Here’s a fine negative review of Old Man’s War, in which the book is described as “smugly preachy… occasionally interrupted by tedious digressions into How Science Works,” and the clever alternate title of Elder’s Game is suggested. Just in case you’re wondering if I was only going to note the positive reviews here.
The “smugly preachy” part I’m neither here nor there on, since that’s a personal perspective, and God knows I have my moments of smugness and preachiness. I do think the complaint about the digressions on How Science Work is interesting, though, and I’d like to comment on it. The reviewer here notes that a couple of pages talking about a beanstalk (for an example) is pretty much unnecessary, since everyone who typically reads science fiction already knows what a beanstalk is. And I would agree: most people who typically read science fiction have been introduced to the concept. Readers confronting The Singularity on a regular basis don’t need a primer on beanstalk physics. Fair enough.
However, my wife, who does not typically read science fiction, does need a primer, and so do my in-laws, and so do several close friends. So do the people in my little hometown who are reading the book because I’m the local author, and so do a lot of the people who I hope might want to pick up the book who don’t typically read science fiction. The book is in fact intentionally written with non-science fiction readers in mind. Why? Well, it’s simple: I want a whole lot of readers, and I don’t want to give potential readers outside the sphere of SF the excuse of thinking the book is going to be inaccessible to them.
Look, I’m not a snob. I’m in this for the mass market, and I want to nab readers who don’t typically have science fiction as part of their reading diet. I want the guy who usually reads Tom Clancy or Stephen King to look at my book and think it might be something he wants to read. And so does my publisher; the reason Tor picked up OMW, as I’ve mentioned before, is that Patrick Nielsen Hayden read it and said to himself, I bet I could sell this in a supermarket rack. I hope not to disappoint Patrick in this regard. I hope we can sell the book in supermarket racks. I hope we sell a lot. This doesn’t mean writing down – that’s wholly condescending and unnecessary — but it does mean taking the time for a certain amount of exposition.
So, yeah, I regard the How Science Works parts of Old Man’s War to be a feature, not a bug, although of course I recognize that it’s not a feature that appeals to everyone, or that everyone needs. In other words, this reviewer isn’t wrong (opinions can’t really be wrong, anyway), he’s just approaching the book with a more narrow presumed audience in mind than I have. When you write, you make choices, and this was one of my choices, and I think it was the right one to make. For my part, I don’t think it would be a bad thing if someone who doesn’t read science fiction read my book, thought “hey, that was fun,” and took a chance on another science fiction book.
That’s my goal: To be the gateway drug of science fiction. Sure, they start with me, but the next thing you know they’re mainlining Charlie Stross right through the eyeball. This is not a bad scenario.
To end on a high note: A positive review, from NetSurfer Digest. I doubt this pointer will remain static, so an excerpt: “John Scalzi channels Heinlein (‘Starship Troopers’) and Haldeman (‘The Forever War’) in this terrific tale of interstellar war. Facing up to legends has the potential to go horribly wrong, but Scalzi has the writing chops to carry it off and produce a book which stands up to comparison with those two iconic military SF novels.” Groovy.
Update: The comment thread contains a few spoilers. If you haven’t read the book, you’re hereby warned.