The Ghost Brigades, by John Scalzi

Edition: Paperback

Publisher: Tor

First published in: 2006 (US)

This edition published: 2008 (UK)

Back cover synopsis:

They are the special wing of the Colonial Defense Forces, elite troops created from DNA of the dead and turned into the perfect soldiers for the CDF’s toughest operations. The universe is a dangerous place for humanity as three hostile races combine to halt our further expansion into space. Their linchpin is a turncoat scientist, Charles Boutin, who unfortunately knows the CDF’s biggest military secrets. And to prevail against this alliance they must find out why Boutin did what he did.

Jared Dirac is meant to provide answers, a superhuman hybrid created from Boutin’s DNA so as to access his electronically recorded memories. But when this attempt seems to fail, Jared is sent to the Ghost Brigades. As Jared fights for his own survival, Boutin’s memories begin to surface, and with them a plan for something much worse than mankind’s military defeat. 

Will Jared’s new memories be enough to save humanity? And will they be enough to save himself?

Old Man’s War, the first book set in John Scalzi’s space-verse, was one of the very first reviews I committed to writing when I decided to start blogging. So you could say it was one of the books that inspired me to it, which says a lot about how much I enjoyed it. This book tops that level of enjoyment, even on a reread. Like Old Man’s War, it’s a thoroughly entertaining book, even while the story of its main character tugged at my heartstrings. 

Literally created for the purpose of stopping a war that the Colonial Union can’t possibly win, Special Forces soldier Jared Dirac seems destined to have no control over what he does with his life, such as that life is. Until certain events spur him to change his outlook, in fact, he’s remarkably passive about that life. Things happen to him, rather than Jared making them happen. This serves to make the turnaround in the later half of the book all the more striking, as Jared goes from a military ‘weapon’ who simply takes orders and does what he’s told, to someone who thinks and acts for himself, who makes decisions on his own. Put very simply, he becomes more human.

There are perhaps some obvious comparisons here to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – and in fact the book is mentioned in the story as Jared is ordered by his squad leader to find and read it. As with Frankenstein’s creature, it’s Jared who earns more sympathy in this story, and rightfully so. Even as he takes more control of his own mind and his thoughts, he never stops being seen as merely a means to various peoples’ ends – or as a potential danger, something to be feared and/or distrusted. The CDF want to use him to find and stop Charles Boutin before he can bring down the Colonial Union, and later in the book, it becomes clear that Boutin was smarter than even they gave him credit for – he has his own plans for Jared as well, and they don’t involve allowing him any sort of freedom of choice. The real question throughout is, of course, which course will Jared take? The one he was made for, the one his “masters” are afraid he’ll take – or something else entirely?

The road to his own final decision was what kept me so interested in Jared as a character. Scalzi makes him instantly likeable, even while he seems so very alien compared to normal human beings. Given that he was cloned, given another man’s consciousness that ends up buried somewhere under his own, and has so many obviously physical differences to regular humans, that alien-ness is unavoidable. It’s Jared’s personality, as it emerges, that makes him so likeable. He’s naturally a very oddball sort, especially at first – but with or without the humour that permeates Scalzi’s books, I enjoyed Jared’s viewpoint. His road to becoming his own man, making his own decisions, is also his road to becoming more human than he’s perceived to be. It’s there that the real story lies; the trappings of science fiction, of the alien war in space, are practically background details to this.

That’s not to say, of course, that those trappings aren’t just as interesting in and of themselves. The alien races that Scalzi throws in were fascinating to me, and one in particular – Cainen, the Rraey that’s taken captive by the CDF, plays an important role, especially in later events. Without his help, it’s perhaps unlikely that Jared would make certain realisations about himself. I enjoy this approach to Scalzi’s aliens, where they’re more than just an enemy to be shot at on battlefields. On the other hand, I do wish there was more of them to read about!

They serve the story as well as any human character, however, and in the end this ought to be what matters more. Scalzi is clever about telling his stories, and it makes him a sci-fi writer that I’m happy to keep coming back to. That these books can stand the test of rereading says a lot about them to me, and The Ghost Brigades in particular is my favourite of his books set in this world. Definitely one for the revisiting list. 

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