John Scalzi's current science fiction novels Old Man's War and The Ghost Brigades—yes, there's a third in the works; no, it's not a trilogy—show why he won the most recent Campbell Award for Best New Writer. While Military Science Fiction is not really where I spend my time, I was happy to find these novels fast-paced and enjoyable, making use of technology and culture in a playful fashion, while never forgetting the debt owed to such authors as Robert Heinlein and Joe Haldeman. In both books, Scalzi creates believable characters it is easy to sympathize with and care about, while at the same time he has no problem throwing these characters into a succession of life-threatening situations.
Old Man's War is the story of John Perry. "I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday," Perry tells us in the first sentence. "I visited my wife's grave. Then I joined the army." It's a simple opening, and one that places the human concern right at the front of the story. From here, Scalzi reveals more about Perry and his life, slowly bringing more details of the future landscape into view.
For years, Earth has been sending soldiers and colonists into space, where they compete with other space-faring species for all too limited resources. The universe is a violent place, and the Colonial Defense Forces chooses its recruits from the surplus elderly of Earth's First World nations. Perry knows his chances of survival in the CDF are slim, but he would rather see the universe than die on Earth. Soon he's out among the stars in a new body and meeting other recruits like himself. He's also fighting for his life against an ever-increasing variety of hostile aliens.
Scalzi creates a vivid, if violent, universe for Perry and his friends to inhabit. He also gives them some new toys to play with—genetically modified bodies and BrainPal hardware—even providing the operating manual to Perry's new body for the reader to enjoy. Like the menus Jack Vance's characters read in alien restaurants, it's a wonderful touch that immerses the reader in the story. And the dialogue between Perry and his newly acquired BrainPal will make you smile.
The crux of Old Man's War comes three quarters of the way through the novel, when Perry becomes the sole survivor of the First Battle of Coral. He is saved by the appearance of members from the CDF's Special Forces, the Ghost Brigades. Genetically engineered children with the bodies of adults, the Ghost Brigades take their genetic material from those elderly enlistees who die before serving their tour of duty. Most are less than five years old, but each of them is a killing machine. Not too surprisingly, given the setup, one of them, Jane Sagan, is the direct physical copy of John Perry's deceased wife. But before he can clear that situation up, Perry returns to Coral with the Ghost Brigades, doing his best to keep up with Special Forces.
The Ghost Brigades does not start where Old Man's War left off and is a stand-alone novel. Jane Sagan reappears and Perry is mentioned in passing, but the rest of the characters are new. The Ghost Brigades centers on one of the CDF's Special Forces soldiers, Jared Dirac—the clone of Charles Boutin, a CDF scientist turned traitor.
The CDF hopes to discover Boutin's plans by creating the clone. Instead problems arise when the experimental personality transfer does not go smoothly, and Boutin's personality remains submerged. The clone is given to the Ghost Brigades as a recruit and develops an identity of his own as Jared Dirac. However, Dirac's superiors believe him to be a traitor in the making and watch him for any signs of Boutin's personality emerging.
The Ghost Brigades allows Scalzi the chance to explore the idea of individuality and responsibility for one's own actions. Is Dirac the man he thinks he is, or is he this other person, Charles Boutin, that he was engineered to be?
Scalzi also gives us a glimpse of humanity on the cusp between what we can recognize as ourselves and an alien society that we would be surprised to see ourselves become. Castes have started to form—genetically engineered warriors made up of the very old and the very young protecting colonists they hardly ever see or spend time with. The CDF serves an Earth kept almost under quarantine. Those who leave the planet are never allowed to return, and the inhabitants of Earth are unaware of what life in the rest of the universe is truly like. Even a form of telepathy has emerged by BrainPal communication (and manipulation). It's an intriguing vision, but one Scalzi keeps in the background. Not once does he let his ideas get ahead of Dirac's story.
As gateway books to the genre, there's little in them to fault. Early on one must accept the premise that the universe is violent, and humanity must wage war upon its competitors. (Some of his minor characters question this at their own peril.) It's a convention that places the novels in the Military Science Fiction genre, but it also makes some of the battles resemble the shifting terrain of video games. Scalzi allows his characters to recognize the absurdity of this. One week John Perry is fighting intelligent rock spiders in the zero-g environment of some gas giant's ring, the next he's stomping through a Lilliputian city like Godzilla armed with a rocket launcher. As the battles continue, Perry fears he has lost his humanity. Only his loyalty to his friends keeps him from going crazy.
More avid fans of the genre might find Scalzi too light-handed in his world building. Ranged on a scale, Scalzi's writing would be at the furthest spectrum away from, say, the likes of Iain M. Banks—a great writer, but one who revels in the baroque when it comes to world creation. Scalzi writes clipped and direct prose. He may resort to exposition in spots early on to impart information, but there isn't that overwhelming wealth of sheer stuff that Banks layers into his novels. When things get moving, Scalzi doesn't even stop to describe the aliens. The Obin, the villains of The Ghost Brigades, are never described in concrete terms. Their weapons as described by the CDF soldiers are simply "weird." I suspect this was intentional on Scalzi's part, like the way old horror movies kept the monster in the shadows. The reader's given a blank slate to imagine any and all sorts of gruesome creatures.
This fault is easy to overlook. Scalzi's prose harkens back to the Golden Age of science fiction while still remaining fresh and vibrant. He writes characters you cheer for. John Perry, Jane Sagan, Jared Dirac—it's impossible not to care about them, to be frightened for them, and even more staggering at times, to be frightened of them. There are laughs, there are shocks, and at one or two points there might even be some tears, making them the perfect reading for those moments when you just want a good story, a character to care about, and an adventure on which to accompany them.
Justin Howe was born and raised in the wilds of suburban Massachusetts. He is a graduate of the Odyssey Writers Workshop and currently makes his living as a factotum for an architectural restoration company in New York City. He has several other reviews available in Strange Horizon's archive.