Kindt's pretty, limp illustration does not convey action well, but the story structure is intricate and sharp. After finishing the book I immediately started over again and started noticing a lot of wonderfully subtle details that I'd missed the first time through, symbols that keep appearing, a key character in the background of the amnesia flight, things like that. Pretty cool.
We follow a single recruit from the day he enlists, through the long scary trek into space, the shock (and rediscovered libido) of being in a powerful new body, the rigors and camaraderie of boot camp, and the horrors of battle and pain of losing friends. It's Starship Troopers (the movie not the book) with an elderly green twist.
The science in Old Man's War is squishy-soft. His soldiers have all kinds of wacky superpowers which simply get chalked up to "genetic engineering" or "nanos". These aliens look like crabs, those are like birds, and that one is an inch tall. There was no particular reasoning behind the morphologies, they just wanted to be different and weird. So they were. I did enjoy that one planet was populated by green slime, right out of Dungeons & Dragons.
Overall it reads like a very good amateur novel. Battles and tactics were pretty simple and the protagonist enjoyed Rambo-style luck as bad aliens stood around waiting to be shot. But that didn't keep it from zipping right along and leaving me with a few chuckles along the way.
When I saw that another Big Rock book had been published with Larry Niven's name on it, I may have set my expectations a bit too high. Where Hammer is steak and potatoes and really good IPA, Stone is roadside carnival popcorn. It's decent but not very satisfying and you can tell it's been sitting in that bag under the heat lamps for a while.
Around 2020, a team of scientists launches experimental nanobots into space in hopes of mining the wealth of the solar system. The project apparently fails when communication is lost, but some 30 years later an asteroid piloted by the nanos is on a collision course with Earth and the scientists must reassemble to save the day. In the meantime one of the scientists has secretly infected the world with more nanos that eliminate disease, kill rapists and bullies, advance women's rights, regrow amputated body parts, improve memory, halt the advance of deserts, and reverse the aging process.
The book is packed with two things: science fiction literary references (I got a lot of them but I could tell I was on the outside of the joke a lot of the time) and mildly bawdy sex humor. All the newly nano-youngified scientists just can't keep their hands off each other.
The prose is adequate. The dialogue is occasionally humorous but mostly clunky. The plot structure, which jumps between timelines for a while, is handled clumsily. I did enjoy the descriptions of the evolution of nano "civilization", as institutions such as war and economy are invented.
Stranger reminds me of another Heinlein novel (Friday) in the way the plot keeps jumping lanes. First it's a David-vs-Goliath thriller in which a motley crew of good Samaritans must protect the innocent prodigy from the greedy, dastardly world government. Wait he's safe now, and it's a coming of age tale with a unique perspective. Blink, and it's a quirky essay: On Religion and Human Sexuality. I know this is supposed to be a literary great but the story's lack of "identity" kept throwing me.
The gender politics were...interesting. A weird mix of ahead-of-its-time feminism and throwback chauvinism. On one hand, Heinlein's female characters are capable and independent. On the other they're always looking to get married, and are routinely called by infantilizing pet names like "sweetfeet", "child" and "cherub". One hand: the utopia Smith tries to build provides flawless birth control and STD prevention to women, who have the ability (thanks to Martian psychic discipline) to make rapists and other purveyors of violence just disappear forever; it's a sexual egalitarian paradise. Other hand: one of the three chief protagonists remarks offhandedly that 90% of the time when a woman is raped she's at least a little bit at fault (I looked for some indication that this was stated ironically or in ignorance, but I don't think that was the case). I realize that Stranger was published in '61, but the feminist schizophrenia was still jarring.
It reads like a series of unrelated short stories involving assorted versions of the main characters. It's explained in the prologue that these events might be happening, or could happen, or are happening out of order, or didn't unhappen, or something. A weird framing device has Caine pin his father--who's brain dead somewhere else with cables coming out of his eyesockets...isn't he?--to the ground with his sword while people who are not who they are (yes I typed that correctly) come and talk to him. It's exactly as unclear as it sounds.
Okay, the ending did tie much of it together--and in fairly awesome fashion--but not all of it. And I still have a bald spot above one ear from all the head-scratching.
Caine's Law was for me the first disappointment of the series. I think this was the first time I've ever felt too stupid for whatever I was reading....and I'm still waiting eagerly for book 5. Sigh.