The Ghost Brigades

The Ghost Brigades opens with a rock. I didn’t find this the most promising of starts. If just finishing Old Man’s War hadn’t left me with the desire to explore more of John Scalzi’s universe, I would have been tempted to stop after the first page. Luckily, the importance of rocks pans out quickly so I didn’t feel too cranky having to sit through description.

Contrast it with the opening of Old Man’s War where the narrative is in the first person and from the first sentence we are in the head of the protagonist, John Perry. In The Ghost Brigades we don’t meet the protagonist until page 65 (!!!) and at that point we’re not sure we finally have as we’ve already been through a couple of points of view already.

I have very mixed feelings about The Ghost Brigades. It abandons the style I liked so much in Old Man’s War where most of the information was conveyed through dialog. The Ghost Brigades has pages and pages of explication. It sometimes reads like a FAQ to Old Man’s War. It did clear up a lot of questions I had. I wondered if John Scalzi wrote all this backstory before he wrote Old Man’s War or if he felt the need to spell out the answers for his less intuitive readers.

On the other hand, I faulted Old Man’s War for being too action-adventure for my tastes and not giving me enough to think about. The Ghost Brigades gives me plenty more to think about as it digs deeper into the concepts of identity, consciousness, and memory. It spends more time exploring the ethical dilemma of creating humans bred as soldiers. If one has no free choice, is one a slave? Or is biology destiny in any case? We also begin to see the universe from a less human-centric point of view. There are hints of the bigger picture (and sequels) to come. Despite finding it more thoughtful, I just don’t think that the theory and background work as well for a novel as character and plot. Writing fiction: show, don’t tell.

By the end, most was forgiven because I really liked Jared Dirac. He had a great sense of humor.

Spoilers Ahead

Quotes and Notes

2011-03-02. Added after reading all three books in the series.

Jared also considered the fact that while Victor Frankenstein was the creator of the monster, his creator–Mary Shelley–implicitly offered pity and empathy to the monster. The real human in this story was a rather more complex person than the fictional one, and more inclined toward the creature than its fictional creator. – p 90

John Scalzi is getting very meta here.

The Colonial era was rife with entertainment about Colonial Defense Forces…but in none of them were the Special Forces even hinted at; the closest thing was a series of pulpy novels published on Rama colony featuring the adventures of a secret force of erotic superhuman soldiers, who mostly overcame fictional alien species by having energetic sex with them until they surrendered. Jared, who at this time understood sex largely in the reproductive sense, wondered why anyone would think this was a viable way to conquer one’s enemies. – p 91

This is the voice I miss from Old Man’s War: John Perry’s/John Scalzi’s. This paragraph demonstrates why I miss John Scalzi’s first person narrative so much and why I was so impatient with The Ghost Brigade for making me wait four chapters to find a protagonist.

“Starship Troopers” had some good action scenes but required too much unpacking of philosophical ideas; they liked the movie better, even though they recognized it was dumber.” — 94

I had too laugh because the reverse was my criticism of Old Man’s War: good actions scenes but too many of them and, compared with Heinlein (who I had just been reading), not enough philosophical ideas. In order to capture my first impressions, I write my reviews before reading anyone else’s. A lot of people are comparing Scalzi to Heinlein. I wonder how wise it is, however, to insert so much of his own voice into his characters. Of course, characters are usually mouthpieces for the author’s ideas but should it be so transparent? It’s fun but is it good writing? It really emphasizes what I feel is the problem with “The Ghost Brigades”. It sounds too much like John Scalzi is talking to his fans about the universe. Is this the downside to the author/reader interaction (via blogs especially) that’s required of contemporary writers. You see this in TV screenwriting, too. Part of building a loyal fan base requires putting in Easter Eggs and shout outs. This is immediately pleasing and encourages buy in. How will it hold up in the long run when the people reading it are no longer the ones that were involved in those interactions?

The resulting hole was more than eighty yards deep before some of the debris thrown up from the beam’s work…filled the bottom of the hole to a depth of several meters. — p 139

Yards and meters in the same sentence? Where’s the editor?

“…to have you born only to carry the consciousness of another is an abomination. A violation of your right to be your own person…We Rraey are a spiritual and principled people. Our beliefs are at the core of how we respond to our world. One of our highest values is the sanctity of self–the belief that every person must be allowed to make their own choices.” (Cainen) — p 213

Nice to unpack some philosophical ideas in this book. Nicer, too, to make this discussion a natural outcome of the characters and their plots.

Jared felt the sudden snap of reintegration, and felt Jane Sagan’s awareness wash over him, and felt mildly revolted by it even as other parts of him rejoiced at coming back into a larger sense of being. Some parts of Jared’s brain noted that being integrated wasn’t just about sharing information and becoming part of a higher consciousness. It was about control, a way to keep individuals tied to the group. — p 219

More philosophy to unpack. Not that the reader needs to do much thinking as John Scalzi spells it all out for us in the last half of the paragraph. This feeds my misgivings about John Scalzi’s habit in The Ghost Brigades of having the discussion intrude upon the action. But what I really find awkward is that second “, and” in the first sentence. It was all I could do to keep from replacing it with “. He”.

“The set of names Special Forces uses implicitly says something about the point of view of the people who created them, and created you.” (Charles Boutin) — p 249

The USA-centricness of Old Man’s War universe bothered me, too. Although it is leaps and bounds ahead of 1970s science fiction in terms of gender issues, it’s stubbornly Western–worse, narrowly American 20th century. Here John Scalzi explains why the inhabitants of his universe still eat with knives and forks when not even a majority of people currently on planet Earth do. It’s nice to have the answer and he cleverly echoes the earlier Mary Shelley quote about who the ultimate creator is. But I still get that uneasy impression that John Scalzi is just ticking off the FAQ to make sure he explains away all the questions and complaints from Old Man’s War.

“Meanwhile, they have all the same social and political structures they had two hundred years earlier, and they think it’s because they’ve reached a point of genuine stability.” (Charles Boutin) — p 272

Another thing I wondered about. Another explanation (which makes me think I wasn’t the only one). I really take issue with this explanation, though–the idea that human beings will not have changed much politically or socially in the next 200 years even when spoon-fed small technological advances. Just looking back over the social changes in the last 30 years of my adult life can be shocking. Just looking at a decade of change on the Internet is dizzying: homepages, blogs, Twitter/Facebook. Three years ago, I didn’t see the point in having a mobile phone. Now I’m lost without my iPhone, although I still rarely use it to call anyone. Technology alters our abilities. It doesn’t just enhance them; it reconfigures them. Human beings adapt to these new ways of interacting and society changes.

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