A Book Review (with diversions)

Cover of Old Man's War by John Scalzi
Cover of Old Man’s War by John Scalzi
Just finished John Scalzi’s Old Mans War. It’s now been out for 15 years and is one of those books that everyone who knows SF says you ought to read. So I finally did.

Clearly a homage to Robert Heinlein, it’s not a bad read at all – I only skipped a few pages, near the end, when I was in a hurry to get to the climax. The plot is basically this: in the future, humanity is exploring the stars and has discovered there are are lots of intelligent alien life forms already out there there; however this is not your cosy idealistic Star Trek universe – most of the aliens out there are trying to kill each other and, humanity being what it is, is joining in – in the name of defending Earth, of course. To this end the Colonial Defence Force, an army of space warriors, has been formed; however, having absorbed the lessons of the past, the CDF aren’t taking young draftees off to be killed/mutilated. Their solution is to recruit only 75-year-olds, with the promise of having their failing bodies turned into a new, highly enhanced *young* body. There are of course some catches; for example, recruits have to serve a minimum of 10 years in the Force, be declared legally dead under Earth law and permanently exiled from the planet.

The book(s) are now to be adapted for a Netflix series. Because of his support for all and every LGBTQ+ cause, Scalzi has a lot of trans followers on Twitter and they’ve all been excitedly asking if there are going to be any trans characters in the show (some are even volunteering to be auditioned). And of course he’s reassured them that he will make sure that will happen.
Now, I see a plotting problem with this. Recruits for the Defence Force don’t get a repaired body; they get a completely new body cultured from their DNA and with their minds transferred into the new brain via sciencey-handwavey stuff. So, for transsexuals, that means that they end up with their original sex.
“But can’t they just change the sex of the new body via the DNA?”
Easier said than done. I’m no expert by any means, but I’ve read qute a bit on the DNA problems that produce intersex disorders, and switching the chromosomes around to produce a perfect body of the opposite sex just cannot be done.
“But they can just transition all over again, surely?”
Again, easier said than done. Full medical transition means some very complex surgery which can (and sadly often, does) go wrong, followed by lifelong medication with hormones – a path that frequently produces chronic health problems down the line. Would any military really want recruits who aren’t going to be fully fit and combat-ready at all times?[^1]
“But medical science will have advanced by then and all those problems will be solved!”
That’s possible, perhaps even probable. However, would this fictional military force that has a constant need for vast numbers of combat soldiers really want to spend time and resources on satisfying the wishes of a very small minority? The show’s writers will probably come up with some sciencey-handwavey explanation, or maybe just ignore it altogether.

Or they might notice that Scalzi has inadvertently already given them a perfectly good solution. In the OMW universe, people who want to join the CDF have to register for it on their 65th birthday; they then have a ten-year grace period during they can drop out any time. However, the registration process includes supplying a DNA sample – which immediately becomes the property of the Defence Force (another of the catches that I mentioned above). Lots of people die before they reach 75; additionally the majority of DF soldiers are killed before their enlistment period is up. All this leaves the DF (which has been operating for decades) with millions of DNA samples that they can use for anything at all. So, if a recruit requests, a body of the opposite sex closely matched to the recruit’s own ethnicity, build and colouring[^2] can be provided. But I’m betting that the writers will go for the handwavey-science bit[^3]. Much simpler.

There’s another, deeper, point I want to make in all this.
These days, any production that has a transgender character will face demands that it should be played by a trans actor. This sounds commendable – you get BAME actors playing BAME parts and disabled actors playing disabled parts. But this situation isn’t at all comparable. Trans people don’t have a disability and they’re not a race; there’s nothing (in theory) that visibly marks out a trans person as trans and the vast majority of trans people try hard to pass as their chosen gender. They don’t want to be singled out. In any case, it’s an actor’s entire job to pretend to be what they’re not. So a trans character can be played by a non-trans actor, and a trans actor can play a non-trans part; just get the best person for the job. The only reason to include an explicitly trans character in a story should be that the character has a reason to be there; that their trans status is germane to the story and not just a ticked-off item on the writer’s / production company’s diversity checklist. Otherwise, why bother? You’d just be virtue-signalling.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for diversity in the media. What I’m against is specifically labelling a character as disabled, trans or whatever, without narrative justification; this is reinforcing the idea that such people are some weird race apart. Honestly, I’d love it if all shows had a character played by an obviously ‘diverse’ actor without any mention of their diversity in the dialogue![^4].

[^1]: Yes, I know that there are trans soldiers in many forces around the world; but can you tell me how many get sent into front-line combat?
[^2]: Though, with green-tinged skin, colour doesn’t really matter to DF soldiers.
[^3]: Like the writers on the early Star trek series; whenever they needed a sciencey-sounding but actually meaningless bit of dialogue, they simply inserted (TECH) into the script and had their hired science consultant fill it in.
[^4]: I’m using ‘diverse’ & ‘diversity’ here so that I don’t have to keep writing ‘GNC / trans / disabled / BAME’ all the time.