John Scalzi’s The Ghost Brigades, the sequel to Old Man’s War, is a fine book. Scalzi is easy to read and technically proficient in the craft. The book is fun, military scifi in the vein of Henlien’s Starship Troopers. But it’s hard to say that this is a good book.
Part of the problem is in expectations. While it is set in the Old Man’s War universe and has some of the same characters, the book is ultimately telling a rather different story than its predecessor. Some of this is a matter of different themes. OMW was focused on world-building, technology and presenting an unambiguous picture from people in the trenches. TGB on the other hand, uses the set up of the previous book to question ‘what is a human?” as well expand the scope out of the trenches. It does the former a lot better than the latter.
The attempt at widening the scale of perspective doesn’t go over as well. It uses new information that is revealed awkwardly and ends up deflating the characters’ actions. It also creates a feeling of ‘middle installment do nothing’ where there’s all set up and no pay off. Given that this is a sequel and many of the fundamentals such as Scalzi’s writing style and the setting, are unchanged; this isn’t the worst. Finally, the new perspective changes the entire reading of the setting, which may or may not be to your liking, but given the aforementioned problem of all set up, is hard to judge this book on by itself.
Trigger warnings: Sex, Violence, Death
That’s my nonspoiler review of the book. But having reading the book, I have spoiler filled thoughts and commentary. So let’s not waste any time and jump into it.
Beware of Spoilers ye who enter
One of the things that made Old Man’s War easily readable was how relatable its initial set up. Earth, and the people on it, hadn’t radically changed in between now and the future of the book. In actuality this means that the book is positively relatable by a certain subsection; many of society’s evils are still present. While misogyny seems to be a thing of the past, structural inequality is still present, ableism is erased and heteronormativity is alive and well. Now you could argue that these problems started in OMW, but I read that years ago while watching a game of Diplomacy in college and didn’t have the same priorities as I do now. Also I’m talking about TGB, in which some of these problems are looked at a bit more.
The structural inequality is explained by the Colonial Union keeping Earth in stasis in order to farm it for a constant stream of soldiers and colonists. Soldiers come from developed countries and colonists from everywhere else. Perry’s first person, newcomer perspective coupled with the possibility of Scalzi fleshing out the world means that this didn’t come up in OMW. This demarcation plays out further as the more developed colonies were settled by Western countries along with the CDF being run by Westerners who are fine with this arrangement. A pointed emphasized by Boutin mocking the naming conventions of Special Forces. This is a terrifying, yet plausible future, in which current structures of inequality are perpetuated into space.
I’m of two minds with this revelation. On one hand, it makes enough sense, both in and out of universe, that’s certainly buyable. On the other hand, having these problems and then just chalking them up to a government conspiracy feels cheap. Any problem can just be explained away by society being locked in a state of arrested development. It does show a level of self awareness that the current state of affairs is bad but is still a relatable framework. Also it stretches my suspension of disbelief given the timescale.
Now an interstellar government engaging in a shadowy conspiracy in order to essentially grow people so they can engage in a go wide strategy in a game of Galactic Civilization is one thing. Said interstellar government being set on stopping another Civ from getting a diplomatic victory and being a pariah state is another. This is essentially the extent of any reasoning that we receive. All of this information is revealed in the book’s climax by an unreliable source, and then confirmed in the resolution; which doesn’t really make for a good twist.
This isn’t a problem for our protagonists though. As the text points out, they’re brainwashed child slave soldiers. They find out about this and reject the information out of hand as they continue on their mission. Jared as a blank slate to contrast Special Forces with regular CDF is fine; Jared as a somewhat more confrontational blank slate is less fine. The plot contrives to make their rejection to Charles automatic.
Of course, Boutin has a point, but his plan would involve killing millions of people. This is a trope that I’m so tired of, and I’m aware that this book came out before other examples that I can think of, where the villain has a point about the systemic injustice that our heroes represent and defend, but the villain is gonna kill lots of people so the injust system stays as is. At this point I’m left wondering why should I care? The setting worked as a Hobbesian nightmare of everyone against everyone else and you can write off the evil stuff that the CU does as realpolitik, it’s a lot less interesting when the nuance makes one side a lot worse.
I mentioned ableism above not because of anything specific, but because the CU has such a strange fixation on baseline humans, except when it comes to the CDF and the long term plan of turning everyone into a Gameran. There are so many questions about the technology that go beyond consciousness transfer that don’t belong in this book; it’s not the story that Scalzi wants to tell. But they are questions that indicate disabled erasure.
Heteronormativity on the other hand, is in full prominent force. All we see are hetero relationships; all we see is hetero sex. Special Forces apparently celebrate missions by having an orgy, which is totally voluntary but the only Jane skips out on. Not because she’s asexual, but because of some sort of relationship with Perry or Captain Not Appearing in this Book. There isn’t anything else to say, it’s just patently absurd nonsense that throttles the diversity of actual human experience. Or it’s a case of the CU altering the genome of Special Forces to wire them all this way; which isn’t substantiated anywhere in the text but headcanons exist by and large to subvert.
TGB is a fine book, it has problems but they’re universally insurmountable to make the book unreadable. Next week I’ll be reviewing Pokemon X &Y. Till then.