Old Man’s War – SciFi Action

Once a month, I analyze a novel I’m reading using the 6 Core Questions discussed in the book The Story Gird by Shawn Coyne.  These Questions can help an author write a better story by focusing the writer on the controlling idea of his/ her novel and also being aware of the conventions and obligatory scenes for the selected genre.  See these Story Grid articles about the core questions:

Title: Old Man’s War
By Author: John Scalzi

From Amazon webpage description:

John Perry did two things on his 75th birthday. First he visited his wife’s grave. Then he joined the army.

The good news is that humanity finally made it into interstellar space. The bad news is that planets fit to live on are scarce-and aliens willing to fight for them are common. The universe, it turns out, is a hostile place.

So: we fight. To defend Earth (a target for our new enemies, should we let them get close enough) and to stake our own claim to planetary real estate. Far from Earth, the war has gone on for decades: brutal, bloody, unyielding.

Earth itself is a backwater. The bulk of humanity’s resources are in the hands of the Colonial Defense Force, which shields the home planet from too much knowledge of the situation. What’s known to everybody is that when you reach retirement age, you can join the CDF. They don’t want young people; they want people who carry the knowledge and skills of decades of living. You’ll be taken off Earth and never allowed to return. You’ll serve your time at the front. And if you survive, you’ll be given a generous homestead stake of your own, on one of our hard-won colony planets.

John Perry is taking that deal. He has only the vaguest idea what to expect. Because the actual fight, light-years from home, is far, far harder than he can imagine-and what he will become is far stranger.

What is the Genre?

Global Genre: Action / Sub-genre: Environment (space)
Secondary Genre: Love Story
Time: Long
Structure: Archplot
Reality: Fantasy – Science Fiction
Style: Drama

What are the Conventions and Obligatory Scenes of the Global Genre?

Hero, Victim, Villain clearly defined and Hero is the Protagonist
Hero – John Perry, but really the whole Colonial Defense Force (CDF) – each soldier embodies some of the obligatory scenes
Victim – colonists, humanity
Villain – aliens
Hero’s object of desire is to stop the villain and save the victim
John Perry joins the CDF to protect colonists from aliens, to stop the danger’s of space from killing them
Power divide between the hero and villain is large
Some Aliens have more strength and tech than humans, and every fight is new and unique because there is no way to determine their enemy capabilities before a fight (especially the first time they encounter them)
Speech in praise of the villain: Drill SGT (Ruiz) praises the enemy alien races, saying they are faster and stronger and more unpredictable than the improved human recruits, and that the CDF has given the human soldiers the bare minimum needed to fight and have a chance
Sub-Genre specific conventions: Aliens, space travel (skip drive), advanced technology (beanstalk, brainpal, smartblood, bulletproof uniforms)
Obligatory Scenes
An inciting attack by the villain – aliens regularly attack colonies, which cause reactions from CDF; John Perry’s first experience (and the reader) with aliens is to respond to an alien race known as the Consu blasting a human colony into bits
Hero sidesteps responsibility to take action – while John Perry never sidesteps responsibility, he does become nervous and have second thoughts when the CDF doctors begin moving his brain into a clone; Thaddeus Bender represents the CDF soldiers who don’t believe in the CDF violent mission of fighting aliens, believes there is enough room for all aliens to live in peace – and is quickly killed during his first fight with aliens while trying to bid for peace;
Forced to leave ordinary world, hero lashes out – all soldiers feel pressure after around the 12 month period that they are being forced to become emotionless killers (a form of PTSD); John feels this and his chain of command points how everyone goes through it
Discovering and understanding antagonist’s macguffin – Each alien race has cultural, religious, and survival wants and needs – the main focus of every alien race is to colonize planets to support expansion of the alien race; the main alien race of the book is the Rraey
Hero’s initial strategy against villain fails – CDF uses brute force to retake their colony on the planet Coral and are severely defeated (100,000 men killed and 63 ships)
Realizing they must change their approach to salvage victory, hero reaches all is lost moment.  Use of special forces to take out new radar equipment before the next revenge invasion of Coral; John is given an out since he is not special forces, but he insists on going because he is a soldier, and Jane Sagan is going, and all his friends died in the first invasion; John thinks he might die on this mission
Hero at the mercy of the villain moment; what the reader is waiting for; hero expresses his gift
John is physically outmatched in the battle, he is not as good a fighter as the special forces. John rescues Jane Sagan despite overwhelming odds and finds a way to retrieve the information the CDF needs; John’s gift is to use his wealth of knowledge as a 76 year old brain in a 20 year old body, and adapt to the situation to make the mission successful despite not accomplishing the specific requirement (he escapes with a memory drive with the information on the equipment even though the equipment gets destroyed)
Hero’s sacrifice is rewarded
John is promoted and given a medal. Also, even though he never sees Jane Sagan again, she writes him an email that gives him hope that he will in the future.

What is the POV/Narrative Device?

POV: first person from POV of John Perry; this is a perfect Narrative Device to tell the story because it puts the reader in the protagonist’s seat and the reader discovers this new ‘extraordinary’ world as the protagonist does

What are the objects of desire?

External/Conscious wants: to be young again
Internal/Subconscious needs: to love again

What is the controlling idea? Cause and Effect statement.

Life is preserved when the a CDF Soldier outwits the alien invaders

What are the Beginning Hood, Middle Build, and Ending Payoff

Beginning Hook
After John Perry and his wife enlist into the CDF at age 65, his wife has a stroke two years later and Perry decides to enters the CDF alone at age 75 where among 1000 other 75 year old recruits, his brain is transferred to a younger, much improved, cloned version of his body that was created from DNA taken when he first enlisted

Inciting Incident: John Perry and wife enlist in the CDF at age 65
Progressive Complication: Perry’s wife dies of a stroke two years later
Turning Point: Perry turns 75, 8 years after wife died
Crisis Question: Does Perry join CDF or not
Climax: Perry joins CDF
Resolution: receives enhancements, youth

Middle Build
After learning how to use his new body and weapons in basic training, John finds out that aliens can be stronger and have better weapons and that the CDF has only given him the minimum to fight. After his first year, John has a mental breakdown, feeling like an unemotional killer, but continues to fight for the defenseless colonists and hopes to rise in the CDF ranks to implement change.

Inciting Incident: Basic training teaches John to use his new body and weapon capabilities
Progressive Complication: John learns that alien races are powerful and unpredictable killers that need to be dealt with in order for the human race to survive
Turning Point: 12 months after basic, John feels like an unemotional killer and has a breakdown (PTSD)
Crisis Question: can John continue to fight and kill without feeling emotion
Climax: He continues to fight and lead
Resolution: plans to progress in the CDF and hopes to make changes in the future

Ending Payoff
After being the only survivor in a botched planet invasion, John hallucinates that his dead wife saved him, but finds out later that she is actually alive in the special forces but doesn’t remember him and calls herself Jane Sagan. Jane arranges for John to have a safe job on the next invasion where she can talk to him about his wife, but John volunteers to take part in the invasion with her anyway, and ends up saving Jane’s life and accomplishing the mission using his gift of maturity, though he never sees Jane again.

Inciting Incident: John is the only survivor of a botched planet invasion and hallucinates that his dead wife rescues him
Progressive Complication: After recovering from his injuries, John discovers that his wife’s body has been used as a Special Forces soldier called Jane Sagan, and she doesn’t remember him or being Kathy Perry (his wife)
Turning Point: Jane Sagan arranges for him to have a safe job on a special forces ship where she is able to talk to him about his wife
Crisis Question: does he participate with Jane Sagan in a special forces invasion with little chance of survival
Climax: He volunteers for the mission
Resolution: He survives and makes the mission successful using his gift while saving Jane Sagan, but he never sees Jane Sagan again though he receives a message from her and hopes he will.

Love Story obligatory scenes and conventions (secondary genre)
The love story is covered in the first chapter when John’s wife Kathy dies and he explains how much he loved her, and then continues at about the 80% mark when he meets Jane Sagan; almost all of the conventions and obligatory scenes are present.
Jane Sagan/ Kathy Perry/ John Perry – John and Kathy Perry were married for 45 years before she had a stroke and he joined the CDF. While serving in the CDF, John is saved by Jane, who was revived with no memory in Kathy’s body as a special forces soldier.
Harry: Helper – helps John to find out more about special forces and how his wife Kathy could be alive
Jane Sagan: Shapeshifter – born with no memory, she is reluctant to believe John at first and thinks it is a trick that he knows her; later, she wants to find out more about john’s wife, the body she now lives in
Gender Divide: Jane Sagan is actually stronger, faster, and better than John – opposite of gender norms; John saves Jane in the end, actually carrying her off the battlefield; Jane ultimately sends John a love email in the end
External Need
John has a need to keep human connections. This is seen in the beginning by his attempt to joke with recruiters. Also, he starts the Old Fart Club with the first 7 recruits that he bonds with, and they stay in touch throughout their careers. And ultimately, he seeks a human connection with Jane Sagan, something she is not accustomed to.
Opposing forces:
Class: Special Forces and Regular CDF troops; John is regular CDF and Jane is Special Forces, and Special Forces normally don’t do mission with CDF or relate much to them
Age: Special forces are very young because they do not retain the memories of the bodies they occupy, most are under 10 years old; and CDF regular troops are 75 when they join, much more mature.
From one another: Jane keeps the secret that she wants to know about Kathy’s life because she wants to know what it is like to have a past
From themselves: Jane hides her love for john
Society: both hide their relationship from their commanders
Rituals: Jane comes to john and asks ‘tell me about her’ throughout their trip together on the last mission
Moral weight:
Jane sees John’s love but cannot return it because she doesn’t remember
Obligatory Scenes
Lovers Meet – Kathy and John meet before the novel begins and spend almost 50 years together. Jane saves John on the planet of Coral, but he can’t talk because he is so wounded. John sees her at a hamburger stand and shows her a wedding photo and she beats the crap out of him.
First Kiss/ Intimate Connection: On a ship, before their suicide mission to Coral again, John kisses her hand, though there is a tense moment when she is yelling at him and they are close and he is conscious that she is close enough to kiss.
Confession of Love
John confesses to Jane that when Kathy had her stroke, he held her and said he loved her over and over until she died. He never tells Jane he loves her in the book, though his actions speak volume when he saves her and speaks lovingly about his wife whose body she has. At the end, Jane sends John a letter asking if, when their service time is up (ten years), he wants to live with her on a farm.
Lovers break up: John says that after he rescues her, that he never sees her again. Also, his original wife Kathy dies of a stroke before he joins the CDF.
Proof of love: John volunteers to go on the suicide mission with Jane, and carries her when she is wounded
Lovers reunite: Though they never physically unite or kiss, Jane’s letter gives hope for their future.

Image from Good Reads

If you learned from this and you want me to analyze one of your favorite books, let me know.

More Story Analysis

If you want to see more applications of the Story Grid methodology, below are links to my analysis of various novels and television shows in blog posts and podcasts:

Story Grid Showrunners Podcast – Parul, Melanie, and I analyze hit TV series using the Story Grid methodology.

My blog posts analyzing other Television series – my person take using the Story grid 5 Commandments to look at my favorite TV series – Jack Ryan, Batgirl, For All Mankind, Hanna, and more.

Novel analysis – I analyze some of my favorite books using the Story Grid 5 Commandments and 6 core questions – First Blood, Old Man’s War, Waylander, and more to come!

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