The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi

March 18, 2009 at 10:24 pm | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 1 Comment

In one way at least, Ghost Brigades is an admirable sequel: it delivers a very similar experience to the first book without simply being a redo.  That’s a lot harder than it sounds.  It also doesn’t really result in a great book, because in my apparently somewhat minority opinion Old Man’s War was enjoyable but ultimately unsatisfying.

It would have been easy for Scalzi to simply write episode two of the military adventures of his protagonist in Old Man’s War.  Instead, he bravely leaves that character in the background, elevates a supporting character to a leading role, and meanwhile sets up a totally different opening scenario.  It’s actually pretty interesting: a top scientist betrays humanity and is working for the alien enemy.  No one knows why, so they clone him and implant the copy of his consciousness the scientist accidentally left behind when he left.  It doesn’t take, so they send the fast-grown clone off to special forces.

This is a pretty interesting premise.  Now, there’s some rough going at the beginning as the infodumps come fast and furious and there’s a lot of babbling about “consciousness” that sounds a lot like Star Trek transporter nonsense.  Then things settle down and we get Heinlein-light military adventures similar in tone to the first book.  The rest of the book doesn’t have anything wrong with it, per se, but like its predecessor it comes off feeling insubstantial.

Based on the setup I’ve described, you can probably guess what the central complication of the latter part of the book is.  It’s so obvious I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say maybe some of the traitor’s consciousness did make it in there after all.  Now I think there are some interesting places to take that idea, but Ghost Brigades is utterly predictable.  There are some other issues, too, beyond the basic plot.  Scalzi’s approach to showing this process means that the main character spends the first part of the book being a thoroughly passive and therefore thoroughly uncompelling character.  Later in the book the word “soul” is actually used instead of “consciousness” but there’s no real examination of the implications of that.

As with Old Man’s War, the politics and world-building are the most interesting part of the affair, but ultimately not too much attention is given to this.  The traitor, for example, believes certain startling things about the human government, but the main characters ignore them and the official response amounts to “haha he doesn’t know what’s really going on lol” and then the book ends.  After two books of offering tantalizing hints without ever dealing with it directly I can only assume Scalzi isn’t interested himself, or at the very least is sweeping it under the rug since his jaded main characters don’t care.  In the middle of Ghost Brigades the main characters have to do some things they consider morally repugnant, but ultimately they just complain a bit and then do their job.  Orders are orders, apparently.  Hopefully Scalzi will blow up this dubious philosophy in a later book, but at this rate I don’t know if I’ll read it.

Engineer’s Trilogy by KJ Parker

March 16, 2009 at 11:52 pm | Posted in 2 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment

In a medieval world, a man of low birth ends up changing the world through his intellect and ability to manipulate people, but are his motives just or self-serving?  This is a description of one of my favorites series, Dorothy Dunnet’s House of Niccolo.  By using only slightly tortured phrasing, I’ve written it so that it also applies to the Engineer’s Trilogy.  Does KJ Parker’s trilogy meet Dunnett’s standard?

Well, no.  It’s not that she’s not a good writer.  Especially in the first and third volumes I frequently paused to notice unusually well-written paragraphs, something I don’t do often when reading.  Dunnett is probably still a notch above as a writer, but really their styles are so different that comparisons are difficult.  Dunnett’s fiction (particularly the excellent Lymond books but also Niccolo) can be inaccessible due to the density of her prose and her far-ranging quotations and allusions.  Dunnett was also writing historical fiction, while Parker sets her book in a pretty standard magic-less fantasy world.

The unqiue feature of Parker’s world is the Mezentine Republic, an island of industrialization amidst what is otherwise a standard pre-indstrial world.  The Mezentines jealously guard the secrets of their technology to preserve their lucrative monopolies on the products of industry, but oddly they themselves do not allow technical innovation.  Their society reveres the “specifications” of how things are made as essentially scripture and with only a few exceptions does not attempt to improve them (holding that this is, in fact, impossible).  The plot gets under way when a factory foreman named Vaatzes commits a mortal sin: in the privacy of his home he makes a doll that is different from the Specification.  The state finds out, but he escapes before being executed.  Now on the run from his people with the secrets of industrialization at his disposal, Vaatzes’ only hope is to work for the enemies of the Mezentine state.

That’s a relatively interesting setting and a promising place to start a story (all of that is established in just the first pages of the first book).  Across the trilogy, the story careens all over the continent and involves the leaders of several other states as well as those in charge of the Mezentine Republic as well.  There are some deficiencies here: for example, the usual problem in fantasy books that the various “nations” all seem to number about 50,000 people or so.  Although this seems a little less than epic, it’s not a deal breaker…not until it is a major plot point that there are millions of nomads in the desert.  Uh, millions?  Parker seems quite knowledgable about many aspects of medieval life, so I can’t imagine why she feels that nomads would so vastly outnumber settled farmers.

But that’s not the big problem here.  No, the problem here is Vaatzes.  The central idea here is that Vaatzes is, despite his relatively humble position in the Republic, an extraordinary engineer.  His engineering abilities make him a formidable blacksmith, but as it turns out he is also an amazing manipulator of people.  Again and again, his political machinations are analogized in his thoughts to the workings of a machine.  Does this sound like any engineers you know?  Maybe not, but Vaatzes is extraordinary, after all.

Unfortunately, after three books Vaatzes intrigues turn out to have been all planned from the start.  The traditional way to handle elaborate plans is to have them go wrong and then show the character adapting.  Vaatzes does very little of this.  There’s improvisation now and then, but we are expected to believe that he planned out essentially everything that happens in three whole books in a day or two.  Meanwhile, there’s the not-that-shocking revelation that someone else was manipulating him.  Great.  My suspension of disbelief wasn’t just broken, it was ruined.  To go back to Dunnett for a moment, her manipulating characters Lymond and Nicholas are capable of things that ordinary smart people are not, but the reader accepts it because (a) these things still seem possible, although just barely and (b) everything about Lymond and Nicholas conspires to convince us they are geniuses.  Vaatzes is apparently a genius because he can set up an absurdly convoluted plot, but in terms of how he speaks, what he is interested in, and his personal life he seems like an ordinary drudge.

So much for Vaatzes.  Still, the Count of Monte Cristo isn’t at all plausible either, but it is still an enjoyable book, right?  Unfortunately Vaatzes is a hugely unlikeable character.  I was constantly rooting for him to fail, not because of some peevishness on my part but because I was supposed to, yet he never fails.  The story’s vast array of other characters are almost all portrayed as being so flawed and incompetent that I didn’t like them much either, although I still liked them more than Vaatzes so I was frustrated to see them get ground under the gears of Vaatzes’ plans.  The result: the story is depressing and not fun in the least.  There’s nothing wrong with a depressing book…if it is depressing in service to artistic truth.  But in this case, it’s depressing in service to a plot I continually rejected as wildly implausible.

I can’t recommend this trilogy at all, but I won’t give up on the author.  Perhaps with some other story to tell Parker will be worth reading.

Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

March 1, 2009 at 7:27 pm | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | 1 Comment

It takes a lot of guts to write an SF book that strongly recalls one of the most-read books in the genre. Most of your readers will have read the older work and the danger of unfavorable comparison is very large. Old Man’s War is such a book, so faithful in its echoing of Starship Troopers that at times it could almost be a remake.

But it’s not. Scalzi stakes out his book’s reason for existence on two points of departure. First, the preachy undercurrent of Starship Troopers has been removed. It’s not just that the preaching itself is gone but more subtly this is a world that is painted in the moral grays of modern intellectual thought. The second is that, whereas the setting of Starship Troopers amounted to “war against bugs”, in Old Man’s War the world and main character have a number of very interesting elements. In an inversion of the usual practice, the human side of this war is fought by old men and women who are paid with rejuvenation. The human government is advanced but shadowy and distant, keeping Earth entirely in the dark about the war and everyone else in almost as much ignorance. The aliens are not a monolithic enemy but a vast collection of almost universally hostile species, intelligent but too alien to truly understand.

Having introduced us to this world with the crossing-over mechanic more frequently seen in fantasy, Scalzi efficiently moves the story through all the moments you expect when reading military fiction like this: training, graduation, first assignment, first combat, etc. His sparse first person narrative matches the needs of the story well and while the dialogue isn’t always totally convincing, the narrator is likable and manages to inject some humor into what would otherwise be a rather grim story.

Unfortunately, I had two problems with the novel. Big problems. The first is that although a big deal is made of the protagonist’s age, only minimal biographical edits would be required to remove this element. All of the book’s old soldiers act virtually identical to their young counterparts in the dozens of military SF books that have preceded this one.

The second problem is that without the political and social commentary, there’s not a lot to Starship Troopers. Removing that stuff makes Old Man’s War lean and more accessible, but the addition, namely the setting, is just superficial. I’ve already complained about the way age is handled, but in fact while Scalzi teases many different interesting ideas in the book there is no follow through on any of them.  To pick just one example, the soldiers have very little in common with the people they are fighting for. This fact is observed a few times but not investigated. It’s an interesting situation, and one with parallels in today’s world…wouldn’t it be great if the book really examined that?

Well, a book did do that: it was called Forever War. I’m sure Scalzi has read it, but he sticks close by Heinlein’s side for Old Man’s War even though his setting is screaming for him to update and react to Haldeman’s book. I suppose it’s possible he uses the sequels to engage with all the ideas he introduced without investigation and I’ll probably give them a try, but Old Man’s War is a finely written confection, satisfying for what it is but without the substance I would have liked.

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