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Literature / Old Man's War
aka: The Ghost Brigades

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"I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife's grave. Then I joined the army."
John Perry

Old Man's War is a series of Space Opera novels by author John Scalzi. Its follows the recruits of Earth's Colonial Defense Force, tasked with protecting Mankind's far-flung colony worlds from ruthless alien species. The twist? All recruits to the CDF are elderly citizens; the minimum sign up age is 75 years old. Recruits sign up while they are still on Earth, having already lived a long life, and are then given young, genetically-enhanced bodies upon joining the CDF.

The series thus far:

  • Old Man's War: The first novel, following a man named John Perry as he joins up with the CDF. The story follows his experiences as he is given a young new body, goes through hellish training, and is sent out into the galaxy to protect various colonies of humankind. In the middle of a pitched battle, John sees the face of his long-dead wife...on the body of a Special Forces soldier named Jane Sagan, who has no clue who John is.
  • The Ghost Brigades: A human scientist named Charles Boutin betrays humanity and becomes a hero to an enemy alien race. To figure out why he did it and what he plans to do next, the Colonial Union downloads his stored memories into a new clone body so they can interrogate him. When the process doesn't work, the not-quite Boutin is given the new identity "Jared Dirac" and assigned to the Special Forces as a soldier in a new body. But things don't go quite according to plan as Boutin's memories start to resurface in Dirac. Along the way, Dirac meets Jane Sagan and finds out more about the mystery behind her.
    • The Sagan Diaries, a novella from the rather unusual perspective of Jane Sagan, sometimes touching on events from the past two books.
  • The Last Colony: Follows the founding of a new colony called Roanoke. John Perry and Jane Sagan, reunited at last, are placed in charge of making sure the colony succeeds. Amid hostile local lifeforms, limited technology, and tensions between the colonists, John and Jane find out things are even worse than they seem: the Colonial Union violated a galactic agreement in creating the colony, and now every intelligent alien species in the area wants to wipe the colony out.
  • The Human Division: Takes up the where the series left off, dealing with the fallout from The Last Colony and bringing back old characters while introducing new ones. Serialized as a "season" of short stories/chapters, it was released in weekly e-episodes, with each installment featuring unique cover art by illustrator John Harris.
  • The End of All Things: The sequel to The Human Division. Despite what the name suggests, this novel is by no means necessarily the final chapter in the Old Man's War universe. It resolved the previous book's titular human division (between Earth and the Colonial Union).

In August 2014, the Syfy Channel announced it was adapting the books into a television series called The Ghost Brigades (it still will begin with John's story from Old Man's War, they just thought the name sounded cooler).

This series provides examples of:

  • 20 Minutes into the Future: Old Man's War makes it appear as if the storyline takes place in the near future, albeit one in which space travel is more advanced and space elevators are an actual thing - but with enough references to real-world modern-day technology (cars, etc.) to suggest not too far ahead. It's not until Ghost Brigades that we learn that it's actually quite a bit further into the future, but Earth's day-to-day cultural and technological development has been held back.
  • Aborted Arc: The werewolves of Roanoke never come up again after the first conflict with them. Zoe's War goes into a bit more detail about them, though.
    • At the end of the third book, Szilard comments that John's actions have forced the CU to rely more on the Special Forces and grant them liberties, but this isn't given much detail in the next book, (although this is somewhat justified if tyou sconsider what John did for them the end of the process rather than the beginning of it).
  • Absolute Xenophobe: Zig-Zagged with the Consu. They consider themselves to be superior to any other species without exceptions (and at least technologically, they're quite right), so much so that their "diplomats" actually are convicted and dishonored criminals who are sent to negotiate with members of other species only because they are killed afterwards - if not during the negotiations - and not only that, the ship/structure on which contact with another species took place is then destroyed, compacted and flung into a black hole because the constituent atoms have been "contaminated" by the inferior beings. However, the ultimate species-wide goal of the Consu is, according to themselves actually to help the other species to perfection (by becoming more like the Consu), apparently a somewhat twisted expression of desire to help due to "universal love" the Consu feel towards all other species. So basically, they act condescendingly towards every other species without actually wanting to be condescending.
  • Abusive Precursors: Possibly the Consu to the Obin (a species artificially created by the Consu). The Obin Have no souls or sense of individuality but have just enough awareness to know that their missing this and want to achieve it somehow, with Boutin speculating the Consu might have done that to them on purpose.
  • Actual Pacifist: The mennonites who are part of the Roanoke colonization effort, with their leader dying when he refuses to defend himself from the werewolves.
  • Affectionate Nickname: In The Last Colony, John has a tendency to call Zoe "teenage daughter" whenever he's ribbing her; she gets back at him by calling him "ninety-year-old dad".
  • Alien Among Us: Hickory and Dickory.
  • Alien Invasion: Not on Earth, but pretty much everywhere else.
  • Always Wanted to Say That: When Harry (who is from Earth) meets a bunch of Earth dignitaries, he says "Greetings, Earthlings."
    Lowen: Was it everything you wanted it to be?
    Harry: It really was.
  • Analogy Backfire: In The Ghost Brigades, Boutin compares the Obin and their quest for individual sentience and identity to Adam and Eve. Dirac dryly asks if that makes Boutin the serpent, something that the scientists admits is Actually Pretty Funny.
  • Anguished Declaration of Love: No in-plot examples, but Master Sergeant Ruiz mentions having had it happen to him; characteristically, the reason he brings it up is to make the point that if you're attracted to a fellow soldier, the time to talk about it is not when you both should be concentrating on not getting killed.
  • Anti-Human Alliance: Certain things the CDF does bring about an alliance between many of their neighbors.
  • Anyone Can Die: John Perry, Jane Sagan, and Zoe seem to have Plot Armor, but nobody else does including Jared Dirac, who dies via Taking You with Me.
  • Artificial Limbs: Actually, whole artificial bodies in Old Man's War, but also soldiers regularly have whole limbs replaced and regrown using nanobots.
  • Ascended Extra: Harry Wilson, one of the last three survivors of the Old Farts in Old Man's War, returns as an extra in The Ghost Brigades, and is a major protagonist in The Human Division.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: How The Human Division ends, with the conspiracy succeeding in driving a permanent wedge between Earth and the Colonial Union. The tables are turned in the following book, however.
  • Batman Gambit:
    • In The Ghost Brigades, Charles Boutin's attempts to gain revenge on the Colonial Union and repeated adapting to changes in plans.
    • In The Last Colony, they're all over the place—The Colonial Union's attempt to destroy the Conclave, John Perry's plan to defeat Admiral Eser, and the most convoluted, General Szilard's "plan" to bring the Special Forces into the open.
  • Benevolent Alien Invasion: Earth's enforced isolation is ended by a Conclave trade fleet.
  • Biotech Is Better:
    • In the later novels the CDF starts phasing out the cybernetic BrainPals in favor of completely biotech ones.
    • The Gameras are 100% biotech in contrast to the CDF's normal soldiers that are a mixture of bio- cyber- and nanotech with the objective of eventually making them capable of breeding true and forming a human species that doesn't need to compete with aliens for planets.
  • Bizarre Human Biology: Justified in the CDF: nanites, genetic engineering and other modifications have led to green skin, cat eyes, and gray blood that knows when - and when not - to clot instantly.
  • Black Comedy: And plenty of it. This is, after all, a war story.
  • Blood Knight: Many Special Forces soldiers, such as Crazy Is Cool Harvey, and Goodal (who goes into a ritual duel with a Consu grinning, and does a little jig as he leaves victorious despite leaving behind one of his ears).
  • Bloody Murder: CDF soldiers can ignite parts of their SmartBlood at will. It's mostly used to deliver a satisfying demise to alien mosquito-analogues, but Jared comes up with some more... ambitious applications. The Human Division has further application of this, with a captured CDF officer using it to incapacitate her torturer.
  • Blue-and-Orange Morality: The Consu are, by their own lights, well-intentioned and helpful toward other races, but their idea of helpful is everyone else's idea of condescending and hostile.
  • Bolivian Army Ending: Near the end of The Ghost Brigades, Harvey is left alone on a planet swarming with hostile Obin, with days until possible rescue. The next chapter strongly implies he survived.
  • Brain in a Jar:
    • Mentioned in The Ghost Brigades as the CDF punishment for refusing direct orders.
    • In The Human Division, the Evil Conspiracy uses them to turn spacecraft into drones, with the added bonus of making it look like the Colonial Union is behind things, thanks to the aforementioned punishment.
  • Brain Uploading:
    • Central to the series. The CDF recruits retirees and transfers their adult consciousness into a speed-grown Super Soldier body partially based on their DNA. Their Special Forces are fully synthetic people given a 'starter personality' by nanotech in their brains, but these soldiers - while superior - lack emotional maturity... and aren't completely trusted by their creators.
    • Charles Boutin in The Ghost Brigades perfects the storage and downloading of mental copies, though it has kinks.
  • Bullying a Dragon:
    • The CU's plan to break the Conclave turns into this. They humiliate the Conclave by using Roanoke as bait for their unified fleet and destroy it. Somehow they didn't realize that nearly every ship in the fleet was the flagship of each member race, meaning they just gave 412 different races a personal kick in the nuts. So they get the internal strife they wanted, but it's largely over whether or not to wipe out all humanity in retaliation. Turns out, though, that it worked out better than it seemed it would when it happened, as explained in the Conclave chapter of The Human Division.
    • In The Human Divison, a quartet of unmodified Earth soldiers attempt this on Harry. He takes it in stride.
  • Casual Interstellar Travel: Averted due to the CU monopoly on skip drive. Trade, communication, and most of all colonization are strictly controlled.
  • Chekhov's Boomerang: In The Ghost Brigades, the method of weaponizing SmartBlood comes up no less than three times: once when it kills a mosquito, once when Jared uses it to blind an enemy in combat, and finally (and most epically) when he uses it as a Taking You with Me to counter Boutin's Grand Theft Me.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The use of trees climbing to avoid hostile guns in The Ghost Brigades.
  • Child Soldiers: Ghost Brigade soldiers enter the battlefield at two weeks of age, due to the unusual nature of their creation. Despite being utterly deadly, barely-human killing machines, the lack of emotional maturity does show on occasion and they tend to have poor social skills.
  • Clone Army: The Ala, one of humanity's few allies, used massive armies of fast-bred clones... until the Obin used a genetically engineered virus to wipe them all out at once and then genocide the civilian population. This is why the CDF doesn't use clones.
  • Cloning Blues: The Old Man's War trilogy features extensive cloning, where the clones usually aren't brought to consciousness before having a progenitor's consciousness installed.
    • The term 'clone' in this case is used loosely, because they are based on highly modified versions of the original DNA.
    • Suffered briefly by Jane Sagan, but she seems to be at peace with it by the end of Old Man's War.
  • Colony Drop:
    • In The Ghost Brigades, one of the techniques used by the Special Forces to cover their tracks is to drop an asteroid on the site of their activities. They've apparently used this trick often enough to become very good at making it look like an accident. They also drop asteroids (with some pre-placed seismic sensors) to spot underground caves and complexes.
    • Averted in The Human Division. Well, Earth Station does get blown up, but it's designed well enough to self-destruct rather than land intact on the city beneath it.
  • Condescending Compassion: The Consu think you're inferior and unworthy to the point that everyone and everything that has come into contact with you afterwards must be ritually disposed of... but they love you anyway and hope to someday bring you up to perfection, like them. (By way of constant warfare.)
  • Congruent Memory: In The Ghost Brigades, the reason copying Boutin's mind into Jared doesn't work at first is that he's a blank slate with nothing for the mind to connect to. When he starts having experiences that relate to Boutin's (enjoying one of Boutin's favorite foods, visiting a place Boutin has been), parts of Boutin start to reappear.
  • Cozy Voice for Catastrophes: How else would we read calmly about such things as the graphic sentient mold attack?
  • Creative Sterility: The Obin, perhaps because they don't have souls.
    Boutin: The Obin have no art Dirac. They have no music or literature or visual arts. They comprehend the concept of art intellectually but they have no way to appreciate it.
  • Crippling Overspecialization: The CDF troopers can use their BrainPals to control just about everything, and their rifles are designed only to allow someone with a BrainPal to use them. Meanwhile, civilian humans can use their PDAs for many things, pulling up information, controlling equipment, communicating with each other, etc. The Ghost Brigades, The Last Colony, and Zoe's Tale all explore the problems with this when the various technologies become unavailable or disabled, or when their mere presence can give them away to the enemy.
  • Cut the Juice: In The Ghost Brigades, Steve Seaborg blows up the power generator running the Obin BrainPal jammer, and himself.
  • Dark Is Not Evil: Or Horrifying Is Not Evil, as the case may be. This is Invoked during John's training as the recruits are shown two images of alien races, one a Starfish Alien that looks like something out of Lovecraft's nightmare, the other a cute deer. They're then informed that the Lovecraft aliens are actually rather personable and friendly, whereas the deer-like aliens think humans are quite tasty.
  • Deadpan Snarker: All of his protagonists either start out this way (John and Zoe) or grow into it (Jared). Also, Savitri and Gretchen. Each character has their own flavor of snark too.
  • Decapitation Presentation: At the end of the Human Division story "We Only Need the Heads", the Bula ambassador Ting gives Abumwe and Schmidt a case holding Drew Talford's head (one of the undercover CDF soldiers from Wantji).
  • The Dog Bites Back: Rafe Daquin against the The Conspiracy in the first episode of The End of All Things. It's glorious.
  • Doomed Hurt Guy: Wigner in Ghost Brigades is wounded in the drop, and while he does last for a while, ultimately doesn't make it home.
  • Drill Sergeant Nasty: Master Sergeant Ruiz, who tells the recruits that he is not like those drill sergeants you see in the movies, he really does think they're worthless because he knows what humanity is up against.
    Ruiz: You're under the impression that[...] at the end of your training, you'll have earned my grudging respect. [...] I'm talking to you like this because I sincerely believe, from the bottom of my heart, that if you're the best humanity can do, we are magnificently and totally fucked. [...] The best I can do is make sure that when you go, you don't take your whole fucking platoon down with you.
    • Comments from veterans that he's served with suggest that it's not an act: he really is hateful, contemptuous and sadistic.
  • Drop Ship: It's military sci-fi. Everyone's got 'em. And in extreme cases, they'll drop without a ship.
  • Dying Moment of Awesome:
    • In The Ghost Brigades, Jared Dirac planting a Trojan Horse virus in his body that will destroy it when the guy taking it over opens a message explaining just how screwed he is.
    • In The Human Division, Captain Coloma.
  • Electronic Telepathy: The BrainPal, especially when used by Special Forces.
  • Empty Shell: The Obin. They were uplifted to give them intelligence but not individual self-awareness. Their own word for their species means "lacking." They border on The Soulless due to their drive to acquire consciousness and the utterly inhuman debt they feel towards Boutin for working on how to provide one for them.
  • Establishing Character Moment: In The Last Colony, Perry reflects on his first meeting with Savitri, his Hypercompetent Sidekick, during a PR tour he was doing as a war hero. She stood up during his talk and called him a "tool of the imperial and totalitarian regime of the Colonial Union."
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Boutin might be orchestrating an interstellar war that will kill billions of humans, but he's genuinely devoted to his daughter Zoe.
  • Evil Genius: Charles Boutin.
  • False Reassurance: Downplayed, but after enlisting, the new soldiers are always told that 75% of them will likely die in their ten year tours of duty. This is a grim enough figure itself, but the fifth book reveals that this figure is actually too low, considering the number who are killed after re-enlisting for a second tour.
  • Faster-Than-Light Travel: Subverted: speeds approaching c are still impractical, so the skip drive drops your ship into a nearly-identical analogue universe at the location you wanted to go to, while their virtually-identical version of the same ship drops into your original universe. For pragmatic purposes, it's teleportation: the physicists tend not to dwell on the fairly mind-boggling ramifications when laymen are around.
  • Fictional United Nations: The Conclave, intended by its creator to put an end to the incessant territorial warfare between the Loads and Loads of Races and divvy up colony worlds fairly. First mentioned in The Ghost Brigades; The Last Colony and Zoe's Tale deal with an attempt by the Colonial Union to sabotage it. After determining that the alien in charge had the right idea after all, especially since the Union's success immensely pissed off 412 different species, John and Zoe help the Conclave reform and end Earth's enforced isolation by sending a Conclave trade fleet.
  • First-Person Smartass: John, Zoe, and Harry. Especially Harry for his chapter of The End of All Things. In contrast, the Sagan Diaries indicates that Jane is exactly as fun in her head as she is in person.
  • For Science!: Why the Consu uplifted the Obin. They just wanted to see what would happen.
  • Freak Out: John has one during the rather one-sided battle against a race of inch-high aliens. In a subversion, he's told afterwards that not only were his superior officers expecting him (and every other new recruit) to have one eventually, they would've been worried about his mental health if he hadn't.
  • Freaky Friday Sabotage: At the climax of The Ghost Brigades, Charles Boutin pulls a Grand Theft Me on Jared Dirac, a Colonial Special Forces soldier cloned from him. He then hears a message from Jared explaining that, shortly before being taken over, he programmed his body's nanites to self-immolate.
  • Gendercide: The Crimp which made ⅓ of Earth's male population sterile.
  • Glad-to-Be-Alive Sex: In The Ghost Brigades this is apparently a tradition after each mission for the Special Forces.
  • Government Conspiracy: An oddly public one. Everyone knows that the Colonial Union controls information since it controls all FTL travel. They don't know the full extent of what is being hidden because, well, the CU is good at hiding it. While most of the colonies are only mildly perturbed when details of the Conclave come to light, Earth is pissed when they discover that they've been nothing but a farm for soldiers and colonists. They aren't even considered humanity's homeworld any more. One minor CU character justifies her continued support of the CU by saying that the CU has given countless people opportunities to escape hellish conditions on Earth. While she acknowledges that the CU doesn't actually care about anyone, she considers the good that they are accidentally doing to be worth it. She doesn't seem to have realized that the reason significant parts of Earth are in a constant state of civil war is because the CU was deliberately keeping them that way.
  • Grand Theft Me: In The Ghost Brigades, Charles Boutin, having discovered that Jared Dirac is his Special-Forces-enhanced clone, attempts to steal Jared's body.
  • Grave-Marking Scene:
    • The first thing John Perry did on his seventy-fifth birthday, at the beginning of Old Man's War, was visit his wife's grave.
    • Zoe Boutin visits her family grave at the end of The Ghost Brigades.
  • Great Offscreen War: The Subcontinental War in Old Man's War. The India/Pakistan region was at war with the United States, and the States used nuclear weapons to win.
    Master Sergeant Ruiz: Six fucking years to beat an enemy that barely had firearms, and you had to cheat to win. Nukes are for pussies. Pussies.
  • Green-Skinned Space Babe: The members of the CDF, their skin is photosynthetic, they are all in perfect physical shape, they won't age past appearing to be in their early twenties, and they are possibly even altered to look sexier than their normal genetics would allow to encourage bonding and to exploit the natural human tendency to treat good looking people better. Ruiz calls out minorities during his spiel at the start of basic training... then yells "BULLSHIT! You're all green!" (He has N-Word Privileges, since his original body was Hispanic.)
  • Grey-and-Gray Morality: And plenty of it. Interestingly, it's often the Colonial Union (i.e., humanity) that comes across as a slightly darker shade of grey, though it's a very close-run thing.
  • Guilt-Free Extermination War: The CDF leadership seems to feel this way in regards to their alien neighbors. It's not an entirely uncommon feeling: if nothing else, spacefaring races almost categorically refuse to share planets with each other, and exterminating someone else's colony prior to establishing your own is common practice. Subverted, however, by the narrative itself (which doesn't seem to agree with this), and by the fact that enough people eventually got fed up with this to form the Conclave.
  • Hates Everyone Equally: Ruiz can come up with a reason to hate everyone except John (whom he finds a reason to like, which Ruiz finds 'disturbing'). He immediately puts John in a position of authority... so that he can start hating him once he screws up.
  • Hero Antagonist: General Gau. He's an honorable being with few personal ambitions who is working hard for peace.
  • Hellish Pupils: The members of the CDF have feline pupils.
  • Hermaphrodite: The Obin.
  • Higher-Tech Species: The Consu.
  • Honest Advisor: Ristin Lause of the conclave shows herself to be this in the sixth book (with shades of The Good Chancellor). She is actively analyzing and considering the factors that threaten to make the Conclave collapse from within, and warns Sorvalh and Gau about them, while urging that steps be taken to fix this.
  • Honor Before Reason: The Consu again. Their highly ritualized style of warfare and idiosyncratic goals are basically the only reason they haven't wiped out every other intelligent species in the area.
  • Hotter and Sexier: A literal application of the trope with regards to the CDF soldiers, who have had their minds transferred from their aging human bodies into newly created bodies that are far sexier and attractive than their originals. So much so, that basic training allows time for CDF recruits to have as much sex as they can handle as they get used to and enjoy their new bodies before getting down to proper instruction.
  • Humans Are the Real Monsters: Specifically the Colonial Union, which is often of the magnificent variety. It keeps Earth, its source of colonists and soldiers, as an isolated, technological backwater. It strictly controls communication and travel between the colonies themselves. Even set against a backdrop of hundreds of feuding alien species, very few of whom are nice guys, humanity stands out for its merciless tenacity. That said, there is a back-and-forth as to whether they are justified in this. The CU covers things up and insists to those who must know that its more bastardly tendencies are justified by the more horrifying tendencies of the opposing species. Mostly humanity is just absolutely, completely ruthless, far from actually malevolent, which is actually required for survival because humans are one of the newest and smallest species on the galactic stage. Anything else means extinction, at best, or being farmed for meat, at worst. Then again, other viewpoints suggest that when other species are horrible to humanity, it's because humanity has such a terrible reputation.
  • Humans Through Alien Eyes: The opening in The Ghost Brigades.
  • Humble Goal: All that the Obin really want Is individual souls and conciseness, to end their Creative Sterility and give them a sense of individuality and self.
  • I'm a Doctor, Not a Placeholder: In The Human Division.
    Dr. Danielle Lowen: I have no idea, Jim. I'm a doctor, not a private investigator.
  • Immortal Procreation Clause: The bodies of the CDF soldiers are infertile/sterile. It's intentional, so they don't get ideas about trying to supplant humanity.
  • Information Wants to Be Free: The CDF keeps a very tight grip on all human communication, which it can do thanks to a monopoly on all forms of interstellar travel and communication. Earth knows absolutely nothing about the rest of the universe, and while the colonies are better off, they are still kept in the dark about any rebellions, CDF defeats, and especially about the Conclave. General Gau grouses that he sometimes wishes he could just drop satellites over human worlds and start broadcasting, but they'd be shot down before they could say much. John Perry convinces him to send a trade fleet to Earth (which doesn't have a significant CDF presence and the rest of the galaxy largely ignores) and give them all the information that the CDF has been hiding from them for two hundred years. The CDF tries to spin it as best they can, but without much luck.
  • It's Raining Men:
    • When using a Drop Ship to land on a hostile planet is unworkable, the CDF troopers can sky-dive from orbit, protected by a heat shield made from nanomachines which turns into a parachute before landing. While sometimes used by regular CDF troopers, this is a Special Forces signature move.
    • In The Human Division, this maneuver is used for Wilson and Danielle to escape the destruction of Earth Station. When he has to do it again in The End of All Things, he thinks to himself that he'd like to visit Earth the normal way for once.
  • Kick the Dog:
    • The CU does this a few times in each book, with increasing severity as the story goes along.
    • Equilibrium does almost nothing but this throughout The Human Division.
  • Kicked Upstairs: At the end of the sixth book it's speculated that Abumwe has been given the prestigious (yet difficult) job of overseeing the constitutional convention partially out of spite for committing the CU government to that convention (which is necessary for both the short and long-term survival of the Colonial Union, but costs the big wigs some of their power and ego).
  • Late-Arrival Spoiler: Knowing the title of book four, combined with the One Steve Limit, takes most of the surprise out of a major plot twist in book two.
  • Lilliputian Warriors: One of the alien races fought in Old Man's War have great similarities to humans in their warmbloodedness, rapid reproduction, and general dealings with other species, except they're only an inch tall. They're depicted as being hopelessly outmatched by the human military in ground battles, but at the very least evenly matched in space battles. Tiny ships can only have tiny weapons, but they're also too small to aim at properly... and they're very, very cheap.
  • The Load: What the SF forces worry John Perry will be when he asks to drop with them on Coral. They change their minds when he carries a wounded Jane across half a battlefield.
  • Longevity Treatment: The CDF's main selling point. Rejuvenation treatment via consciousness transfer to a genetically enhanced body is only available to military personnel - and the minimum age for joining the military is 75. The twenty percent or so who survive long enough for their term of service to end get another one - they're loaded into a true clone of their original body so they can retire.
  • Lost Colony:
    • Roanoke, though it's both deliberate and temporary. Lampshade Hanging ensues when, after he figures out what's happening, the main character chews himself out for having missed the reference.
    • Before the CU monopoly on skip drive, "wildcat" colonies were fairly common: most failed within a year.
  • Low Culture, High Tech: The Consu give the Rraey a sensor far in advance of any race's ability and understanding that can predict the exact location where a ship is about to arrive from Another Dimension, which they only bother to use for its intended purpose. When Perry manages to get the "owner's manual", it's enough to revolutionize human understanding of skip drive theory and allows major breakthroughs in the following books.
  • Loyal Phlebotinum: The standard CDF assault rifle is designed so that it won't fire except in the hands of its authorized operator. In training, that's the weapon's owner. In combat, that's any CDF soldier. This comes in handy more than once, but becomes a problem in The Ghost Brigades when the villain disrupts the authentication process, leaving the attacking soldiers stuck with guns that won't fire for anybody.
  • Machiavelli Was Wrong: And the Colonial Union gets itself into some serious trouble as a result. But then manages to get out of it without a war.
  • Mad Scientist Laboratory: Charles Boutin has one in The Ghost Brigades.
  • Mad Scientist's Beautiful Daughter: Zoe, though fairly well subverted in that you meet her at the age of 7.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • The Last Colony has a few spoilerish examples: Roanoke colony and Perry calling himself a Commodore play it straight. Trujillo, the ambitious politician, is a subversion, since he's one of the good guys.
    • An In-Universe example, as The Obin named themselves after the word for "lacking" in their own language due to feeling their lack of sentience and being bothered by it.
  • Mental Fusion: Special Forces are raised with an active BrainPal from "birth", allowing them to share their senses, thought, emotions and memories. While not a Hive Mind, it creates a powerful anti-self pro-group type of bias in them, and it's very unpleasant for them to be denied integration.
  • Mildly Military:
    • Heavily averted in Old Man's War, where professionalism and discipline are repeatedly displayed to be the only things standing between CDF soldiers and being eaten by aliens.
    • It occurs to some extent in The Ghost Brigades, though, justified by the characters being Super Soldiers taught to fight from birth: being an effective soldier is ingrained deeply enough into their identity that strict military discipline is redundant. But even they stick to business once they're on the clock, though.
    • Seen later on in Heather Lee's squad in The End of All Things, who spend most of their episode bickering and debating the CU's response to colonial unrest.
  • A Million Is a Statistic:
    • Manfred explains this as why he expects the CU to kill off Roanoake. To them it's not twenty-five hundred people, it's just one colony. They lose colonies all the time, so what's one more? He's wrong about most of the details, but the general idea that they're expendable is correct.
    • And then there is the conspiracy that is trying to destroy both the CU and the Conclave. They are a group of hundreds of disparate races dedicated to keeping everything at a stable equilibrium. They justify this because they want to preserve all the races, while if anyone gets too powerful they'll get wiped out. They're perfectly fine with millions of people dying in pointless wars as long as the actual species survive.
  • Modern Stasis: Earth, enforced by the Colonial Union.
  • Morally Superior Copy: The authorities make a clone of a rogue scientist, implanted with a copy of the original's memories from just before he went rogue, in the hope that the clone will be able to tell them what the scientist is up to and how to stop him. The memory copy seems at first not to have taken, so the clone is given his own name and allowed to start building a life for himself, and by the time the memories do start surfacing he's formed his own moral code and freely chooses to oppose his progenitor.
  • Nanomachines: The CDF is very reliant on nano-technology (and that reliance is turned against them at points). Types of nanotech form armor, ammunition, blood substitute, etc.
  • Neglectful Precursors: The Consu created and abandoned the Obin, and have been extremely uh, snippy every time the Obin try to get in touch.
  • Neural Implanting: Multiple instances and variations, particularly in The Ghost Brigades.
  • Never Mess with Granny: The CDF took this to the next logical level by putting Earth's grannies in twenty-year-old Super Soldier bodies.
  • Never the Selves Shall Meet: Special Forces soldiers can't ever meet their dead progenitors - obviously - and it's sheer accident that John even finds out what happened to Kathy's "unused" clone.
  • No Sense of Humour: The woman in the army recruiting office doesn't respond to Perry's attempts to make jokes. She claims that her sense of humour was surgically removed when she was a child.
  • No Social Skills: A common opinion of the Special Forces soldiers, combat-trained clones who rarely have ages in the double digits. They resent it, and The Ghost Brigades shows that this is mostly due to Electronic Telepathy being their preferred mode of communication.
  • No Transhumanism Allowed: Averted. The CDF creates a spectrum of oddities built out of human DNA - ranging from 'pretty green people' to 'space tortoises'. Also, every CDF soldier has a computer in their head, and Special Forces soldiers utilize this to the level of Synchronization.
  • Not-So-Well-Intentioned Extremist: It slowly becomes clear as the series goes on that the CDF leaders are more interested in maintaining their own power than doing what is best for humanity. Most of The Human Division is about all the various morally dubious things they've been doing, and how the rank and file soldiers have to deal with the fallout. Their ways of dealing with the Conclave stand out starkly: They try to destroy it, first politically and then with an engineered civil war. When that fails, they finally resort to diplomacy... with everyone but the Conclave.
  • Numbered Homeworld: The Obin planets except Obinur. (The Obin don't have much imagination.)
  • Older Than They Look: All CDF soldiers, owing to the whole Brain Uploading thing. Zoe hangs a lampshade on it in The Last Colony by calling (the apparently 30-something) John "ninety-year-old dad".
  • One-Man Army: Daniel Harvey.
  • One World Order: Averted in the case of Earth, which explicitly has no unifying government, making interstellar politics an interesting experience in later books. The United Nations sends a delegation to the Conclave, and the narrative clarifies that the UN is not the government of Earth, but they often pretend to be for the sake of representing the planet's interests offworld.
  • Our Werewolves Are Different: An intelligent, humanoid yet hairy species on Roanoke are called "werewolves" because that's the closest thing they resemble. As far as we know, they don't shapeshift.
  • Pay Evil unto Evil: When the CDF gets their hands on one of the conspirators who has been putting people's brains in jars, they put his brain in a jar. Wilson isn't fond of the decision, but doesn't lose any sleep over it.
  • Physical Fitness Punishment: On the platoon's first day in training, Master Sergeant Ruiz makes a point of finding a reason to give each and every person a twenty-kilometer run, with the threat of everyone having to do it again if one person takes longer than an hour. This is partly so everyone knows where they stand with him, and partly to make the point that, with their new technological enhancements, they all can run twenty kilometers in an hour, among other feats.
  • P.O.V. Sequel: Zoe's Tale, and The Sagan Diaries in a more disjointed way.
  • People Farms: One possible fate of a human colony conquered by aliens who think human meat makes good eating. The Rraey even capture a few breeding specimens so they can raise babies as veal.
  • Pro-Human Transhuman: The soldiers of the CDF. During boot camp one guy asks why they're bothering to defend baseline humanity when their new bodies are the next step in human evolution. Sergeant Ruiz tells him he couldn't be more wrong - all the alien DNA in their genomes makes them sterile and thus an evolutionary "dead end". One of the reasons for the advanced enlistment age is to ensure that many of the recruits would have grandkids back home... grandkids they will fight to the death to protect.
  • Psychic Link: Created through BrainPal technology for soldiers.
  • Puny Earthlings: The reason why the Colonial Union no longer uses unaltered humans as soldiers. They didn't want to - the cost of producing CDF super soldiers is pretty high - but it was the only way to keep up with the neighbors: the first Battle of Coral was a Pyrrhic Victory with a staggering death toll. It seems that every single alien species is individually far stronger and tougher than a baseline human. Whether this is because the aliens have long since genetically altered themselves or are just naturally stronger is unclear.
  • The Quiet One: Maggie.
  • Radio Silence:
    • Used during the battles on Coral because the Rraey can detect BrainPal communication.
    • Forced upon the Roanoke colonists in order to avoid the Conclave's attentions.
  • Rank Up: Perry starts Old Man's War as a recruit, and is commissioned as a lieutenant by the end. It's mentioned in The Last Colony that he later rose to be a Major and commanded a battalion before retiring. In comparison, Harry Wilson, in the same time period, seems to have topped out as a Lieutenant, possibly because he doesn't toe the party line and tends to annoy his superiors.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Interestingly, John delivers a proxy version in ''The Last Colony" about the absent Colonial Union leaders (albeit in front of someone who can repeat this to them) about all of the major moral and policy mistakes they've made, and why that's leading him to show the Conclave where Earth is to break their monopoly.
    John: Out of every government or species or intelligent race, the Colonial Union is the one that is the best at looking out for us. For humans. But I've come to doubt that the Colonial Union is doing that job well. Look how the Colonial Union treated us at Roanoke. It deceived us in the purpose of the colony. It deceived us in the interest of the Conclave. It made us complicit in n act of war that could have destroyed the entire CU. And then it was willing to sacrifice us for th good of humanity. But none of the rest of humanity ever knew the whole story, did they? The Colonial Union controls communication. Controls information. Now that Roanoke survived, the Colonial Union will never tell any of it. No one outside the CU power structure even knows the Conclave exists. Still.... The British didn't sacrifice Coventry. And the Colonial Union shouldn't have been willing to sacrifice Roanoke.
  • Replacement Goldfish: Played with with Jane. She is her own person and wants to be treated as such but also wants very much to know about Kathy's life and John.
  • Rousseau Was Right: It takes a while, but it slowly becomes clear that when given the chance for peace, most people are willing to take it. Unfortunately, centuries of horrific violence between species mean that many governments remain convinced that peace is a doomed effort and dismiss it out of hand. The Colonial Union causes many problems for itself in later books (which are invariably cleaned up by the main characters) because they can't stop being lying, backstabbing bastards and just trust anyone.
  • Sarcastic Devotee: Savitri.
  • Scary Dogmatic Aliens:
    • The Consu. Curiously enough, though, that dogma makes them less dangerous than they might be - they're so advanced that they could easily steamroll everyone else in the galaxy, but their philosophy/religion calls on them to fight 'fairly' in their continued effort to help other races 'perfect' themselves so they limit themselves to using the same level of tech as their opponents. In their eyes, it's a species-wide Earn Your Happy Ending: in the eyes of most of their neighbors, it's random, scary mayhem.
    • The Colonial Union: a fascist, xenophobic, and violently expansionistic state that keeps its own people in the dark and farms them to populate colonies and die in endless wars.
  • Sense Loss Sadness: In Ghost Brigade, being pulled out of Integration (a type of Mental Fusion) has this effect, as does having the BrainPal shut off. Given that SpecOps troops are literally raised by their BrainPals, and spend pretty much their entire lives integrated, it's less 'sadness' and more 'crippling, mind-destroying shellshock'.
  • Settling the Frontier: The Last Colony and Zoe's War both focus on the difficulties facing settlers creating a new, secret colony.
  • Shoot the Dog: How the Colonial Union justifies the various atrocities it commits. Much of the series involves deciding whether or not its actions are necessary for humanity's survival. Turns out that not only are they unnecessary (despite what initially seem like some pretty decent justifications), they're actively harmful.
  • Shout-Out:
  • Smart Gun: The Colonial Marines' weapons are biometrically locked, computer-controlled and programmable Swiss Army Guns. Special Forces can also control the gun remotely.
  • Space Amish: The Colonial Mennonites in The Last Colony, though they don't seem to actually have an objection to technology per se, but simply object to excess technology, and that's why the CU sends a large group of them to Roanoke, which is likely to be cut off from the rest of the CU for a very long time, meaning that coping with lower tech levels would probably be necessary at some point.
  • Space Elevator: On Earth, but operated by the Colonial Union. A notable example because even though a Space Elevator could be built in the real world, the one the C.U. operates isn't physically workable (its anchor is in too low an orbit). This gratuitous violation of physics indicates to astute Earthlings that the C.U. is keeping secrets from them: the message is targeted at the various Earth governments who might become independence-minded if not for this constant mute warning.
  • Spiritual Successor: Although it is definitely its own novel, Old Man's War is, according to Scalzi, a riff on Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: Harry and Danielle look like they're heading in that direction by the end of The Human Division. By the end of The End of All Things, they appear to have the "star-crossed" bit sorted out.
  • Starfish Aliens: Just about everything in that isn't a human. There's only one race of aliens mentioned who get explicitly compared to humans, and they're about an inch tall. The most advanced race in the known universe look like giant, blade-armed stingrays.
    • A few like the Whaidians and Covandu are physically different from us but seem quite comprehensible in terms of motives and culture. Even the Consu have understandable (if odd and frightening) values. Hell, the man-eating Rraey even have celebrity cooking shows!
    • The Gamerans are Starfish Humans.
    • Progressively averted over the course of the series, however, especially in The Human Divison when the focus shifts from the Colonial Union's military to its diplomatic corps.
  • Sterility Plague: The Crimp, which caused a third of Earth's male population to become permanently sterile, and resulted in the Quarantine Laws. The Ghost Brigades reveals that while Earth believes that it was an extraterrestrial disease, the Colonial Union created it in order to justify said laws and help maintain the status quo.
  • Stupid Evil: One of the Colonial Union's key flaws (besides its arrogance) is its inability to look past short-term goals. They assume if they sow chaos among their enemies and win battles, they'll win the war. This worked for centuries because every other species was doing the exact same thing, but it begins to backfire when the Conclave actually proves to be a successful peaceful union between hundreds of disparate races.
  • Straw Character: Interestingly played with in Old Man's War. On one of their missions, John's squad gets a new recruit in the form of an ex-politician, who initially seems to perfectly fill out the military sci-fi stereotype of the obnoxious, sanctimonious bleeding-heart liberal. However, it soon turns out that his political views are at least somewhat correct - his problems (in the form of a raging Messiah-complex and blindness to practical concerns) are purely a matter of personality.
  • Sufficiently Advanced Alien: The Consu.
  • Super Soldier: The Colonial Union's soldiers require only a few hours of sleep, can survive ten minutes without breathing, and have a fantastic Healing Factor.
    • Their Special Forces (who don't have 'normal human' prejudices or instincts to cope with) have even better reflexes and reaction times, as well as other advantages that seem to vary by model number. And there are even some who can survive in hard vacuum.
    • As the drill sergeant in the first book points out, the Union isn't giving its volunteers brand-new, youthful, super-tough bodies bristling with genetic and nanotech enhancements because it loves them: it's spending all this money because all the other sapient species out there have their own Super Soldiers, and baseline humans have been proven to be totally outclassed.
  • Swiss Army Gun: Justified in that it is a Matter Replicator for several different flavors of hurt.
  • Taking You with Me:
    • Dirac's nasty surprise for Charles Boutin after the latter took over Dirac's body in The Ghost Brigades.
    • How Captain Coloma deals with the Erie Morningstar in The Human Division.
  • Telepathy: Possible to be done on anyone with a BrainPal, by anyone with the right clearance.
  • Thanatos Gambit: In The End of All Things, General Gau arranges for his own assassination in the middle of a speech to the assembled representatives of the Conclave, creating a crisis situation that catapults his aide into the top job and inspires the representatives to pull together against a common threat.
  • Theme Naming: Special Forces soldiers have the last name of a famous person in science and philosophy (or science fiction, for the Gamerans). Their troopships, similarly, are not named after cities like those of the regular CDF (and the Mobile Infantry in Starship Troopers); they're named after birds of prey.
  • To Serve Man: Some species, the Rraey in particular, find humans to be quite tasty.
  • Transhuman Aliens: The Gamerans. Human brains, but everything else about them is a bizarre space-monster. They're specialized military forces, but the other facet of their existence is to get at least one branch of humanity out of the fighting-for-limited-real-estate game by letting them live free in outer space.
  • Tree Buchet: Used by Special Forces soldiers to escape an enclosure guarded by automatic turrets that lacked the ability to aim up. Justified by it being a treelike lifeform on an alien planet, more elastic than actual trees.
  • 20 Minutes into the Future: Subverted. At first it's taken for granted that Earth of the future is still recognizable to a reader in the early 21st century, but then the characters start questioning it, and it turns out the Colonial Union has been deliberately holding back Earth's social and technological development.
  • United Space of America: The Colonial Union. English is the main language, the military is dominated by former US citizens, and the influential, older colonies are populated by many descendants of American (and other first-world) colonists. But subverted in that all the new colonies are populated by people from countries and regions that can't support their populations (thanks to being kept that way by the CU), which amounts to most of them being from Africa and Asia (especially India), though Norway is also mentioned as being unable to support its population, and so is a source for colonists.
  • Weirdness Magnet: Whilst it's never quite clear whether he's blessed with exceptionally good luck or cursed with exceptionally bad, John tends to be at the centre of a lot of improbable coincidences. Only a Magnet, having survived the disaster that wiped out the rest of his 95,000-person strike force, would be personally rescued by a super-soldier constructed from the DNA of the wife he lost eight years previously.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: Charles Boutin believes that the CDF leadership is corrupt and keeping humanity ignorant for their own power, and is willing to do anything to fix that. Even kill off the entire military (who he acknowledges are mostly innocent) and leave the civilians defenseless. While it's made clear that he has a point, he's also working off limited information and the assumption that he's the smartest man alive.
  • We Have Reserves: Ghost Brigades explains this is why the CDF recruits the elderly, and only from Earth. They originally recruited youths from all over, but not only were their baseline human bodies too weak to fight aliens, losing so many of the young population was crippling the human race. Transferring seventy-five year-olds into engineered bodies had a number of advantages, not least being that people of that age are essentially a write-off, from society's perspective. They've made their impact and passed on their wisdom, so if they die in combat nothing unexpected is lost.
  • We Will Use WikiWords in the Future: Mostly for the trademarked hardware that makes up a CDF soldier's body: the smarmy focus-group-style names, complete with Trade Snark, are almost a running gag.
  • What Did You Expect When You Named It ____?: Roanoke, which is very much intended to act like its namesake.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Lots of 'em, in all sorts of different directions. Let's just say that this is a series that believes in giving weight to many different viewpoints in many different situations and leave it at that.
  • Wiki Walk: The Special Forces BrainPal does this to explain concepts.
  • Worthy Opponent: John gets two in The Last Colony, in the form of Manfred Trujillo and General Gau. By the end of the book, he's good friends with both.
  • Would Hurt a Child: The plan to force the Eneshans to break off from their alliance with the Rraey and Obin in The Ghost Brigades involves abducting the Eneshan Matriarch's heir and sterilizing it, forcing the Matriarch to choose a new consort or risk the destruction of her line. Afterwards, the Matriarch must stand by and let them kill her child to prevent bloody civil war.
  • Younger Than They Look: Unlike the CDF, who are older people in younger bodies, the Special Forces are "newborns" who have been inhabiting an adult body from their inception. Your average Special Forces member is a toddler or grade-schooler by regular human reckoning; high-ranking, experienced members may be in their teens.

Alternative Title(s): The Ghost Brigades, The Last Colony, Zoes Tale


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