Review: "The Ghost Brigades" by John Scalzi

John Scalzi, author of the popular Old Man's War, brings us this eagerly anticipated sequel.

The Ghost BrigadesOld Man's War, Scalzi's debut novel, made a big splash thanks in part to raves from online scifi tastemakers like Cory Doctorow. In his impressive first effort, Scalzi demonstrated a flair for military space opera combined with a firm grasp of the latest memes floating around in scifi: transferrable consciousness, nanotechnology, etc. In other words, a fresh story told in classic style.

In Old Man's War, readers saw a future where humanity's Colonial Defense Forces (CDF) recruits soldiers from among Earth's elderly, who trade in their aging bodies for young ones crafted from their own DNA. Given the choice between senescence and death on the one hand, and joining the army (which offers only a likely death) on the other, many choose the latter. This method makes a constant state of war more palatable to the body politic, since the young are free to form new colonies, breed, and live out much of their natural lives without having to engage in combat. And in a universe where just about every other intelligent species discovered has been hostile to mankind, new soldiers are in endless short supply.

In The Ghost Brigades, we see the same world through the eyes of the elite warriors of the Special Forces. These Colonial warriors are "born" into new adult bodies made from the DNA of elderly volunteers who keeled over from a heart attack or a stroke before they were able to transfer into a young body. Essentially babies, the Special Forces' "BrainPal" computers, implanted into their real brains at birth, essentially coach their childlike minds into adulthood in a matter of days. Because they're don't really "grow up," the CDF uses Special Forces to do the dirty work that the "RealBorn" would rather not. Every soldier in the CDF gets a BrainPal installed that can do anything from communicate wirelessly to operate machinery, but the Special Forces are able to use their BrainPals to integrate with each other so seamlessly that they can run an obstacle course looking through the eyes of one of their comrades.

Jared Dirac, the protagonist of Ghost Brigades, isn't your typical member of Special Forces, which are nicknamed the Ghost Brigades because many doubt that they are truly "alive" at all. He's implanted at birth with the consciousness of a human scientific researcher who betrayed mankind and defected to an alien race. The CDF hopes to uncover the traitor's motivations using Dirac, but the transfer doesn't take at first and Dirac is consigned to the life of a typical Special Forces operative. Of course, "at first" is the operative phrase there. Dirac is forced to come to terms with his hidden identity and decide where his loyalties lie. And decisions, we learn, are what truly distinguish mere bodies with brains and truly living beings.

Scalzi's work has been compared to vintage Robert Heinlein, but it's a little bit lighter. Scalzi breezes through his story at a breathless pace that can be both exhilirating and frustrating; I often found myself wondering about the implications of some of Scalzi's ideas only to discover that we were already moving on to the next setpiece.

Ghost Brigades is a pageturner with surprising emotional rewards, but I'm hoping that Scalzi plans to write more books in this universe, because as it is there are too many ideas here for his own good. I'm curious, for instance, to read more about the so-called Gamerans, human soldiers transferred into specially designed rock-like bodies that allow them to live—and even copulate—in hard vacuum. I mean, you can just mention something like that in a tangential scene and then move on. Well, maybe you can. But one thing that distinguishes the work of master scifi writers and those at the beginning of their careers is the ability to integrate ideas with stories as seamlessly as the members of Special Forces integrate their brains.

The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi
Published by: Tor (February 21, 2006)
ISBN: 0765315025
Genre: space military scifi