Review: The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi

The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi
The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi

The Ghost Brigades
John Scalzi
Tor, 2006

I tore through The Ghost Brigades, sequel to Old Man’s War, on a Friday evening and found it as engrossing and entertaining as its progenitor.  The Ghost Brigades focuses on the the titular soldiers, the elite special forces charged with the defense of the colonies and whose bodies are created out of the DNA of the dead who receive the experimental edge of enhancements from the military they serve.  Born as adults the average special forces soldier isn’t more then a couple of years old, born as adults but with personality to speak of their reliance on their BrainPals as a form of communication isolates them from regular troops and keeps them apart from the rest of humanity.

The main thread of The Ghost Brigades focuses on a traitor to humanity who has sided with not one but three different alien races in a secret plot to destroy the Colonies.  While Old Man’s War primarily dealt with illuminating humanities place in the larger scheme of the universe and in examining the psychological effects of that revelation on a single individual The Ghost Brigades delves deeper in to the universe of Old Man’s War slowly exposing the political realities of the Colonial government while maintaining a taught focus on examining the psychological effects on individual soldiers who are very different from what we think of as humans.

The focus here is on a Special Forces soldier named Jared Dirac.  Dirac is cloned from the aforementioned traitor, a scientist name Charles Boutin, and was designed to house that scientist’s memories.  When this transfer of memory and personality doesn’t seem to take Dirac joins the rank and file of the Ghost Brigades.  While political intrigue and covert ops military missions ratchet up both the tension and excitement right out of the gate the novel delves into the far more interesting questions of identity and purpose with the introduction of Dirac.  The Ghost Brigades, born in an adult body, lack a personality and are literal blank slates; their brain lacks the proper functionality to even really form cogent thoughts.  They use their BrainPals as sort of a thinking crutch as it unlocks information and concepts seemingly storing this new information on their brains almost like an organic hard drive.  It is an utterly fascinating process and the effect is watching a cogent adult mind, fully conscious, slowly taking upon the aspects of personality as it analyzes and digest huge quantities of information that available at the speed of thought.  It is exciting and somewhat frightening all at once.

Watching the development process amongst these soldiers allows Scalzi to subtly (at first) and not so subtly (towards the novel’s end) question identity, freedom of choice, and (as in Old Man’s War) what it means to be human (ineffably tied to those first two themes).  Dirac, as our primary narrative source after his introduction allows for a ground level view of both his development as a distinct individual and his indoctrination into the Special Forces both which provide a fascinating kind of psychological tension particularly towards the end of the novel.  Scalzi uses the artificial creation of the Ghost Brigades to draw some interesting literary allusions towards the various works of fiction involving the creation of lifeforms both biological and digital which were fascinating and probably could have made for lengthier examination then they are given.  However, Scalzi makes adept use of what he does include in this area and his quick dissection of the importance of Frankenstein, wherein the monster is more sympathetic than the human characters (a sentiment held by the Special Forces soldiers and one I’m willing to agree with), manages to keep the pace of novel moving along at a nice click.

For all their similarities The Ghost Brigades and Old Man’s War are very different books and despite their relatively close publication dates there is a certain sense of maturity to The Ghost Brigades that is not quite as evident in Old Man’s War.  Again I found myself feeling rather stupid for having waited so long to read these books and rather dismayed to find that my library’s copy of The Last Colony seems to be MIA!  While The Ghost Brigades is billed as a sequel to Old Man’s War the plot and characters are far enough removed from Old Man’s War that picking up the second volume before the first would not really produce any major surprises yet with enough links to the first that reading in order is still beneficial.  Again, if you’re a fan of science fiction and haven’t yet read Scalzi’s work you really ought not to follow my example and wait; do yourself a fever and get started as soon as possible.

2 thoughts on “Review: The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi

  1. Pingback: Better Late Than Never: June Summary « King of the Nerds!!!

  2. “Again I found myself feeling rather stupid for having waited so long to read these books…” I felt the same way. I can’t believe I hadn’t heard of this sooner! I’m so glad I found it! “The Last Colony” was good as well.

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