Fiction Reviews


The Ghost Brigades

(2006/8) John Scalzi, Tor, 6.99, pbk, 346 pp, ISBN 978-0-3-304-5710-1

 

A few centuries into the future and humanity emerges into the near-by Galaxy to discover it is crowded with alien species literally fighting for habitable planets. Humanity and its few colonies need defending and the space corps, or 'Colonial Defence Forces' are the folk to do it. Genetically modified, computer enhanced, filled with 'Smart Blood' and generally better than bionic, the CDF are a no-nonsense bunch with whom you really do not want to tangle. They will protect Earth and its colonies, though they themselves will never be allowed to go to Earth whose masses are largely blissfully ignorant of the seriousness of the interstellar threats.

The CDFs (part alien inspired) biotechnology is so advance that not only can they can create genetically enhanced troops but they can swap consciousness between bodies and even transfer some of the essence of those borderline dead. This enabled the creation of an elite force of ultra-enhanced soldiers called the 'ghost brigades' (as opposed to the super-enhanced CDF regulars).

Now all the afore is the back story that comes out of Scalzi's earlier novel Old Man's War. In this spin-off follow-up (its sort of a sequel) a clone is made of a traitor and a pioneer recording of the traitor's consciousness is superimposed onto a clone. (Normally conscious transference is done live (not recorded) to a clone whose synapses perfectly match.) Will the clone have all the traitor's memories? Can the clone be trusted? Why did the traitor betray his own species? How come entire military ships are vanishing?

John Scalzi has given us a worthy follow-up to Old Man's War. While Old Man's War is not essential to reading The Ghost Brigades it helps: The Ghost Brigades does not quite stand on its own legs with surety, probably because Scalzi did not want to be unduly repetitious. This is both a curse and a blessing. Though a cracking tale in its own right, The Ghost Brigades does not have the same degree of sense of wonder that Old Man's War had. However it is a very fine military SF story and, for those who have read Old Man's War, a welcome return to the 'Old Man' universe.

This was originally published in North America back in 2006 by Tor (US) but has just now (2008) been released in Britain and as a paperback: an initial publishing history which itself is of some note. Why this is a little remarkable is that, as said above, The Ghost Brigades is in fact a sequel to Old Man's War which (I now remember seeing my review of that book) also took its time to cross the Atlantic. However given that Old Man's War was nominated for a Hugo 'Best Novel' back in 2006 it is really surprising that Tor (UK) do not seem to have capitalised on what surely must be a dead cert in terms of sales. Seasoned readers who know what the Hugo stands for will be amazed at this tardiness and more casual readers (many of whom still know that the Hugo is some sort of indicator of SF excellence even if they are not certain of the details) will be blissfully unaware of what they have been missing. Indeed the latter (were it not for reviews such as this) still be unaware as Tor (UK) seem to have been bashful by not putting something like 'The sequel to the Hugo nominated Old Man's War' on the front cover. In fact the seasoned buff's surprise at such an omission from the front cover could well turn to incredulity at the lack of such a mention on the back! Though to be fair there was 'Don't miss John Scalzi's first novel Old Man's War' blazoned on the back (so there was space for that) even though it failed to mention that a) this book was the sequel to that one, and b) the Hugo nomination. All in all the (lack of) promotion has been rather perplexing and let's hope Scalzi does not loose out on too many royalties. Meanwhile Tor (UK) needs to learn not to hide Tor's light: Tor has a lot going for it.

Jonathan Cowie


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