a big universe out there and we might not be top dogs. The Skylark and her crew escape only because they outwit him in a game he permits them to play for his amusement; if he had been less bored, they would have been dematerialized (and the story would have ended prematurely).

The science

It has to be remembered that “Doc” Smith had a Ph. D. in Chemistry, completed in 1918 while The Skylark of Space was still being drafted. (He, too, worked at the Bureau of Standards, so the setting of the start was known to him.) He had a thorough grounding in science generally and chemistry specifically, and so the science in this “science fiction” (or “scientifiction,” as Gernsback preferred) is a melange of real chemistry, current thinking of the day, and fantasies that allowed the momentum of the story to keep going.

For instance, Smith is well aware of the value of catalysis. Element X catalyzes the cold fission reactions, he mentions the value of platinum as a catalyst rather than as an element in jewelry (As anyone who has taken Organic Chemistry can attest!) several times, and has the residents of Osnome use salt as a catalyst in their chemical reactions.

He also has Seaton think like a scientist. Upon making his new discovery he has Seaton discover the nature of the cold fission reaction and the rules governing its use. And he does the same for the reader: on Osnome, the copper-rich system, the Skylark crew are faced with dealing with lighting conditions unlike those of Earth. Smith tries to covey the strangeness of everyday things not looking the same as they would under the yellowish light of Sol.

Yes, some of the science is dated. Smith clearly understands the implications of E=mc^2, and the energy release upon the annihilation of matter is what drives Skylark. When DuQuesne’s ship accelerates out of sight to speeds much higher than that of light in violation of Einsteinian thought, Seaton says, “Another good theory gone to pot,” while DuQuesne observes, “I never could see how mass could be a function of velocity, and now I am convinced that it is not.” Fair enough. In the late teens and early twenties, Einstein’s ideas were simply theoretical; no one had the means to test them.

Then there are the points from the realm of the fantastic. The “object-compass” appears to work at any distance with time lag that indicates distance. No one seems to have noted that the time lag for hundreds of millions of miles would be millions of times longer than the time lag for a hundred miles. Element X is described as being outside the Periodic Table, but the arrangement of the Periodic Table can encompass any element with a whole number of protons in its nucleus. The Osnomic peoples, as above, have a chemistry based on catalysis by sodium chloride (which is probably too easily broken down to make a successful catalyst).

And then there are the points that are just plain wrong. On Osnome, for instance, hundreds of light years from Earth, it is said that the watches of Seaton and Grant are synchronized to signals from the national observatory. Um…radio signals? When DuQuesne kidnaps Vaneman, the object-compass places their distance at 350,000,000 miles, which Crane describes as, “…Clear out of our solar system…” Sorry, Martin. You’re a nice guy and all, but that’s still inside the orbit of Jupiter.

The sociology

It has to be noted that The Skylark of Space is very much a product of its time. The major antagonist, Big Steel, is a cartel bent on the economic domination of the nation, and possibly the world; there is no act…murder, kidnapping, theft…too low for it to do toward that end. President (Teddy) Roosevelt’s attacks on the large corporations stifling growth in the US were a part of Smith’s childhood (he was ten when Roosevelt was sworn in), as were the break-ups of the railroads and Standard Oil. The trust busting spirit was still very alive in the advocacy of writers like Upton Sinclair during the same time that Skylark was being written.

Despite, or perhaps because of Mrs. Garby’s contributions, gender role boundaries are very strong. The women, Vaneman and Spencer, are said to be as accomplished in their ways as Seaton and Grant are in theirs, and Vaneman has even studied some physics, but when Seaton starts to describe some equations to her she tells him to stop. (I would have, too. The math was gibberish.) The men do the fighting and the women tell them how wonderful they are. There are strong social biases against unmarried couples sharing living quarters, and they even refer to the fictive Mrs. Grundy, the prude whose tongue will wag if they do, no matter how innocently.

There is one minority character, Grant’s Japanese valet Shiro, whom Grants describes as “…really my friend instead of my man…,” but Shiro gets exactly one line in the book, and misses out on the excitement (although there is a room and galley designed for him in the Skylark) when he takes a bullet to the head while Vaneman is being kidnapped. (Shiro is only grazed, and is up on his feet in a few days. Perhaps he will have a greater role in the sequel.) Although called “Blackie,” DuQuesne is a white man; there are “colored” people who do the cooking and cleaning off-stage.

It’s also worth noting that both nations on Osnome practice slavery. Even in Kondal a lesser race serves the Kodefix and his people.

I am not one of those reviewers who puts thoughts into the minds of writers because of what they speculate about in their books. The Skylark of Space is both ahead of its time and a product of its time. Readers who are offended by the beliefs of 1920 should probably avoid it.

The story

Dated though it is, The Skylark of Space was meant to be a ripping good yarn and it is. In the serialized version I read, it breaks naturally into three parts. The first installment covers the conflict between Seaton and Grant on one side and the nefarious activities of Big Steel in trying to steal their secrets, and this section is almost a True Crime story.

The start of the second installment describes the chase after DuQuesne and their escape from the star which has trapped DuQuesne’s ship. The parallels with the horse opera genre that led to stories like this being described as space operas are clear; Seaton and Grant might as well be wearing white hats and brandishing six shooters. But before the end of the installment they have evaded the creature with the powerful mind and made their way to Osnome, where they come to the court of Nalboon.

The finale brings the breakout from Nalboon’s court, the alliance with Dunark, a side trip to try and capture one of the flying beasts that beset the planet, fighting off Nalboon’s fleet, the weddings of Seaton to Vaneman and Grant to Spencer, and the return to Earth. Whew! Not much action there!

The Skylark of Space might be the first space opera, but it’s also a classic space opera. The Skylark roars across lightyears, the speed of light long forgotten in its wake, firing weapons that are actually miniature atomic bombs at gigantic bug-eyed monsters. Her stalwart crew outsmarts the intellectual and outfights the belligerent. And at the end, we’re ready for a sequel, and so were Amazing’s readers: Skylark III (the sequel) was purchased before the run of The Skylark of Space was finished.

Park your disbelief at the door, strap in, and go along for the ride!




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    Consider Phlebas

    Consider Phlebas

    Consider Phlebas
    First edition
    AuthorIain M. Banks
    Audio read byPeter Kenny
    Cover artistRichard Hopkinson[1]
    SeriesThe Culture
    GenreScience fiction
    Publication date
    Media typePrint (hardback & paperback)
    Pages471 cite.citation{font-style:inherit}.mw-parser-output .citation q{quotes:"\"""\"""'""'"}.mw-parser-output .citation .cs1-lock-free a{background:url("//")no-repeat;background-position:right .1em center}.mw-parser-output .citation .cs1-lock-limited a,.mw-parser-output .citation .cs1-lock-registration a{background:url("//")no-repeat;background-position:right .1em center}.mw-parser-output .citation .cs1-lock-subscription a{background:url("//")no-repeat;background-position:right .1em center}.mw-parser-output .cs1-subscription,.mw-parser-output .cs1-registration{color:#555}.mw-parser-output .cs1-subscription span,.mw-parser-output .cs1-registration span{border-bottom:1px dotted;cursor:help}.mw-parser-output .cs1-ws-icon a{background:url("//")no-repeat;background-position:right .1em center}.mw-parser-output code.cs1-code{color:inherit;background:inherit;border:inherit;padding:inherit}.mw-parser-output .cs1-hidden-error{display:none;font-size:100%}.mw-parser-output .cs1-visible-error{font-size:100%}.mw-parser-output .cs1-maint{display:none;color:#33aa33;margin-left:0.3em}.mw-parser-output .cs1-subscription,.mw-parser-output .cs1-registration,.mw-parser-output .cs1-format{font-size:95%}.mw-parser-output .cs1-kern-left,.mw-parser-output .cs1-kern-wl-left{padding-left:0.2em}.mw-parser-output .cs1-kern-right,.mw-parser-output .cs1-kern-wl-right{padding-right:0.2em}0-333-45430-8
    Followed byThe Player of Games 

    Consider Phlebas, first published in 1987, is a space opera novel by Scottish writer Iain M. Banks. Written after a 1984 draft, it is the first to feature the Culture.

    The novel revolves around the Idiran–Culture War, and Banks plays on that theme by presenting various microcosms of that conflict. Its protagonist Bora Horza Gobuchul is an enemy of the Culture.

    Consider Phlebas is Banks's first published science fiction novel and takes its title from a line in T. S. Eliot's poem The Waste Land. A subsequent Culture novel, Look to Windward (2000), whose title comes from the previous line of the same poem, can be considered a loose follow-up.

    Plot summary

    The Culture and the Idiran Empire are at war in a galaxy-spanning conflict. A Culture Mind, fleeing the destruction of its ship in an Idiran ambush, takes refuge on Schar's World. The Dra'Azon, godlike incorporeal beings, maintain Schar's World as a monument to its extinct civilisation, forbidding access to both the Culture and the Idirans. Horza, a shape-changing mercenary, is rescued from execution by the Idirans who believe the Dra'Azon guardian may let him onto the planet as in the past he was part of a small group of Changers who acted as stewards. They instruct him to retrieve the Mind.

    During Horza's extraction, the Idirans also capture a Special Circumstances agent, Perosteck Balveda. However, the Idiran starship on which he is travelling is soon attacked by a Culture vessel, and Horza is ejected. He is picked up by a pirate ship, the Clear Air Turbulence (CAT). He is forced to fight and kill one of the crew to earn a place. The captain, Kraiklyn, leads them on two disastrous pirate raids in which several of the crew perish. After the second raid Horza is taken prisoner by a cult living on an island on the orbital Vavatch. He escapes after killing the cult leader and makes his way to the main city of Vavatch where he finds Kraiklyn, who is playing "Damage"—a high stakes card game.

    Having now changed his appearance to mimic that of the CAT captain, Horza follows him back to the CAT, kills him and returns to the CAT meeting the few remaining original crew. He is introduced to a newly recruited member, whom he recognises as a disguised Perosteck Balveda. Culture agents outside try to capture the ship. Horza manages to lift off and as the fugitives warp away from Vavatch, they see the Orbital destroyed by the Culture warships to prevent it from falling into enemy hands. Balveda reveals Horza's identity and he convinces the crew to carry out his mission. A sentient Vavatch drone, Unaha-Closp, has been trapped on the ship and reluctantly joins the team.

    They land on Schar's World and search for the Mind in the Command System, a complex of subterranean train stations formerly part of a nuclear missle complex. These were built by the inhabitants of Schar before their extinction. They soon discover that the Mind is being hunted by a pair of Idiran soldiers who have killed all the Changers stationed on the planet, and who regard Horza and his crew as enemies, having no knowledge of the Changers' alliance with the Idirans. Horza has kept Balveda alive, and she is taken into the complex. The CAT's crew encounter the Idirans in one of the Command System stations, and after a firefight apparently kill one and capture the other. After tracking the Mind to another station, the drone Unaha-Closp discovers it hiding in the reactor car of a Command System train. The second Idiran, who had been mortally wounded but not killed, sets one of the trains for a collision course to the station. The captured Idiran, Xoxarle, frees himself and in the ensuing impact and firefight the remaining members of the Clear Air Turbulence are killed. Horza pursues Xoxarle and is fatally injured, but the Idiran is killed by Balveda.

    Horza dies soon after Balveda gets him to the surface and the Mind is returned to the Culture. In an epilogue, the Mind becomes a starship, and names itself the Bora Horza Gobuchul.


    • Bora Horza Gobuchul is a Changer and an operative of the Idiran Empire. Horza was one of a party of Changers allowed on Schar's World, and for that reason is tasked by the Idirans with retrieving a Mind that had crashed to the planet. Horza is humanoid, but committed to the Idirans because he despises the Culture for its dependence on machines and what he perceives to be spiritual emptiness.
    • Juboal-Rabaroansa Perosteck Alseyn Balveda dam T'seif, usually referred to as Perosteck Balveda, is an operative of the Culture assigned to track and apprehend Bora Horza Gobuchul. She works for the Special Circumstances branch of Contact, and despite being ambivalent about the methods they use, deeply believes in their objectives.
    • Kraiklyn is the captain of the Clear Air Turbulence.
    • Yalson is a slightly furry humanoid woman working aboard the Clear Air Turbulence. She forms an intimate relationship with Horza during the time he is aboard the ship. She ends up carrying his child until she is killed, along with Horza and the rest of the crew, on Schar’s World.


    Consider Phlebas, like most of Banks's early SF output, was a rewritten version of an earlier book, as he explained in a 1994 interview:

    "Phlebas was an old one too; it was written just after The Wasp Factory, in 1984. I've found that rewriting an old book took much more effort than writing one from scratch, but I had to go back to do right by these things. Now I can go on and start completely new stuff."[2]

    Literary significance and criticism

    The book was generally very well received as a fast-paced space opera with a morally ambiguous hero and lots of grand scenery and devices. Kirkus Reviews described it as "Overextended and jarring", but "imaginative and gripping in places."[3]

    Banks said in an interview:

    .mw-parser-output .templatequote{overflow:hidden;margin:1em 0;padding:0 40px}.mw-parser-output .templatequote .templatequotecite{line-height:1.5em;text-align:left;padding-left:1.6em;margin-top:0}

    There's a big war going on in that novel, and various individuals and groups manage to influence its outcome. But even being able to do that doesn't ultimately change things very much. At the book's end, I have a section pointing this out by telling what happened after the war, which was an attempt to pose the question, 'What was it all for?' I guess this approach has to do with my reacting to the cliché of SF's 'lone protagonist.' You know, this idea that a single individual can determine the direction of entire civilizations. It's very, very hard for a lone person to do that. And it sets you thinking what difference, if any, it would have made if Jesus Christ, or Karl Marx or Charles Darwin had never been. We just don't know.[2]


    Amazon announced in February 2018 that it has acquired the global television rights to Consider Phlebas, to be adapted by Dennis Kelly into a television series and produced by Plan B Entertainment.[4]


    Consider Phlebas, Iain M. Banks, London: Macmillan, 1987, ISBN 0-333-44138-9 (paperback ISBN 1-85723-138-4)


    1. ^ Publication Listing. Retrieved on 2014-05-25.
    2. ^ a b Iain Banks - Interviews. (2007-12-23). Retrieved on 2014-05-25.
    3. ^ "Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks". Kirkus Reviews. April 15, 1988.
    4. ^ "Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks". February 21, 2018.

    External links



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      One of my favorite books in years! – Hugh B. Long

      Set against the backdrop of a far-future Earth struggling to reinvent itself after a technological disaster, Homefront is an uncompromising adventure story about what it truly means to be human. Jantine is a Beta, a genetically modified super soldier charged with establishing a hidden colony on Earth. When her expedition arrives in the middle of a civil war, she must choose her allies wisely or be exterminated. Featuring complex characters and edge-of-your-seat action sequences, Homefront will have readers guessing until the last page.



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        Old Man’s War

        Old Man’s War

        Old Man's War
        Cover of first edition (hardcover)
        AuthorJohn Scalzi
        CountryUnited States
        SeriesOld Man's War series
        GenreMilitary science fiction
        PublisherTor Books
        Publication date
        Media typePrint (hardback & paperback)
        Pages320 cite.citation{font-style:inherit}.mw-parser-output .citation q{quotes:"\"""\"""'""'"}.mw-parser-output .citation .cs1-lock-free a{background:url("//")no-repeat;background-position:right .1em center}.mw-parser-output .citation .cs1-lock-limited a,.mw-parser-output .citation .cs1-lock-registration a{background:url("//")no-repeat;background-position:right .1em center}.mw-parser-output .citation .cs1-lock-subscription a{background:url("//")no-repeat;background-position:right .1em center}.mw-parser-output .cs1-subscription,.mw-parser-output .cs1-registration{color:#555}.mw-parser-output .cs1-subscription span,.mw-parser-output .cs1-registration span{border-bottom:1px dotted;cursor:help}.mw-parser-output .cs1-ws-icon a{background:url("//")no-repeat;background-position:right .1em center}.mw-parser-output code.cs1-code{color:inherit;background:inherit;border:inherit;padding:inherit}.mw-parser-output .cs1-hidden-error{display:none;font-size:100%}.mw-parser-output .cs1-visible-error{font-size:100%}.mw-parser-output .cs1-maint{display:none;color:#33aa33;margin-left:0.3em}.mw-parser-output .cs1-subscription,.mw-parser-output .cs1-registration,.mw-parser-output .cs1-format{font-size:95%}.mw-parser-output .cs1-kern-left,.mw-parser-output .cs1-kern-wl-left{padding-left:0.2em}.mw-parser-output .cs1-kern-right,.mw-parser-output .cs1-kern-wl-right{padding-right:0.2em}0-7653-0940-8
        813/.6 22
        LC ClassPS3619.C256 O43 2005
        Followed byThe Ghost Brigades 

        Old Man's War is a military science fiction novel by American writer John Scalzi, published in 2005.[1] His debut novel, it was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2006.[2]

        Old Man's War is the first novel in Scalzi's Old Man's War series. A sequel, The Ghost Brigades, was published in 2006, followed by two other books, The Last Colony (2007) and Zoe's Tale (2008). Another book in the series, The Human Division, was published as a serial and then collected in a novel (2013). The next book in the series, The End of All Things, was published in June 2015 as four novellas.[3]

        It was optioned by Paramount Pictures in 2011.[4]



        Old Man's War is about a soldier named John Perry and his exploits in the Colonial Defense Forces (CDF). The first-person narrative follows Perry's military career from CDF recruit to the rank of captain. It is set in a universe heavily populated with life forms, and human colonists must compete for the scarce planets that are suitable for sustaining life. As a result, Perry must learn to fight a wide variety of aliens. The characters in Old Man's War have enhanced DNA and nanotechnology, giving them advantages in strength, speed, endurance, and situational awareness.


        John Perry, a 75-year-old retired advertising writer, joins the Colonial Defense Forces who protect human interplanetary colonists. Volunteers sign letters of intent and provide DNA samples at age 65, which John and his now deceased wife Kathy had done ten years prior to the beginning of the story. After visiting his wife's grave to say goodbye (as volunteers can never return to Earth), Perry takes a space elevator to the CDF ship Henry Hudson, where he meets Thomas, Jessie, Harry, Alan, Susan and Maggie, fellow male and female retiree volunteers. They dub themselves the "Old Farts".

        Following a series of sometimes bizarre psychological and physical tests, Perry's mind is ultimately transferred to a new body based on his genetic material. His new body is a younger version of himself, but genetically engineered with enhanced musculature, green skin, and yellow cat-like eyes. He now possesses enormous strength and dexterity, nanobot-enhanced artificial blood, enhanced eyesight and other senses, and most critically, a BrainPal—a neural interface that, among other capabilities, allows Perry to communicate with other members of the CDF via thought.

        After a week of frivolity and orgies in their new bodies, Perry and the other recruits land on Beta Pyxis III for basic training, during which the CDF's heritage in the United States armed forces is made clear when the recruits are taught the Rifleman's Creed. Perry's drill instructor, Master Sergeant Ruiz, adopts a tough and disdainful persona towards the recruits, but later discovers Perry is the creator of an advertising slogan Ruiz adopted as a personal mantra ("Sometimes you just gotta hit the road"). As a dubious gesture of respect, Perry is given the job of platoon leader during the weeks of training before he is shipped out to the CDF ship Modesto. His first engagement is with the Consu, a fierce, incredibly intelligent and religiously zealous alien species. Perry improvises a tactic which enables the CDF to win this first battle quickly. This is soon followed by a number of battles with, among others, the bear-like Whaidians and the tiny Covandu. By the end of this last engagement Perry begins to suffer psychological distress over killing the Liliputian Covandu and accepts that he has transformed both physically and mentally.

        Now a veteran, Perry participates in the Battle for Coral. The planet contains coral reefs valuable to the attacking Rraey, as well as a human colony (the Rraey also have a taste for human flesh). The CDF plans to rapidly counterattack with a small force before the Rraey establish their coral strip mining operations, but the Rraey have somehow obtained technology to predict the appearance of a space ship's skip drive (a feat that should not be possible) and use this knowledge to ambush and destroy CDF ships as they arrive in the Coral system. Perry's quick thinking allows him and his fellow soldiers on a transport shuttle to escape the wreckage of the Modesto and make for the planet's surface, but they are shot down. Everyone but Perry is killed in the crash; Perry is grievously wounded but survives thanks to his artificially enhanced body. Perry is left for dead by a Rraey search party (who find CDF soldiers inedible), but he is rescued by members of the mysterious "Ghost Brigades", the Special Forces units of the CDF. Perry thinks he has died when he sees a younger green version of his dead wife Kathy, who in reality is Jane Sagan, the leader of the Ghost Brigades rescue team.

        After being repaired, Perry tracks down Sagan, who turns out to have been grown based on Kathy Perry's DNA sample, as legally allowed by her letter of intent to join the CDF. Unlike John, Jane has no memories of Kathy's life, as she is only six years old, but after learning about Kathy, Jane seeks to learn more from John about being a "realborn" person and what kind of life one can have outside the CDF.

        Sagan manipulates her chain of command to promote John to an advisory role (as a lieutenant) to gather information from the Consu during a ritualistic meeting to obtain information. Perry discovers that the Rraey had received the skip-drive detection tachyon technology from the Consu, which was used to set up the ambush at Coral. Perry also manipulates his chain of command to have the last two of his friends from the "Old Farts" transferred out of combat duty to military research. Sagan and Perry then participate in a Special Forces operation in an attempt to capture or destroy the borrowed Consu technology in advance of a major attack to recapture Coral from the Rraey. Perry is instrumental in the successful outcome of the battle by capturing the technical manual for the Consu detection system (which was destroyed in the fighting), and saving Sagan's life after she is severely wounded. However, he never sees her again after delivering her to a shuttle which returns her to the secretive Ghost Brigades.

        At the conclusion of the book, Perry is promoted to captain following his deeds at Coral and, despite the separation, holds hope of reuniting with Sagan when their terms of service conclude.


        Skip Drive

        Old Man's War introduces a new form of FTL interstellar travel called a Skip Drive. The Skip Drive takes an object like a space ship, punches a hole in space, and places the object at its destination in a new, essentially identical universe. There are limits on the skip drive due to the characters not knowing all there is to know about how it works. The limitations are as follows:

        • The object skipping must not be near a major gravity well.
        • The object skipping cannot skip out too far.

        The Colonial Union and other governments use devices called skip drones to communicate. These skip drones are essentially computers equipped with skip drives. A ship or satellite will launch one of these devices away from local gravity wells and skip to its target locale and upload its information to the local people.

        More advanced races, notably the Consu, have a more complex understanding of skip drives and can even detect ships skipping into a system.


        The BrainPal is a neural implant that allows members of the Colonial Defense Forces (CDF) to send and receive data, including speech, battle plans and much more. CDF soldiers use their BrainPals to communicate with each other, translate alien languages, watch classic cartoons, and read old books.

        A BrainPal allows a CDF soldier to operate colonial technology by thought alone. A CDF rifle can only be used by someone with a BrainPal.

        To the members of the Ghost Brigades the BrainPal does much more: it provides a synthetic consciousness that allows the newborn soldiers to function until their own identities develop. This gives people who meet Special Forces the impression that they know everything. When presented with a situation that is unfamiliar to the newborn soldier, the BrainPal loads the relevant and important information directly into the mind at an amazing rate.


        The MP-35, also known as "empee", is the main infantry weapon used by the Colonial Defense Force (CDF). The weapon features self assembling and self repairing capabilities, the ability to interface with BrainPal, and ammunition composed of nano-robotic bullets able to transform immediately into any type of projectile desired, including bullets, incendiaries, explosives, and beams.[5] These features make it superior to conventional weapon types, as it solves the problem of excessive weight associated with carrying multiple weapons, weapon jamming, and enemy use.[5] The weapon proved to be very versatile and adaptable in the battlefield, as shown in Perry's first battle against the Consu where he took full advantage of the weapon's adaptability and used BrainPal to program a sequence of fire that exploited the enemies' weakness to win the battle.


        The beanstalk is a space elevator, built by the CDF, connecting Earth and the CDF space station. The space elevator, officially built to transport colonists and CDF recruits to space, displayed the CDF's power and technological prowess. To Earth's inhabitants, the space elevator defied physics and was extremely impractical. Henry hypothesized that the entire concept of the Beanstalk was taken from another alien species. In real life, John Scalzi notes that the feasibility and practical application of a space elevator is speculative.[6]

        Modified bodies and consciousness transfer

        In the early days of human colonization it became clear that human soldiers were not cut out for fighting the endless hordes of alien aggressors. The spirit was willing, but the flesh was found wanting. Humans were not strong enough, tough enough or fast enough to compete with the countless xeno breeds that desired the eradication of the human race. Humanity was saved by two technologies: the ability to grow an engineered human body to maturity in a few months and the ability to transfer a consciousness from an old body to the new one (provided that the brains are identical). This tech is the foundation of the Colonial Defense Force, allowing them to recruit senior citizens from Earth and transfer their minds to new super-soldier bodies. The most noticeable features of the engineered bodies include chlorophyll enhanced dermis for energy absorption, the above-mentioned brainpal, and yellow eyes that appear like a cat's eyes for enhanced vision.


        The Colonial Defense Forces use nanotechnology in almost every aspect of their military operations. Combat armor is made from interlinked nanobots, medical nanobots perform surgeries and help to regrow limbs, and the very blood of the CDF soldier has been replaced by a nanotech solution called "smartblood" that does everything that blood can do, only better (such as holding one's breath for over six minutes), and a few things that blood can't do (like explode on command). The primary infantry weapon, the MP-35 or "empee", assembles its ammunition on demand from a block of raw materials (with six types of ammo: rifle, shot, grenade, missile, flamethrower and microwave beam), and can use its ammunition block for self-repair.

        Alien species


        The Consu are a fierce, technologically advanced, and strongly religious alien race. They believe in helping deserving races reach "Ungkat", a state of perfection for a whole race.[7][8] The Consu are the most advanced alien race presented in the Old Man's War.[8] Their home system is surrounded by a Dyson sphere, which harnesses all the energy output of its local sun, a dwarf star, to make it impenetrable to the weapons and technology of every other known species. The Consu possess technology so advanced that even the CDF is unable to reverse-engineer or even fully understand it, such as tachyon detectors. Despite being the most technologically advanced out of all the alien races presented in the novel, in any conflict the Consu will scale their weapons technology to that of their opponent in order to keep the battle fair.[9] Unlike other alien species, the Consu do not fight for territory, but for religious motives, believing that any aliens killed by Consu warriors are thereby guaranteed another place in the cycle of creation. The Consu rarely meet with outsiders and any individual that does is inevitably a criminal or other undesirable. Following the meeting, the Consu is killed and its atoms shot into a black hole so that they can't defile any other Consu.


        The Covandu are a liliputian species, the tallest only measuring an inch, but otherwise very similar to humans. Their aggression in colonizing planets is similar to humans' as well, sometimes causing conflict. One human colony was taken over by Covandu when it was abandoned due to a virus (which did not affect the Covandu). After developing a vaccine, humans returned to take it back by force.

        They are gifted in the arts, specifically poetry and drama.[10]


        The Rraey are a species described in Old Man's War as being considerably less advanced than the CDF. They consider humans as a part of a "balanced breakfast" and are even known to have celebrity chefs showing how to best butcher a human. They became a serious problem for the CDF after acquiring technology from the Consu to predict the trajectory of a vessel's skip drives, a feat that was previously considered impossible. The only physical description of them is a mention that they have a head and limbs and "muscular bird-like legs".[11] They developed a craving for humans, going as far as creating many dishes for different parts of the body. They are a few decades behind the CDF in terms of technology and weaponry, but nonetheless, still considered a threat to the CDF. The skip drive detection device given to them by the Consu enabled them to wipe out an entire fleet of CDF ships without any casualties to their own.


        The Whaidians are an alien species that have an appearance similar to that of a "cross between black bear and a large flying squirrel." Their home consists of small planets that are linked together. They are artistically gifted and are nearly as technologically advanced as the CDF. For this reason they are targeted by the CDF and their spaceport is completely destroyed by a fleet of CDF ships. [12]


        Old Man's War sits in the military science fiction genre but themes of the ethics of life extension, friendship, marriage, the significance of mortality, what makes one human, and individual identity are present within the novel.[13][14] Aging plays its biggest role near the beginning of the novel with the CDF being able to find a way to reverse the effects of aging.[14] The themes of marriage and friendship are explored in the characterization of John Perry through his continued love of his dead wife and his later meetings with Jane.[14][15] When it comes to identity and humanity John Perry is the focus of attention and his characteristics by the end of the novel determine whether or not the reader believes John Perry is still human.[13][16]

        Scalzi states that he was influenced by Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and modeled his book's format after Heinlein’s novels.[16][17] He wanted to make the story as sympathetic as possible to the reader in which one can understand events such as being in a war.

        Scalzi took what he learned about Heinlein and produced four lessons on how to create a novel centered on characters. These lessons are that a story should only exist for its characters, make room in the characters for the reader, make the characters talk like people, and make the characters act like people. His novel's themes were based on the four lessons in which to make a character as connectable as possible while still keeping his theme of space military.[17]


        Appearances in other works

        A character can be seen reading the book in an episode of the science fiction television series Stargate Universe,[18] as a shout-out to Scalzi in his role as creative consultant on the show.[19]

        Netflix is planning to make a movie based in the OMW's universe.[20]

        It is read by the main character (Cole Brannigan) in Sean Grigsby's Smoke Eaters.

        Critical reception

        Old Man's War was well received both domestically and globally. Old Man's War was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2006[21] but lost to the novel Spin,[22] written by Robert Charles Wilson. Old Man's War was ranked #1 on a reader poll as the best science fiction and fantasy novel of 2000–2010.[23] In 2012 it was voted #1 on the Locus online reader poll for best science fiction novel of the 21st century,[24] and in 2011, Old Man's War was listed 74th on the reader poll of the Top 100 science fiction and fantasy books/series for 2011.[25]


        1. ^ Scalzi, John (2005-01-01). Old Man's War. Tor Books. ISBN 0-7653-0940-8.
        2. ^ "2006 Hugo Awards". Hugo Awards. Archived from the original on 2011-05-07.
        3. ^ Cover Reveal: The End of All Things
        4. ^ Deadline: Paramount Buys 'Old Man's War' For Wolfgang Petersen And Scott Stuber
        5. ^ a b Scalzi, John (2011). "The Thanksgiving Advent Calendar, Day 13: First-Person Shooter Games". blog. Retrieved 23 October 2013.
        6. ^ Scalzi, John (2003). "Reader Request Wrapup". blog. Retrieved 23 October 2013.
        7. ^ Montgomery, Mitch (2013). "Surreal Time Press". blog: Surreal Time Press. Retrieved 23 October 2013.
        8. ^ a b Hilica (January 2012). "Overview: Old Man's War Series by John Scalzi (Old Man's War #1, The Ghost Brigades #2)". Retrieved 21 October 2013.
        9. ^ Carey, Elisabeth. "Old Man's War". New England Science Fiction Association. Retrieved 2 November 2013.
        10. ^ Scalzi, John (2005-01-01). Old Man's War. Tor Books. pp. 186, 187. ISBN 0-7653-0940-8.
        11. ^ Scalzi, John (2005-01-01). Old Man's War. Tor Books. pp. Chapter 17. ISBN 0-7653-0940-8.
        12. ^ Scalzi, John (2007). Old Man's War.
        13. ^ a b Wagner, Thomas. "Old Man's War Review". SF Reviews. Retrieved 30 October 2013.
        14. ^ a b c Maki, Kiirstin. "Old Man's War Review". Bluepixie. Retrieved 30 October 2013.
        15. ^ Mackey, Allan. "My Thoughts On OLD MAN'S WAR". Retrieved 11 November 2013.
        16. ^ a b Hogan, Ron. "Meet John Perry: John Scalzi's Old Man's War". TOR. Retrieved 30 October 2013.
        17. ^ a b John, Scalzi. "Lessons From Heinlein". Whatever. Retrieved 30 October 2013.
        18. ^ WRITTEN BY Joseph Mallozzi & Paul Mullie, DIRECTED BY Alex Chapple (May 21, 2010). "Subversion, Transcript by Callie Sullivan". Stargate Universe. Season 1 EPISODE NUMBER 118. SyFy. GRAHAM: Not to worry, sir. (He holds up a paperback book.) I came prepared.
        19. ^ Scalzi, John (2010-05-21). "Product Placement". Whatever. Retrieved 2010-07-15.
        20. ^ Netflix Grabs Hold Of John Scalzi's Sci-Fi Novel 'Old Man's War'
        21. ^ Scalzi, John. "Whatever". John Scalzi. Retrieved 11 Dec 2013.
        22. ^ Cowie, Jonathan. "Old Man's War". Jonathan Cowie. Retrieved 11 Dec 2013.
        23. ^ "Best SFF Novels of the Decade Poll Update 01/14". 14 Jan 2011. Retrieved 11 Dec 2013.
        24. ^ Kelly, Mark (29 Dec 2012). "Locus Online: 2012 All-Centuries Polls Results". Retrieved 11 Dec 2013.
        25. ^ Neal, Chris (11 Aug 2011). "Your Picks: Top 100 Science-Fiction, Fantasy Books". Retrieved 11 Dec 2013.

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