The Ghost Brigades, John Scalzi

Tor, 2006, 317 pages, C$31.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-31502-5

Writer/blogger John Scalzi made quite a splash in early 2005 with the release of Old Man’s War, a straight-up military Science Fiction novel that went on to very successful sales and favourable critical acclaim. Barely a year later, the sequel The Ghost Brigades is already available on bookstore shelves, raising all sorts of questions about Scalzi’s superhuman writing skills.

Not the least of which is “how does he manage to keep it up?” Old Man’s War wasn’t cutting-edge SF, but it could boast of compulsively readable prose and a roaring rhythm. At a time where unputdownable is as overused as it’s ungrammatical, Scalzi is the real deal: someone who can deliver a fast, fun SF story that remains accessible and doesn’t take you for an idiot. With Old Man’s War, he showed that he could do it once; with The Ghost Brigades, he proves that he can do it again.

Set in the same universe as Old Man’s War, The Ghost Brigades takes a step deeper into the inner workings of the Colonial Defence Forces first introduced in the earlier book. A minor character gets a more substantial supporting part here, though the hero is entirely new in more ways than one: Jared Dirac is a force-grown clone, originally meant for a top-secret imprinting experiment, but then recycled in the CDF’s special forces . Meant to be someone else, he has to confront who he’s supposed to become.

While The Ghost Brigades can’t duplicate the delicious feeling of discovery that so characterized Old Man’s War (this time, we’re familiar with the universe and with Scalzi himself), it’s easily just as good in terms of narrative efficiency: Jared’s training is less military than social, and his subsequent combat adventures are enhanced by a different personal dimension than Old Man’s War‘s John Perry. Scalzi is skilled in quickly raising a number of issues related to his chosen theme of identity and consciousness: while some of them will feel old-hat to a number of veteran SF readers, they’re discussed so briefly that they don’t linger too long..

As is the case with nearly all of Scalzi’s writing to date (and here I’m lumping together his fiction alongside things like his blog and The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies), the prose is crystal-clear. Moments of humour are well-handled, along with a number of sly reversals —such as a good part of the first chapter. But don’t think that The Ghost Brigade is one big funny romp: One of the most satisfying aspects of the book is how it explores the darker side of the series’ universe, with its unforgiving realities (ie; let’s kill them before they kill us) and complicated politics. Doubts are raised as to the righteousness of the CDF (and never quite dismissed), simultaneously taking in account some of my problems with Old Man’s War and showing the way toward a third volume in the series.

Scalzi shows a good grasp of the genre’s gadgets and conventions, acknowledging a number of authors here and there while manipulating techno-military jargon with fluid ease. It’s important to note that Scalzi, while immensely respectful of the military, doesn’t share the rigid right-wing politics of many military SF writers: As a result, his fiction is filled with nuances and caveats that simply make it more interesting to read. Alternatives are discussed and characters genuinely anguish over their actions. As a result, even liberals come to understand when it’s time to lock up any doubts and fire at full automatic.

As good as it is, The Ghost Brigades comes with a few caveats: It is a bit on the thin side and may be more appropriate as a paperback than a full-price hardcover. As entertaining as it is, it also raises an interesting question: When will Scalzi try his hand at a more ambitious project? As coldbloodedly professional as he appears to be in his approach to his career, I doubt that he will suddenly drop everything else to produce an insanely ambitious 500-page work of art ready to challenge, say, Ian McDonald’s River of Gods. But I wonder. I wonder because I’ve seen what he’s capable of doing (twice) and I can’t wait to see him tackle bigger and better things.

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