Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Old Man's War/The Ghost Brigade by John Scalzi

I was not going to read Old Man's War, though it has garnered a lot of buzz since it came out several years ago. I am not a fan of military science fiction, especially MSF that has more male protagonists than you can shake an Uzi at, because any women found in such novels are usually prostitutes or wives with little or no impact on the plot.
I have to have a protagonist I can believe in, identify with, find honorable and intelligent. Such people are also usually hard to find in MSF. There's also politics in most military novels, and I loathe politics.
Yet there I was at a garage sale on August 2, chatting with a guy who looked about 65 or so, who was trying to convince me that I really needed to read Old Man's War, and the sequel, Ghost Brigade. He claimed that the science was fascinating, the characters robust, interesting and empathy-inducing and that the plot ripped along at warp speed. He also agreed to sell me 5 books for 2 bucks, so I took him up on Old Man's War and Ghost Brigade.
Imagine my shock when I found myself staying up until 2 am reading Old Man's War, praying that John Perry survives his first year in the CDF.
Scalzi was recently awarded a Hugo for writing what amounts to fan fiction, which puts most authors way down on my list of folks whose work I must read. Yet in this trilogy, he's managed to write top notch science fiction that keeps the reader gasping at the breakneck speed of the plot. In Scalzi's future, humankind has moved out to colonize the stars, but there are so many other species vying for the same real estate that a Colonial Defense Force is needed to keep the colonists from being obliterated before they're able to create homes on any given world. Some brilliant scientists come up with a way to take 75 year olds and move their mind/spiritual essence into an amazing engineered soldier body that is green skinned and full of nanotechnology, including a device called a BrainPal that links all the soldiers together mentally. Soldiers are also grown using DNA from the dead, but those soldiers are fully functioning when they're only hours old, and have no memories or thoughts beyond battle. They're the Ghost Brigades, and they're also the guinea pigs for all the new types of tech the military comes up with to battle stronger alien forces. The catch to getting a new body and a new life at age 75 is having to leave earth forever, never contacting anyone you've known or loved again, and serving for 10 years. Unfortunately, the mortality rate for most new soldiers is extremely high (80 percent), because the aliens are either technologically more advanced or have greater numbers.
John Perry, who was a peaceful guy in his life on earth, brings his love for his long-dead wife with him to the CDF, and his values and morals that give him an edge in a chaotic universe. When he discovers that his wife's DNA has been used to create a soldier for the Ghost Brigade, Perry does his best to develop a relationship with "Jane," though he's beaten, discouraged by other officers and friends, and though he knows she doesn't have his wife's memories. There is something so touching and poignant about the enduring power of Perry's love for his wife, that I was amazed a man could write about it. I know how sexist that sounds, too.
Fortunately, Perry survives his first year, though most of his friends do not, and we are left with a somewhat happy ending for him. Old Man's War leaves readers wanting more of this world and its fascinating technology, and yet Ghost Brigade, though its touted as a sequel, doesn't really delve back into the life of John Perry or his wife's new body, Jane. Though its set in the same world, Ghost Brigade is about the special forces clones/perfect soldiers and their often brief lives. The story focuses on one soldier dubbed Jared Dirac, who was cloned from the DNA of a traitor Charles Boutin, so that Boutin's consciousness could be transferred to Dirac and the CDF honchos can figure out what made Boutin turn traitor and what he's up to with the alien enemy. Unfortunately, Dirac doesn't seem to be able to access Boutins consciousness, and is given to the Ghost Brigades as a throw away. Memories start to surface, however, when he grows older and gains sensory experiences, and suddenly is required to hunt down Boutin and keep him from wiping out the CDF and leaving humanity defenseless. I found this book not quite as exciting or engaging as Old Man's War, mainly because the characters were all hours, days or only a few years old. There's not a lot of depth to a person, even a cloned person with an embedded computer in their skull, when they haven't lived or done anything besides train for war. There was also a lot more science, with long and detailed descriptions of new inventions, along with lots of political blather going on that just bogged the book down in the middle. It geared back up and was great by the end, however, so Scalzi did recover just in time to save the universe and humanity in general.
Scalzi's prose is dialog-heavy and entertaining, but there's a lot of swearing and ribald sex scenes, so these are not the kind of book you'd want a kid or a teenager to read.
There is a third book in the series that I'd like to read called The Last Colony, mainly because its about Jane and John Perry, the characters from Old Man's War that I found so interesting.
I'd recommend these books to science fiction fans who enjoy space adventure, cool scientific advances and cynical politics and skulduggery within the military. Scalzi managed to convert me with just one book, as a non-military SF reader, and he will probably convert many others with this charming series.

1 comment:

Frances said...

Great review. It is always "all about the characters". I downloaded OLD MAN'S WAR from Tor and can't wait to read it.


Writing Science Fiction Romance
Real Love in a Real Future