February 2006

Stephen Granade


The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi

Imagine that humanity has made it into space, only to find that it's filled with hostile aliens. The galaxy's races are involved in a giant land grab, with choice planets being fought over fiercely. Earth's Colonial Union has to protect the colonies from invasion while simultaneously supporting continued expansion. The Colonial Union's military arm, the Colonial Defense Forces, recruits humans and shoves their minds into engineered bodies to fight. Even that isn't enough, though. Sometimes the CDF needs better, fiercer soldiers. That's where the Ghost Brigades come in: an elite force cloned from the DNA of dead humans and given the last names of famous scientists.

Now imagine that Charles Boutin, one of the CDF's top military scientists, has defected to an alien race, taking with him the secrets of the BrainPal computer that every soldier has in his or her head. To top it off, three aliens races have allied in secret to attack the Colonial Union, and Boutin is somehow key to their plans.

That's the setup for John Scalzi's The Ghost Brigades, the sequel to Old Man's War. The Ghost Brigades is part of a growing sub-genre of military-themed science fiction. It's a form strongly identified with its first true practicioner, Robert Heinlein, and The Ghost Brigades echoes loudly with the sound of Heinlein's work. However, where Heinlein wove threads of his libertarian political leanings throughout his books, Scalzi has chosen to focus more on philosophical issues.

Key to this is the question of what defines a person's sense of self. As the novel opens, Boutin is gone, having escaped the CDF. Left behind is an archived copy of his consciousness, part of Boutin's research into consciousness transfer. CDF scientists clone Boutin's body and dump his consciousness into the new body, hoping to resurrect Boutin and find out what he's up to. What they end up with is Jared Dirac, a tabula rasa who fails to exhibit any of Boutin's knowledge or personality. He's turned over to the Special Forces -- the Ghost Brigades -- and proves to be a good soldier, but as time goes on, more and more of Boutin's memories return, until what emerges is a hybrid of who Jared Dirac is and who Charles Boutin was.

So who exactly is Dirac? Is he really his own person? How do you define a human? This is not the only moral question The Ghost Brigades toys with. How ethical is the existence of the Ghost Brigades? They're made up of humans created solely to be soldiers, and given no other choice in the matter. In fact, they're indoctrinated to believe that theirs is the most noble profession. Few of the Special Forces leave the service when their ten-year tour of duty is done; instead, they re-up. The Colonial Union has a stranglehold on human transportation and communication among colonies, and wields the resulting power as it sees fit. Should humans be governed by such a tightly-controlled government, irrespective of its motives?

The book touches on these matters, but in the end takes the same approach as Jared Dirac does: the questions are too big to be answered just yet. That's both a weakness and a strength of the book. While it's unsatisfying how the book raises these questions only to leave them mostly unexplored, it keeps the story from bogging down in a swamp of theorizing. The Ghost Brigades isn't really about the philosophical issues of cloning, personality transfer, the morality of warriors, or governance. At its heart it's a coming-of-age story. Jared begins innocent and wide-eyed, but evolves into both an experienced soldier and the vessel for a traitor's mind. He must come to terms with who he is and with the choices he can make. My main disappointment is that a good-sized chunk of Jared's character's development happens in a great rush, triggered by a plot device. The result is a book that has less emotional heft than it could.

As far as the mechanics of the book go, there is a lot of polished craft on display. After a clunky first chapter, the writing is solid and the characterization good. Scalzi has a surprisingly deft touch with humor beyond the quips and asides of his prior novel. He's also good at the sucker punch in small set-pieces. He does occasionally telegraph his swing. There are several points where he follows Chekhov's famous dictum that if in the first act you have hung a ray gun that can be set on overload on the wall, then in the following one it must be overloaded.

While The Ghost Brigades is set in the same universe as Old Man's War and makes glancing reference to some elements of that story, you don't have to have read Old Man's War to enjoy this book. It stands on its own, and indeed is a richer and more complex work than its predecessor. There will undoubtedly be a third novel, as there is a planet-sized plot hook introduced in the last chapter that all but has a giant flashing sign reading "SEQUEL MATERIAL" in orbit around it.

While The Ghost Brigades falls short in exploring its underlying philosophical and ethical themes, it delivers on its promise of solid science fiction entertainment with a leavening of serious issues. It is more of a riff on existing themes than an original composition, but it provides an action-driven plot that is grounded in very human characters. I found it a thoroughly enjoyable read, and a heartening example of an author taking on a more ambitious novel than his prevous ones and becoming a better novelist in the process. The Ghost Brigades may not make a lasting impression, but it's a fun read.

The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi
Tor Books
ISBN: 0765315025
320 Pages