(a small note before I begin, this isn't something you should read if you're planning on reading the series, because it will contain spoilers, in that case)
When I initially started reading John Scalzi's Old Man's War series, I had thought it would be something that I wasn't going to write about. I had picked up the first of the series after I had read his novel, Redshirts, and had finished it fairly quickly. The same was true for each of its sequels. I had really enjoyed reading the books, but hadn't thought about any particular critical questions that came out of those text, beyond the fact that they were fairly enjoyable military science fiction heavily influenced by Heinlein that avoided some of the obvious issues with sexism and racism that you find in the sub-genre. It was only when I was in the middle of the final book, Zoe's Tale, that I realized that it had a fairly interesting implicit critique of Heinlein's text, Starship Troopers, one that works through inhabiting those generic norms in a very peculiar way. If Heinlein's text both satirizes and embraces the sort of militaristic nationalism built on sacrifice and interchangeability, Scalzi's novels undermine it through the construction of a set of individual family relationships that escape that logic.
The opening premise of the first novel, originally published on Scalzi's blog, Whatever, was that the military of the Colonial Union was drawn from the elderly, who could join the military if they abandoned any claim on returning to the Earth. We already see a fairly interesting take on the world system at this point, with a division between members of the economic core being recruited to the military and members of the economic periphery being placed throughout space as colonists, although the repressive and authoritarian nature of the regime is only partially revealed. In any case, once the recruits are brought on board, we discover that the Union has developed a level of technology that allows for the rejuvenation of the bodies of the old, transforming them into much younger individuals, who have physical capacities that go far beyond human potential. From there, the text followed a number of tropes that are recognizable in Heinlein's text, tropes that are probably drawn from Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, exploring the process of basic training, the experience of the death of one's comrade, etc. But the latter part of the text introduces something unexpected within this form of textual production, the return of the narrator's wife.
The text opens with the narrator visiting his wife's grave, and entering into the military. In effect, with the rejuvenation process, similar to Starship Troopers and All Quiet on the Western Front, the novel operates under the conventions of the bildungsroman, starting with the educational process of having a new body, and moving onto the formal education of basic training. The army becomes a way of being reborn in such a way that you cannot return to your former life, a way of profoundly transforming the way that you conceptualize the self and collectivity in the form of the corps. However, this notion breaks apart when the narrator, John recognizes his former wife, who is now known as Jane Sagan. Through the following chapters, we learn that the military not only draws on the living, but uses the DNA of the dead to produce what can only be called super-super soldiers, or the special forces. The uncanny return of this figure then breaks up the unity of the life and world of soldiers, returning the normative functions of family and marriage as a form of disruption, a break in the totalizing narrative of the story of the military. Rather than acting as a moment of alienation, the return of this world becomes a way of imagining a life outside the corps, one that the corps uses to keep both figures involved in its world, but one that is not a part of it.
The family life that is started in the first novel is expanded in the sequel, The Ghost Brigades, through the introduction of a daughter, who is adopted after her father is killed while attempting to destroy the military government of the Earth. Through that process, we are also introduced to further contradictions of the Colonial Union, and the fact that it, rather than the universe, is a paranoid, ruthless, and aggressive force. The experience of a hostile universe has been as much projection of the expansionist desires of the government, as any external reality. Additionally, we're made aware of the incredible extent of censorship imposed upon the home planet, and even within the ranks of the corps. The third novel, The Last Colony, shifts perspective considerably, while dealing with the same problems set up within the second. Rather than being focused on the corps, the novel shifts to the family life of John, Jane , and Zoe, and their role as colonial functionaries. Although the protagonists are still operating productively in the structures of the colonial union, they are no longer part of the corps, primarily because of the discoveries made by Jane. The three are then brought into the stratagems of the Colonial Union through the establishment of a colony, meant to break the power of a new alien collective, the conclave, which was designed to create more harmonious social relations between worlds, although on the premise of excluding all species not a part of it from colonization. The crisis then translates into the collapse of the Colonial Union, in part because of the refusal on the part of John to sacrifice his daughter.
To break out of this partial plot summary, what interests me is the way that this very peculiar family structure, a 90 year father, a wife who had been alive for a short amount of years, and a daughter who was effectively the same age as her adopted mother, breaks up the sacrificial logic of the military. We move from a sacrificial structure of interchangeability to one in which the act of sacrifice is unacceptable. The cliched refusal to give up one's daughter points to a set of social relations that are not superseded by state logic. This is not to say that this family life immediately translates into a resistance, or that it can't produce a form of compliance. Not surprisingly, these factors also translate into a series of actions, from fighting in wars, rescues, and the simple acts of colonial administration that allow for the daily life of the regime to function, but even in those moments, we're made aware that the needs of that regime don't constitute the entirety of life's possibilities. More significantly, the repression implicit in those structures are made clear, through the compromises that one has to make to survive, to hold onto one's family etc. The child may be the guarantor of futurity, to use the language of Lee Edelman, but it doesn't guarantee that the future that one is fighting for is defined by the dominant social systems.
This works in the novels because of the very strange nature of the family in question, one that doesn't break the conventions of heteronormativity, but operates in what might be called an apositional relationship to them. What I mean by that is that it would be impossible to translate the family structure of the novels into some sort of queer relation, one that operates in transgression to norms, but through simply ignoring them selectively. One could have productively written that novel, after all the relationship between a very old man and a woman the age of a child, or conversely the relationship between a woman who is far more physically imposing than her husband could very easily translate into a conversation about the transgression of norms. But the text doesn't operate in that manner. Instead, we're offered a sort of heterosexuality without heteronormativity, a conventionality without the patriarchal baggage attached. The path to this formation is obviously not simple, given that there isn't a neutral core of heterosexuality free of these conventions. Instead, one has to engage in the dense and complex sets of estrangement in the formal history of science fiction to understand it, beginning with Heinlein's vision of a military where women and men serve as equals to the responses to that tradition contained in feminist science fiction, which both draw on the work of Heinlein and critique it, along with anti-racist and anti-colonial science fictional projects. In writing this, I feel that my explanation isn't adequate to what I'm trying to say. Perhaps I will revisit at some point when I have reread the novels.... I'll end it there.