Friday, March 10, 2006

Book Review

No toddler tales today, however I'm working on a love story about a dog, a tarp, and an uncaring society that doesn't understand the depth of feelings between the two. Instead I thought I'd do a mini review of a book I just finished. Usually I don't review books here, but I thought that the folks who read this site might enjoy this one. That and I want something easy to post about. Laziness, thy name is Brandon.

The Ghost Brigades - John Scalzi

I honestly don't know where I first heard about John Scalzi, but I've been reading his Whatever site for years now. John is an excellent writer and while I don't always agree with him, I always find him entertaining. 9 times out of 10, I do agree with him, which helps, but the other 1 time, it's worth reading anyways. His is an interesting tale of how writing online helped him with getting a book deal from Tor. It's not quite that simple, as he had several books published prior to getting his Sci-Fi work published with Tor, however writing online helped considerably. I'll leave it to you to go and learn about the particulars, as I'd only get them wrong anyways.

"The Ghost Brigades" (TGB) is the second in a loose trilogy of books, "Old Man's War" (OMW) being the first. I say "loose" as I think that anyone can jump into TGB without having read OMW and be able to understand 90% of what's going on. There is some character overlap, and the universe is the same, but don't be frightened off by jumping right in with TGB. Of course, John certianly wouldn't mind if you went back and purchased OMW as well, but that's between you and your wallet.

TGB is set in the future and Earth, having long run out of space, has started the process of colonizing other planets. Like all good colonial empires, they're not alone in the need for extra space, and have found that there are plenty of other alien races eyeing the various hunks of real estate scattered throughout the galaxy. To protect the colonists, the Colonial Defense Force has come up with an ingenious way of combining the experience and knowledge of older folks with the atheleticism and quick reflexes of the young. As folks on earth approach their golden years, they enlist in the CDF. At the time of paper signing, the CDF collect genetic material from the new recruits. After the papers are signed, the recruits go about their lives until they reach their 75th birthday. At that point, they're whisked away from Earth, never to return, and their consciousness is transplanted into a new, augmented body which has been grown from their previously collected genetic material. Their bodies have SmartBlood (TM) to help with clotting and resisting disease, various strength and speed upgrades and an integrated computer known as the BrainPal (TM). Recruits who die prior to reaching their 75th birthday have their genetic material used to create even more highly augmented Special Forces soldiers, known to the "realborn" as the Ghost Brigades.

TGB's premise is a pretty cool one. Charles Boutin is a traitor in the Colonial Defense Force's midst, who has allied himself with 3 alien races, all hell bent on destroying the CDF. In trying to hide his tracks, Boutin created a clone of himself and killed it off, thereby giving the illusion of his demise. Prior to killing off the clone, he created a copy of his consciousness, complete with memory and motivations for his traitorous acts, and this copy is discovered by the CDF. The CDF decide to create a Special Forces soldier from Boutin's genetic material, and "downloading" Boutin's consciousness to it, so that they can determine Boutin's plan and motivations for turning. Thus, Jared Dirac is born. While the transfer is a success, the memories aren't there at first so Jared goes about being a "normal" Special Forces soldier, that is until Boutin's memories and motivations begin to surface.

My biggest complaint with "Old Man's War" was that it was too explainy. The various scientific concepts that underlie Scalzi's take on the universe were often explained in characters' conversations with each other. This seemed very forced to me, and pulled me out of what was otherwise outstanding, and often times humorous, dialog. Thankfully, any explaining that needs to be done in "The Ghost Brigades" is done by your friend and mine, the omniscient narrator. This helps the flow of the book immensely, and I never felt that the explanations got in the way of the narrative.

If you want long, flowery descriptions of people and places, Scalzi is not your guy. The dialog is crisp and flows well. Action scenes are well written with a lot of punch and just the right amount of detail. Scalzi allows a lot to be left to the reader's imagination, which to me, shows a certain respect to the reader, as if he's saying "go ahead, make up whatever picture you want, it's all good". Too many times, I think that writers get hung up on describing everything to where it makes reading too damn tiring. Where detail is needed, it's provided, other than that, it's the story that fills the pages, not a bunch of extra adjectives.

Character development is handled well, with just the right amount for the supporting cast to do their jobs effectively but not bog the reader down with pages and pages of backstory. Main character are, of course, fleshed out much more than the supporting cast. I never found myself questioning the motivations of anyone in the book or saying "he would never do that".

My only gripe with the book, is that I wanted more of an ending. It's a short jump from the big reveal (which kicked ass) to the end, and I wanted more there. It's not that the ending was bad, it's more that the big reveal led to another big reveal which I would have liked to see more done with. It is a trilogy though, so I'm sure that the info was just groundwork for the sequel, however for my tastes, I would have liked a little more in this book. The pacing of the ending seemed at odds with the pacing with the rest of the book, like it was sped up for the end. As I said before, it's not an unsatisfying ending, and it certainly did it's job in making me want to read the next book, but I would have liked a little more development there. I know, bitch, bitch, bitch.

There also seems to be a strange preoccupation with sex, which I found odd. Other than the classic Sci-Fi books (Ender's Game, Foundation) and the New Jedi Order books, I don't read Sci-Fi, so maybe it's common and I just don't know about it. On the other hand, the Star Wars books are sexless to the point of lunacy. How Han Solo and Leia had three kids when they obviously never touch each other is beyond me. I guess I can't fault Scalzi too much, as if were presented with a being who was genetically engineered to live in space, it wouldn't take me too long to start wondering how they "do it".

The universe that Scalzi has set up is a really interesting one, and lends itself to a myriad of stories should he want to return to it after these initial three books. Personally, I'd love to see how he'd do an ultra-ultra Special Forces soldier, a la Sam Fisher in the Splinter Cell games. That dude(tt) would be bad ass. They'd probably be able to shoot lasers from their genitals or something.

Bottom line is that this is a very enjoyable, well thought out, entertaining read. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to folks that are Sci-Fi junkies as well as people who like good stories, and are open minded to the Sci-Fi genre. The concepts discussed in the book leave things for you to think about after you've turned the last page, and the plotting and action makes you want to read more of the universe that Scalzi has created. Personally, I can't wait for the BrainPal. Tetris on that thing must be amazing.

1 comment:

Bones said...

Sounds like something I'd enjoy reading. Thanks for the review, I'll add it to my never ending list of books I want to someday read.