Thursday, 14 August 2008
‘The Ghost Brigades’ – John Scalzi (Tor Books)
I read ‘Old Man’s War’ last week and loved it for all kinds of reasons that I’m not going to go into all over again, have a look over HERE for my review if you haven’t seen it already. One of my first thoughts on finishing was that if ‘The Ghost Brigades’ was half as good as ‘Old Man’s War’ then I was in for a treat of a read but then I started to wonder whether ‘The Ghost Brigades’ could match up, ‘Old Man’s War’ was one hell of a read after all.
I made myself late for work, this morning, just so I could finish up the last twenty pages of ‘The Ghost Brigades’ and see how it all ended, that should give you a pretty good idea of how I found it. It’s not without moments that bugged me but, on the whole, ‘The Ghost Brigades’ meets the standards set by ‘Old Man’s War’ and sometimes even exceeds them…
Of all the soldiers that make up the Colonial Defence Force the Special Forces are the most feared, even by their own side. Created from the DNA of the dead (why they are known as the ‘Ghost Brigades’) these soldiers are the elite of the CDF and totally without normal human qualms.
The universe is a dangerous place for humanity at the best of times and now, with three alien races allying to turn back human expansion, things are about to get even worse. The aliens hold a trump card in defecting human scientist, Charles Boutin, who holds CDF secrets, the CDF hold a trump card of their own in that they have grown a clone (of Boutin) in an attempt to gain inside knowledge.
Jared Dirac is that clone but the CDF plan didn’t work out and he is now a member of the Ghost Brigades fighting a dirty war to advance humanity’s aims. However, Boutin’s memories are about to surface and Dirac is about to realise just what humanity’s enemies have in mind…
‘The Ghost Brigades’ is every bit the read that ‘Old Man’s War’ was, in terms of plot and the way that Scalzi gets us into the heads of each character. The book is written in the third person and this lets the reader find out about each character on their own terms instead of just from the perspective of one character. This opened up the book a lot for me and it was good to see that Scalzi treats all of his characters with the same attention to detail. Seaborg may be a jerk but Scalzi tells you exactly why that is and even though you may not like the character much at least you know where he’s coming from. General Mattson may be the worst kind of overbearing commanding officer but once you’re given an idea of what he’s facing then you understand why he behaves the way he does. Even Charles Boutin’s motives are laid bare, not just because the villain always boasts about his plans but to give the reader a chance to form their own judgements. More than anything else, ‘The Ghost Brigades’ is a book about people making choices and the reader is invited to become part of that process.
Sclazi also opens up his universe a lot more, giving readers a much better idea of the situation that the CDF is facing by putting things in context. It’s not just a few alien races to contend with, there are around six hundred species and humanity has declared five hundred and seventy seven of them hostile. That’s not good odds at all! A story that is already brimming with action, intrigue and suspense takes on a new dimension as humanity’s precarious situation is made clear. The smallest decision or action can have great consequences and it was this approach that had me turning the pages.
Scalzi also finds time to give the reader something to think about in his portrayal of the ways in which the Ghost Brigades are treated. Is it ethical to raise an infant in an adult body (with the initial consciousness nurtured by computer) and then send it into the kind of battles that ‘real born’ soldiers would refuse? Scalzi throws us both sides of the argument and then leaves us to make up our own minds. What he also does is show us how the Special Forces grow up during basic training and how their adult bodies house children with immense power. It’s touching stuff but there are also moments that made me laugh out loud.
There’s plenty to think about (especially when you see some of the missions that they have to carry out) and I’m still not sure what side of the argument I come down on…
Info-dumps, mostly at the beginning of the book, make ‘The Ghost Brigades’ a book that you can read without having read ‘Old Man’s War’ first. The problem for me was that I had read ‘Old Man’s War’ first and I was faced with a lot of stuff that I knew already, this made the beginning of the book a bit of a slog and spoiled things a bit. There was the promise of goodness to come but I had to get through some stuff that wasn’t so good first…
This is only a small niggle though. John Scalzi’s books are a reminder to me that I should be reading a lot more sci-fi than I already do and I’ll be starting ‘The Last Colony’ sooner rather than later. ‘The Ghost Brigades’ is the perfect antidote to the crappy weather/commute to work that I’ve been enduring these last few days, the more I can get my hands on the better!
Nine and a Half out of Ten