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.

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  1. Ha, I found your blog!

    The final book in the series (The Last Colony) is worth reading. Better than Ghost Brigades; not quite as good as Old Man’s War. A lot of the threads you mention regarding the Earth gov’t are explored in detail.

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