Let me get my big criticism out of the way first. The problem with the book is that, minus a slightly more positive ending, the book is EXACTLY the same as “The Old Man and the Sea” updated to a post-apocalyptic setting. It doesn’t even pretend not to be, which is admirable…but if we’re criticizing Scalzi for aping Heinlein too much in “Old Man’s War” (and let’s face it, if you’re reading this blog you probably are), we need to criticize Nick Cole for re-writing “The Old Man and the Sea”. All of the major beats are the same. Most of the major themes are the same. Hemingway’s writing style is meticulously imitated. It’s a straight up remake of the original book.
That’s not to say it wasn’t worth the effort or the read, and after all, some remakes are better than the original. The re-writes do provide a valuable new perspective and the story is moving and, at times, truly beautiful. The Old Man is a wonderful character, full of depth and nuance. His tale is poignant and inspiring, his refusal to give up not just a major part of his character but obviously connected with everything else that’s happened in his long life.
The book is also absolutely infested with wrongthink, which helps to explain Nick Cole’s later abortion kerfuffle with his publishing house. A Professor (obviously meant as a stand-in for a liberal college Professor) tries to help groups of roamers left homeless after the apocalypse, and turns them into “savages”. This is a word Cole uses freely, with aplomb and without abandon. Terrorists from the middle east are basically blamed for the apocalypse, and the mysterious savior of the novel is an American soldier who refuses to give up on the U.S. government. Nick Cole clearly doesn’t give twopence who he does or doesn’t offend here.
This leads to some amusing reviews from the rather leftist-leaning Goodreads written by folks who clearly have trouble looking past Cole’s politics to the story. We get reviews like this (I think it’s fair to quote publicly posted reviewers when the reviewers were, after all, posting their own criticisms of someone else’s writing):
The structure follows the story of the Old Man and the Sea in which instead of the sea there’s just a wasteland forty years after the nuclear bombing and an apocalypse that nearly wiped humanity and life from the face of earth. But it seems some people managed to survive, but we don’t know how. They escaped bombing and managed to stay alive, but the radiation? we don’t know and Nick Cole does little to inform the reader.
As anybody who read the book knows, he does a LOT to inform the reader. Throughout the book the Old Man repeatedly refers to the background of the attacks, how the radiation blew in certain directions depending on the wind patterns after the bombings, how certain cities were attacked and not others, how the Old Man managed to survive wandering city to city, and even the reason for the attacks. It’s not only false but ridiculous to say that Cole does “little to inform the reader”.
The (I think) reason for the negativity comes a little later:
One thing I really disliked about the novel is the political thinking of Nick Cole. The slogans or the laws written on the sewer walls were disgusting. Cole may think he’s being wise writing those disgusting childish cheap slogans. One more word: terrorists?! really Cole?
Because terrorists are clearly incapable of mass violence.
He also makes this even more bizarre complaint:
The village in which old man lives is one of the most civilized and humane places I’ve read in post-apocalyptic books: after forty years of wild tough apocalyptic years they are as civilized and as cultured as we who live before the apocalypse.
Remember, the premise of the novel is that the villagers believe the Old Man is “curst” and have blacklisted him as a result, and they refuse to go east because they believe it, too, is “curst”. This is a place the reviewer calls “civilized and humane”.
And look at the review of the reviewer who wrote “In a word: Terrible”:
One of the book’s most basic flaws, in my opinion, is that the author feels he must explain the existence of the wasteland. His answer: terrorists. As best I can glean, sometime in the future “terrorists” have gained air superiority and what must be a massive nuclear arsenal, because they dropped atomic bombs on almost every major city in the United States and there was apparently no stopping them. Forgive me, but I found it hard to suspend my disbelief in this premise.
(Why people have an issue with “terrorists” being villains is left as an exercise to the reader.)
Yes, Nick Cole does write a few other “characters” into the book, but they are only props to provide conflict for the sake of conflict, or to further the author’s heavy-handed agenda.
A hint here that the “agenda” is the problem.
We get this confirmed later when the reviewer criticizes some of Nick Cole’s philosophical phrases:
The turning point for me was when the author’s effort to teach some sort of moral or lesson became too overt for my liking. In one chapter, the old man discovers writing carved into the walls of a sewer system. It turns out to be a long list of political slogans disguised as aphorisms about the fall of the United States, and they are about as profound as the comments on an online news article. “Children are smarter than you think.” “Peer pressure is when you decide to lob a few warheads at this week’s Nazi because CNN told you to.” “Rockstars [sic], actors, and politicians don’t actually do anything.”…The author wants the reader to accept as fact that “Hate is not wrong when what you hate is wrong.”
This criticism reminds me a bit of some of the old critiques of Heinlein’s “Starship Troopers”, critiques that always left me cold. None of those statements seem particularly problematic to me, even if they’re not necessarily correct. And I do need to wonder if the reviewer would even disagree with some of these if they were worded slightly differently. If CNN was replaced with Fox News, would that change anything?
It’s also worth noting that at this point in the narrative when the Old Man finds those slogans we don’t know anything at all about the man who left them; we do learn who it is later, but at the time we first see them they’re just slogans written on a cave. How the reader takes them at that point is up to them – from a narrative perspective, they’re most useful for providing backstory.
In any case, it occurred to me how almost none of the positive reviews I read mentioned anything about the author’s possible wrongthink or political opinions, whereas negative reviews almost always focused on this. Whether or not this says something about either the reader or the author I leave as an exercise for all of you to work out.