Hard Truths from a Harsh Universe: Scalzi’s The Ghost Brigades

Last week I discussed the significance, both literary and personal, of John Scalzi’s Hugo-nominated novel Old Man’s War (2005). Today I shift focus to The Ghost Brigades (2006), the direct sequel and second book in the on-going series.

Rather than continue the story of John Perry, 75-year-old recruit to the Colonial Defense Forces, The Ghost Brigades shifts focus to the eponymous special forces units—including Perry love interest Jane Sagan. Only Sagan isn’t really the protagonist here, per se. But more on that later.

Early in the novel, a cover operation uncovers a conspiracy among three alien races to slice up the Colonial Union. It involves the Rraey, who you will recall as humanity’s chief antagonists in Old Man’s War, but also the insect-like Enesha—who the Colonial Union is officially allied with—and the mercurial Obin, who everyone is afraid of. What’s more, if a military alliance of this kind weren’t bad enough, special forces discovers an underground laboratory where scientists from all three species are researching the technology behind the BrainPal, humanity’s secret weapon in its endless wars against anything that moves. And there is one more problem: a traitor, a human scientist named Charles Boutin, is aiding the conspirators in their quest to conquer and destroy humanity.

WARNING: spoilers after this point.

I remember The Ghost Brigades as my favorite entry in the series, and it certainly impressed on re-read. It is also a very different kind of book—an Empire Strikes Back, if you will, to its predecessor’s Star Wars. And I mean several things by that. First, as much as it’s the second book in a trilogy, The Ghost Brigades is also the first in a two-part story, and so lacks the degree of resolution found at the end of Old Man’s War. Second, like Empire, it is far, far darker than its predecessor. This is, after all, a book about uncovering a conspiracy, and averting a cataclysm by whatever means necessary. Even still, it could have been cartoonish. It’s decidedly not.

For example, on one mission, Sagan’s team is sent to rescue colonists from an attack by the Rraey, who (as you may recall) have developed a taste for human flesh:

Special Forces soldiers gaped up at the skinned torsos on hooks. Barrels below the hooks were filled with offal. Limbs in various states of processing lay stacked on tables. On a separate table lay a collection of heads, skulls sawed open to extract the brains. Discarded heads rested in another barrel next to the table.

One of the soldiers uses the moment to reflect on life in Special Forces:

This is how it happens with us…the first time we see colonists, they’re dead. The first time we see children they’re dead. The first time we see an intelligent creature who isn’t human, it’s dead or trying to kill us, so we have to kill it. Then it’s dead. It took me months before I saw a live colonist. I’ve never seen a live child.

This shift in tone is also reflected in the decision to leave Perry offstage and focus, instead, on a mostly different cast of characters. Sagan and Harry Wilson are holdovers, but the true protagonist is Jared Dirac—one of the eponymous “ghosts,” but who has been overlaid with the recorded consciousness of the traitor, Boutin. He is a legitimate special forces operative assigned to Sagan’s unit, but equally he is a joint experiment run by special forces and military research—an experiment which, the general staff hopes, will reveal Boutin’s plan, his motivations and even his location.

As far as I’m concerned, the change in tone marks a welcome departure for the series, as Dirac’s often-painful struggle feels much more appropriate for the subject matter than Perry’s Midwestern earnestness (or Wilson’s relaxed humor) would have. In their place, the hard truths of a fucked up universe as understood by a soldier literally born to kill, who then on top of things finds out that he’s actually the result of a pretty unethical military experiment.

(Note, I did expect a more central role for Sagan, who you will recall is my favorite character from Old Man’s War, and who I remembered, erroneously, as the protagonist of The Ghost Brigades. But she’s used well—which is, in the end, more important.)

The tragedy of Dirac’s short life, moreover, haunts me. From the trauma of his “birth” and integration into his training platoon, to the awkward tenderness of his romance with fellow recruit Sarah Pauling, to the abject horror of loss in war, it is never lost on the reader that Dirac is, in essence, a child—someone who, BrainPal aside, simply isn’t emotionally equipped to truly make sense of what’s happening to him. And Scalzi draws attention to this so often that I inevitably started thinking about real-world child soldiers, and all the horrible social implications of that practice.

On another mission, Sagan’s team is tasked with committing what can only be described as an atrocity—though one that promises to set the anti-human coalition back significantly. Many soldiers object on moral grounds, but carry it out anyway. The actual act is pretty horrible, and feels closer to HBO’s Game of Thrones adaptation than Old Man’s War. Actually this didn’t sit so well with me, as I wanted to see more fallout, psychological or political, than I got. But the shock it provides does serve a purpose—to jolt Dirac out of his truncated childhood and into something resembling maturity.

In other respects, Scalzi refines the narrative established in Old Man’s War. For one, he provides a better explanation of why the Colonial Union exclusively recruits 75-year-old Westerners as soldiers and families from the developing world as colonists. 75-year-olds would “readily accept a life in the military rather than die of old age,” while not creating multigenerational demographic damage (which would occur if the CDF took colonists). And it was not so much a decision to only to take soldiers from Western countries as much as a decision to not allow Westerners to become colonists (in order to keep the pipeline operating at full capacity). It’s still not an entirely satisfactory explanation, but it’s certainly an improvement.

My main issue, however, lies with Boutin, and more specifically, with his motivation for turning on the Colonial Union. We are made witness to the obligatory mad scientist speech, in which he taunts Dirac with the “genius” of his plan, but really offers only the shell of an argument as to why he’s right. That is, Boutin states that his problem with the Colonial Union is political, not personal, and that he hopes, through war, to “save” humanity from the source of its misfortune (i.e. the Colonial Union, in his view). But he doesn’t provide a substantive argument, and as such, isn’t very convincing. In fact the argumentation is so weak, and the counter-argument so obvious, it was hard for me to understand how Boutin convinced himself, let alone how he would convince another intelligent human being, that this is a worthwhile risk to take. Of course people do adopt colossally stupid political ideas from time to time, but usually there’s at least a more insistent form of rationalization in play.

To me this constitutes a missed opportunity. The way it plays out makes it too easy to pigeonhole Boutin as a “bad guy.” But his argument, or at least the argument he could make, is one Scalzi has been seeding for two books now. So I think what I wanted was even greater ambiguity, where the reader could actually contemplate the notion that Boutin might actually be the “good guy.” Not that I actually want him to be the “good guy”—I’m one of those “ends don’t justify the means” types, after all. However, I wanted more of an exploration of what you might describe as “the uncomfortably gray areas.” Maybe something along the lines of what Iain M. Banks did in Use of Weapons.

The Ghost Brigades is nevertheless a very strong book. It’s thoroughly gripping and, like everything Scalzi writes, hard to put down. Better yet, it’s genuinely thought provoking—and not just politically. Scalzi uses the process of creating Special Forces, and the peculiarities of Dirac’s consciousness transfer, to philosophize on what it truly means to be an autonomous, sentient being. The ultimate conclusion, that it is the recognition and free exercise of choices, is of course debatable. But it is elegantly and thoughtfully presented.

Yet, even with that in mind, the thing I appreciate most about this book is its humanity. All the characters, from Dirac and Sagan to Wilson and captive Rraey scientist Cainen, show real vulnerability, real doubts and real struggle to come to grips with the various open-ended questions posed throughout the text. That, as much as the darker tone, marks The Ghost Brigades as an unusual entry in this series. And one likely to remain my favorite, when all is said and done.

Join us next week for a look back at the third book in the series, The Last Colony.

The G is founder and co-editor of the group blog ‘nerds of a feather, flock together’, which covers SF/F and crime fiction, comics, cult films and video games. He moonlights as an academic.

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