The Ghost Brigades is set a few years after Old Man’s War. Scalzi fleshes out this universe a little more, introducing us to a few more species and providing some more hints at interstellar politics beyond the Colonial Union. Like the first book, though, this is a story of the soldiers on the ground rather than the bigwigs in some legislature. The closest we get to that are the conversations between Generals Mattson and Szilard, which are reminiscent of similar conversations in Ender’s Game: they’re more about the soldiers than the war.
As the title declares, though, the focus of this book is on life in the Colonial Defense Force Special Forces. Nicknamed the Ghost Brigades because their soldiers are created from the genomes of dead CDF recruits, the Special Forces do the jobs too dirty or difficult for regular CDF detachments. The protagonist, Jared Dirac, is a special Special Forces member. When General Brahe announces that the Special Forces are different because each and every one of them was “born with a purpose”, his statement goes double for Jared. Cloned from traitor Charles Boutin, Jared carries the remnants of an imprint of Boutin’s consciousness in his brain. Mattson and Szilard wanted to see if Jared could remember what Boutin remembered and, most importantly, tell them why he defected and what he was planning.
I certainly liked the action The Ghost Brigades. There’s a lot less exposition than there was in Old Man’s War, and of course, there’s no prelude portion set on Earth. We get quite a few cool scenes, from training to deployment—the sequence on Enesha is probably my favourite. John Perry is mentioned near the end but doesn’t put an appearance into this book; Jane Sagan, however, is a major character—Jared’s immediate superior. Her beliefs and behaviour have a major influence on Jared, even if she isn’t aware of it herself. It was nice seeing certain parts of the story almost from her perspective (in a third-person sense).
And as in the previous book, Scalzi uses several different technologies to explore some of the ramifications of humanity’s spread throughout a galaxy studded with life. Genetic engineering and consciousness transfer are the two major technologies here. There are several discussions of how Special Forces differs from ordinary humans or even other CDF troops, along with that uncomfortable realization that Special Forces troops are essentially slaves, albeit with a limited term of indenture. I like that Scalzi brings up all of these ideas and offers the reader the chance to mull them over. However, at times it feels like this is more of a drive-by tour of them—“oh look, this is the part of the story where it’s a metaphor for slavery”. None of these big ideas really seem to resonate with the rest of the plot.
I liked Jared a lot better than John, if only because he isn’t as much of a Mary Sue. He’s far from perfect, and not everyone likes him. He shares a few irritating traits with John—like John, he seems to come up with innovations that eluded everyone else for a long time as if they were nothing—and I wish he had more serious conflict in this book. Most of his conflict is internal, as he wrestles with whether to become more lik Boutin or not. And even though all the other characters declare that he has changed, become more assertive, etc. … I confess I don’t see it. He’s pretty much Jared, the entire time.
Of course, if one is looking for heavy implications into humanity’s future, the climactic confrontation with Boutin and the ensuing conversation is perhaps the best part of the book. Boutin might be misguided, but he has apprehended aspects of the big picture that are certainly troubling. If he is correct, the Colonial Union is lying to a lot of people. Yet Mattson and Szilard imply that Boutin didn’t have all the information—and as any scientist knows, making decisions based on incomplete data is worse than reserving judgement. So I appreciate the way in which Scalzi weaves this moral ambiguity into the story. It’s clear that the Colonial Union’s actions are far from on the level, but there is more going on than what Boutin reveals to Jared.
The Ghost Brigades is definitely a worthy sequel to Old Man’s War. I’m not sure if it’s better—I think I was a little more taken with the story in Old Man’s War—but it’s certainly not worse. Indeed, if you haven’t read Old Man’s War, you could certainly still pick up this book and not feel like you’re missing out. Scalzi delivers a good balance between action and introspection, even if I did wish there were a little more depth when it comes to the latter. This is a book packed with explosions and clones and excellent alien creatures, not to mention questions about identity, consciousness, and the nature of self.