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The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi
Review by David Hecht
Tor Books Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 0765315025
Date: 21 February, 2006 List Price $23.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

The dead man, Charles Boutin, is a brilliant CDF scientist who turns against the CDF, fakes his own death, and defects to one of the several hostile alien races that humans have encountered. Boutin, an expert in the techniques of consciousness-transferral, somewhat carelessly leaves a copy of his disembodied consciousness on his lab computer while making his escape: the CDF leadership decide to try to implant it in an artificially generated soldier body, in an attempt to recover what the scientist knows, and discover why he defected. But the new body develops a personality of its own, which seems to have no memory of Charles Boutin. So the new soldier, Jared Dirac, is assigned to the CDF Special Forces, also known as the Ghost Brigades.

Soon, under the stress of combat, Dirac begins to have encounters with traces of Boutin's memories. With his help, the CDF leadership are able to determine where Boutin has established himself, and they mount a daring raid--in which Dirac is a participant--to recover him from the enemy.

Scalzi has lost none of his flair for spare, evocative prose: the opening scene--in which a raid on a planetary installation turns out to be somewhat different than expected--is brilliant, and the scene that closes the first part of the book--another raid, this time on one of the enemy's home planets--is both gripping and poignant. But this book--like the first--is more than a fine war novel: it is also a meditation on why we fight, the nature of loyalty, the meaning of consciousness, and the moral significance of free will.

If I had one cavil, it is that Scalzi's aliens appear to fall into two mutually exclusive categories: humans in dress up; and mysterious, inscrutable, and incomprehensible--the latter being mostly much more powerful than the humans, to boot. Would an insect be as passionately concerned about her grub (and heir) as the Hierarch of Enesha? Possibly: but the reproductive biologies of mammals and insects are surely different enough to suggest differences in the evolved psychologies as well.

There are a few other minor criticisms I might add: there are one or two scenes where Scalzi could have shown and not told, keeping the story moving along; the political back-story that is progressively revealed feels bolted-on and implausible. But--as a whole--I can only say that this work is a pleasant surprise: a second novel from a new author that is as good or better than the first. And--at 314 pages--actually even shorter!

An outstanding new work from an emergent author: highly recommended.

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