BOOK REVIEW: “The Ghost Brigades” by John Scalzi (2006)

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You know, despite the orgies and bloodshed and torture and death and murder and mayhem and mutilation and manipulation and general carnage and awfulness, there’s just something so *sweet* about these books.

No, seriously, I’m not kidding. There’s a kind of intermittent tenderness that offsets all the more clichéd fightin’ space marine stuff. I’ve never seen it done before. What makes it better is that it’s never cloying, it just sort of comes out of nowhere, punches you in the heart, and vanishes again before you’re really prepared for it. For instance: our Fightin’ Space Marines are geriatrics from earth, recruited into the infantry and given new bodies genetically based on their old ones. Their souls are transferred to the new body, and the old ones are chucked. Fairly standard wish-fulfillment stuff, right? No big deal. Basic comic book technology. But: in the first book in the series, the protagonist - safely ensconced in his new form - walks across the room to his withered original body, takes his old head in his new hands, and says “Thank you.” Then he takes his wedding ring off the finger of his old hand and puts it on his new one. It’s all he has left to remember his long-dead wife by.

That’s just so *nice,* you know? It chokes you up a bit without really putting any effort into it. It’s a neat trick, and Scalzi effortlessly pulls it off. In fact, those of you who read my review of “Old Man’s War” a few weeks back may recall my raving about it, claiming it was the best Fightin’ Space Marine book ever; better even than The Forever War and Starship Troopers. I also raved about his seemingly effortless transparency as an author, his ability to tell the story well yet inconspicuously, without his own voice and style getting in the way.

Alas, he doesn’t quite manage to pull that off here

PLAY BY PLAY

“The Ghost Brigades” takes place several years after “Old Man’s War,” and is entirely based around Jane Sagan, a character introduced in the second half of the previous book. She becomes embroiled in a mystery that might bring about the destruction of the Colonial Union and the end of Humanity itself.

Once upon a time, there was a brilliant-but-perhaps-a-bit-unhinged scientist named Charles Boutin who was involved in consciousness transfer technology. After his family was killed in an alien attack, he went ‘round the bend, faked his own death (It’s easy when you can use clones) and vanished. Several years later, Military Intelligence - and Jane Sagan - find out about this, and attempt to figure out where he went, what he’s doing, why he’s doing it, and who’s helping him. Their first bid is to make another clone of Boutin and load a recorded copy of the original Boutin’s soul into it. This doesn’t work, but rather than waste a perfectly good Fightin’ Space Marine, they put Boutin-sub-3 into combat. The second bid is a straight ahead military mission to break up the alien alliance bent on attacking and wiping out humanity. The third bid is where things start getting more interesting.

Ultimately the good guys win - some of them, anyway - the bad guys lose - mostly - some new allies are made - kinda’ - and in a genuinely touching coda, we see the emergence of a sweet new little family amidst all the blood and horror.

The End

OBSERVATIONS

Obviously I’m being a bit more circumspect with my “Play by Plays” on this book than I usually am. If I’m reviewing War of the Worlds, or some fifty year old crap by Heinlein or Asimov, I don’t mind telling you that Rosebud is a sled and Bruce Willis is actually dead. On more recent books, I don’t like to give away the punch lines unless I have to. Apologies.

There’s no getting around it, this is simply not as good as the first novel in the series was. In the second half, it comes really really close, and there are a few individual scenes that are better than anything in its predecessor, but in the end it just doesn’t sing and dance like its predecessor did. Understand I’m not saying it’s a *bad* book. In fact, it’s head and shoulders above most of the space combat crap out there now, and it’s quite a bit more ambitious than the prequel, but it’s just not as good.

Part of the problem is that the book starts about seventy pages before the story starts. It takes about a quarter of its length to get going. Part of the problem is that the focus isn’t as sharp as in Old Man’s War, though obviously it’s because this is a much larger story, so it can’t be. Part of the problem is that Jane Sagan simply isn’t as fun as John Perry was. She’s an impressive, intelligent badass, but she doesn’t hop off the page the way her boyfriend did. Part of the problem is that John himself is not in this book at all, though that’s completely unavoidable. There’s no way to fit him in plausibly, and he’d serve no real purpose even then. Part of the problem is that this book is not at all a standalone, and it suffers for that.

The real problem though, and I hate to say this, is that Scalzi tends to unexpectedly trip up his own writing this time out. Scalzi is a terrific writer, and I have yet to read a bad book by him (I reiterate: this is not a bad book), but just as this story is more ambitious than its older brother, Scalzi’s writing is also more ambitious. He experiments. He does an extended ’let’s screw with people’s perceptions’ bit in the beginning that doesn’t really work, he tells the whole thing in a somewhat detached third person, he jumps around a lot. There’s nothing you can point to here and say ‘this is wrong,’ and yet taken altogether it tends to kind of drive away the immediacy I was hoping for. As I’ve said, the man knows exactly where to draw the line between artfully telling a story and distractingly showing off, and this is the first time I’ve really seen him miss the mark.

I’m inclined to cut slack. This is the fourth novel I’ve read by him, and he takes more chances here than I’ve ever seen him do before, both in scope and style. Ambition means being willing to expose yourself to the risk of failure, and he is certainly more ambitious here than we’ve seen him before. He doesn’t quite pull it off as well as I’d hoped, but it is by no means a failure. It still left me very interested to read the next book in the series. I didn’t feel betrayed. It was better than “The Gripping Hand” or anything ever written by Orson Scott Card. Don’t think this is a bad review, ’cuz it’s not. It’s just not as *good* a review as I’ve given before.

There is, however, much to love in this book, including the unexpected bits of innocent charm and humor. For instance, when a newborn Special Forces soldier - fresh out of the tank - meets a human pilot and strikes up a conversation:

“You’re Special Forces, right?” Cloud asked
“Yes,” Jared said.
“How olda re you?” Cloud asked
“Right now?” Jared asked.
“Sure,” Cloud said.
[Jared’s built-in computer informs him]
“Seventy one,” Jared said.
Cloud looked over. “Seventy-one years old? That makes you pretty old for Special Forces, from what they tell me.”
“No. Not seventy-one years,” Jared said, “Seventy-one minutes.”
“No Sh_t,” Coud said.
[Jared checks his computer to figure out the idiom]
“No sh_t,” Jared said, finally.
“Damn, that’s just weird,” Could said.
“Why?” Jared asked.
[…]
“Well, not that you’d know this,” Cloud said, “But for most of humanity it’d be a little odd to be having a conversation with someone who is only slightly more than an hour old. Hell, you weren’t even alive when I started that poker game back there. At your age, most humans have barely got the hang of breathing and taking a dump.”
Jared consulted his [built-in computer]. “I’m doing one of those right now,” he said.
This got an amused noise out of Cloud. “That’s the first time I’ve ever heard one of you guys tell a joke,” he said.
Jared considered this. “It’s not a joke,” he said, “I really am doing one of those right now.”
“I sincerely hope it’s the breathing,” Cloud said.

There’s also a great bit where a squad of new Special Forces soldiers (Including Jared) are boning up on the history of the Fightin’ Space Marine concept, and end up reading pretty much every book ever written on the subject, including ones I mentioned in my previous review: Starship Troopers and The Forever War:

“Starship Troopers had some good action scenes but required too much unpacking of philosophical ideas; they liked the movie better, even though they recognized that it was dumber. The Forever War made most of the 8th unaccountably sad; the idea that a war could go on that long was almost unfathomable to a group of people who were a week old. After watching Star Wars everyone wanted a light saber and was irritated that the technology for them didn’t really exist. Everyone also agreed that the Ewoks should all die.”

It goes on to say that they all really liked “Ender’s Game,” but they’re only newborns so I’ll cut them some slack for bad taste on that one. Otherwise, I agree with them.

We get a serious look at augmented humans, and an insider’s view on what it’s like to grow up with a computer not only in your head, but functioning as an integral part of who you are. Special Forces are almost like telepathic super-ninjas in some regards, and as easy as it would be to go completely over the bend into ludicrousville with that, it feels thought out and realistic. We also get some exploration of the inadvertent caste system that exists within the Colonial forces and humanity in general. That it is self imposed makes it all the more interesting.

The plot, when it’s finally revealed, is needlessly complex, but some of the curse is taken off of this because it’s a crazy guy who thought it up, and he’s just all over the map about everything. The upshot of this is that it’s still more coherent than the “present day” sections of Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson, *and* it manages to really drive home the feeling of wheels within wheels within inflatable bounce houses which are, themselves, within wheels. There’s a lot of stuff going on in the shadows here, much of which we only get glimmers of, but in that context it almost makes sense that Boutin would feel like he needed to go to these lengths given the sheer mass of the clockwork he’s tilting against. Needless to say, some of this stuff is a setup for the third novel in the series, which I’m greatly looking forward to.

WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS BOOK?

I liked it, but I’m a weirdo.

Social Conservatives won’t like it at all.

As for the rest of us? Perhaps, but only guardedly.

There’s an orgy or two in here, but they fly by so quickly they’re almost inconsequential. Whereas the previous book was sort of morally ambiguous regarding the use of force and the nature of war, this book is quite a bit darker. Our protagonists are ordered to kill a child on one mission, which they do. This probably saves billions of lives, but it’s no less heinous for that. Nor is it meant to be: the author makes it agonizingly clear that this is a very bad thing they’re doing, even if it’s for the greater good. This is a very well-written sequence, by the way, and drives home the trooper’s anguish.

This is a more sophisticated book than “Old Man’s War,” it requires more of the reader, it’s less cut-and-dry, and it probably takes many of us in directions we don’t want to go.

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