Discovering John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War was an unexpected highlight of my reading in 2013. Why it’s taken me over a year to pick the series back up, nobody knows. I’m either a bum or a commitment-phobe when it comes to reading series these days. It’s possible George R.R. Martin has carved out such massive amount of space in my mind’s reading chamber that there’s not currently much vacancy for other science fiction. That’s right. When in doubt, blame George R.R. Martin. A Dance with Dragons feels so much looooooonger than the other books.
The Ghost Brigades is book 2 in John Scalzi’s much loved series. If you haven’t read Old Man’s War yet, the Ghost Brigades is one of the coolest concepts introduced in it. Basically, the brigades grow their own superior soldiers using the DNA of deceased people who volunteered to join the Special Forces and died before having their chance to serve. This DNA is combined with smart blood to grow bodies genetically altered for strength and speed, among other things, in order to perform the riskiest missions and fight the most hostile alien races.
This book can stand alone, but you’d be missing out if you skip Old Man’s War. Don’t do it.
At first I was expecting to pick up where Old Man’s War left us off, with John Perry, the 75-year-old hero, temporarily traveling with the Ghost Brigades. Nope. John Scalzi does what he wants. No John Perry, but we are with the Ghost Brigades and there’s a problem. Unlikely alien races appear to be working together to destroy the human race.
It all begins with the technology the Special Forces use to transfer human consciousness into another body. Actually, the real problem is with the scientist who’s an expert on this technology cloning himself and going rogue. He unknowingly left one clue behind, his consciousness. Officers break protocol and use the living scientist’s DNA to grow a soldier with this consciousness, Jared Dirac. Nobody knows if it’ll work, if they’re growing another genius traitor or if the consciousness will remain a locked box inside a rather talented soldier who actually has a sense of humor.
One thing Scalzi drives home very early on is that the the human race is relying on the very old and the very, very young (Ghost Brigades are essentially babies with rapid learning capabilities and adult bodies). Unlike Special Forces, which is made up the the 75-yr old volunteers, the Brigades didn’t volunteer; they’re born soldiers who are tasked to defend Earth and regular humans – two things they have no personal references of save for the colonists they occasionally protect.
Not surprisingly, Jared has a fondness for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Through Jared’s relationships to his fellow soldiers and the officers who created him, Scalzi explores some of Shelley’s old stomping ground on what it means to create life and then fear the life you created. As his superiors wonder if he’s a ticking time bomb, he’s mind returns to this strange notion of individuality and the intense loneliness he feels when not continuously connected to the minds of the soldiers in his troop.
These books make me wonder why I don’t read more science fiction. I loved the fast paced battle scenes and snappy dialogue. Jared’s internal conflict is as compelling as the external one and we’re talking about and end of the human race, which is pretty compelling. Though the structure of the Special Forces and Ghost Brigades isn’t incredibly intricate, I found it believable enough to go along with. I would’ve liked more from Jared’s encounters with the different races, for the aliens to be more than one-dimensional, video game-like evil guys. That’s really my only criticism.
What I found completely believable about these books is humanity’s wildly aggressive foreign policy and blatant imperialism. We assume other races are hostile (granted, here they usually are) and that planets are ours to colonize. Finders keepers, back off evil aliens who’ve been here for thousands of years before us. Humans are the brats of the universe.
And guess what??? Old Man’s War will maybe someday be a movie.