It sounds like it could be military science-fiction but it really isn’t. It could also have been space opera, but it doesn’t quite go that far either. The Ghost Brigades does contain some interesting science-fiction concepts wrapped up in a discussion of responsibility and free will, coming together as a fairly interesting read without a lot of surprises.
I should point out that this novel by John Scalzi is actually the sequel to Old Man’s War, but you don’t have to read the first book to enjoy the second. All the background the reader might need is delivered via conversation among the characters, sometimes a little heavy-handedly, to be honest, but then exposition is sometimes the hardest part of a novel to write. The Colonial Union is Earth’s space military, in place to defend Earth’s colonies from the close to 600 species within its sphere of influence. The Special Forces branch of this military is made up of cloned humans who are genetically modified to have enhanced senses and reactions, as well as having a portable computer implanted in their brains for training and communication purposes. This is fairly standard science fiction fare, but Scalzi goes a step further by having the clones being born at the peak of their physical maturity—forced accelerated maturation, so that it does not take 18 years to develop a good soldier. The portable computer, called the BrainPal, teaches the soldier everything it needs to know, and within two weeks of birth, soldiers can take the field.
Into this world comes news that a human scientist has turned traitor, going over to the side of an alliance of three enemy races. Due to the sloppiness of the scientist (and it’s never really a good sign when the character later remarks to himself how stupid his act was), he leaves behind an experimental recording of his consciousness, which the military scientists decide to pour into a militarized clone of the scientist himself. Thus is born Jared Dirac, clone of Charles Boutin, whom authorities hope will not only remember why his donor-parent went rogue, but where he is and what he is specifically doing.
As Dirac goes through training and his first few battles, Scalzi does a nice job of developing the military life that the Special Forces must use. Dirac also has interactions with “realborn,” humans who are normal. The differences in their lives and upbringing are brought into relief through conversations between them as well as the fairly exacting details of Dirac’s career. This is the part of the novel that most resembles military science fiction, but only in the way that Heinlein’s Starship Troopers would be considered military SF: more time is spent in the barracks than in battle. Scalzi is more interested in the interaction of these modified humans with humans and with each other than to talk about the specific strategies of a space battle or an attack against an alien race. This has the interesting effect of pointing out Dirac’s humanity by discussing and exhibiting how inhuman he and others consider him to be.
But when Dirac painfully regains the first memory of Boutin’s life, the focus of the novel changes to an examination of who this character really is—is he Boutin, complete with his memories and responses, or is he Dirac going through some highly specialized training? Even his superiors are unsure of him, well aware of his potential for going rogue himself. What’s worse, Dirac now knows his true nature and also doesn’t know what to consider himself.
Scalzi has set up a fairly integrated and complete future human society. We don’t have the advantage of knowing what non-military life for humans is like. He has also established an interesting network of alien races, and when Dirac finally meets Boutin face-to-face, wonderfully pokes holes in the culture he has worked so hard to establish. Here also is perhaps the biggest weakness of The Ghost Brigades: Boutin’s rationale for his actions does not stand up in the face of logic. A renowned scientist would likely have thought more clearly through his reasoning for turning traitor—and for a man who claims to love his daughter as much as he does, her well-being never seems to be very important to Boutin.
Ultimately, as may be expected, Dirac and Boutin face off, with a result that is fairly predictable. On the one hand, I would have liked the effect of the conclusion to have had more effect on the other characters in the story as they the legacy and example of Dirac and Boutin. The events that follow the climax are important, though; just not personal enough. And they probably also help to set up the third book in the series. I just find it unfortunate that we spend the majority of the book examining the humanity of the main character only to have that purpose swept aside by the resolution of the conflict.
Outside of this flaw, The Ghost Brigades is an enjoyable read, positing a very believable future and using that setting to ask important questions concerning the nature of being human, questions that carry beyond the confines of the book. Ultimately, it’s an optimistic book about individuals, but like Heinlein, it questions the motives of humans when they get together into groups requiring politics. Also like Heinlein, the book is written in a deceptively simple style, putting the questions and conversation about the characters in place through their interaction without huge expository monologues. It’s a solid effort, and I look forward to reading more of Scalzi down the road.