Saturday, November 16, 2019

Old Man's War - John Scalzi

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Old Man's War by John Scalzi is a fantasy of medical and male proportions. Mankind longs for a fountain of youth found in emerging medical science. Aging men wish for the tumescent wood of their youth, for the fountain like discharge of their teenage years. 

Like fictions dealing with climate change, fictions about life extension through developments in med tech are popular. The future we're headed for contains a weird fusion of an inhospitable earth with unprecedented medical access to extra decades if not centuries of life. The future, then, looks like a stygian mythological immortality: endless days stuck in hell.

But let's focus on the promise of more life. Gene editing in humans is on the way. Read Jennifer Doudna's A Crack in Creation: The New Power to Control Evolution if you want to know more about genetic modification.

Somatic cell editing is free of the ethical wrangling that germ cell editing brings about, so at the very least, individuals will soon have access to lifesaving and lifealtering therapies for their own bodies. But if you've got the means to become a medical tourist, soon you'll have the option of perfecting your genetic material so that you can pass on all the most desirable traits to your children. Or, heck, if you want to splice your genes with a chameleon, you'll be able to weird yourself out too. That is, if you've got the funds for your desired procedures. Like it or not, people with means will always benefit most from advanced medical interventions.


However, for those with nothing to lose, there's always the military. Even now, if you want to ditch your eyeglasses and get corrective surgery but don't have the cash, you can join the military and become a pilot. Your safety isn't assured, but at least you'll see the end coming clearly when it inevitably comes. Though the conservative agenda isn't all that big on transgenderism, people identifying as trans have similarly joined the military to have access to the medical interventions required to align bodies with identities.

John Scalzi's Old Man's War considers the divide between the common man and the billionaires, for whom the best medical procedures are always available. In an age of life extension through genetic alteration, the common man simply may not have access.
Though, if I were to make a strong critique of Scalzi, I'd note that genetic alteration may not be all that expensive. In a few years, do-it-yourselfers may be able to buy their own CRISPR cas9 gene editing kits for a few hundred dollars. Even so, targeting the right genetic material will be a specialist's work, and I imagine that the cost of having procedures done well won't be cheap.

So, let's turn our attention back to Scalzi and the military. Scalzi's logic runs thus:

If life extension technology exists but is expensive, then the military might offer the procedure to aging citizens in exchange for a term of service. 

That's pretty much it, but Old Man's War is also important because of its commentary on ageism. How do we value older individuals in our society? Unfortunately, we don't often value them all that much. Even Scalzi's book does something a bit insidious--it turns old people into young people, affirming an idea that advanced age has no worth. Only young people, Scalzi's tale endorses, can provide useful service to society.

I also wonder about the choice to focus on men evinced in the title of the work, especially since women also join the military to benefit from the medical intervention, and since the result of inhabiting new bodies is an orgy qua male fantasy. Scalzi's focus here is on the renewed vigor of the male body to fight and to fuck. Ironically, these pursuits are not the old man's war at all. The real old man's war is to come to terms with the life that he has lived, to fight against his own gloaming to complete his story, to pass down his knowledge to the next generation.

But, hey, maybe that's what the old man's war was. Once life extension therapy is available, the war will be to extend life. The war will be waged against death, against an end that no longer has to come. And, cyclically, the old man's war will become the young man's war. 


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