Many Scalzi fans seem to view The Ghost Brigades as something of a sequel to Old Man’s War. As I still haven’t read that novel, despite reading enthusiastic reviews for the book, I can’t speak to that issue. What I am saying about The Ghost Brigades is “Yowza!”. I am not ordinarily a fan of military sf, but as I became immersed in Scalzi’s story, I could not put it down—nor out of my mind.
Humans have voyaged across the stars, and along the way encountered an age-old problem: competition for scarce resources. In this case, the resources are habitable planets for many kinds of intelligent life; the predictable result, nascent war. Rather than relying on old-fashioned recruitment or conscription, the Colonial Defense Forces has found new ways of feeding the war machine, namely by creating the Special Forces—humans genetically engineered to defend the “realborn” (humans created the slow, old-fashioned way) from hostile aliens. As The Ghost Brigades opens, three alien races have teamed up to attack humans. But there’s also a catch: a human traitor, Charles Boutin, is helping them.
Boutin’s no ordinary human, either; he’s a scientist who helped develop some of the Special Forces technology, part of which involves transferring consciousness into the enhanced bodies. Before turning traitor, Boutin left behind an intriguing advance—the capability of storing consciousness outside a human body, in the form of his own consciousness. It is used to create a clone, Jared Dirac, with the hope of discovering why Boutin turned against his own kind, and how he’s betrayed them, in time to mount an effective defense against the coming war.
Although a little slow to get going, the action-packed plot kept me reading, often long after I should have been asleep. However, Scalzi’s excellent crafting of characters, especially Jared Dirac, was what really grabbed me. Dirac is a singular character in many senses of that word, and without resorting to preachiness, Scalzi uses his creation and subsequent development to explore the concept of individuality. In multiple layers and across several characters as well as species, Salzi’s examination of what it means to be human is sometimes overt, sometimes subtle, but always effective. Some foreshadowing early in the book seems obvious, but is nonetheless thought-provoking as Dirac’s personal development proceeds over the course of the story.
Some threads in The Ghost Brigades will tug at a parent’s heartstrings more than those of readers without children, but the book is an emotion-packed ride all the same. And I found that more than a little ironic, given that the Special Forces characters who dominate the stage are often considered to be not fully human by the realborn they are created to protect. Scalzi also manages to deftly insert an undercurrent of cautionary tale directed at our growing reliance on technology. The Ghost Brigades is a fairly straightforward military scifi story suffused with realistic characters it is easy to care about. Add to that the powerful but not preachy theme of individual choice that girds the entire story, and the sum is an excellent pro-freedom book.