The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi

New York: Tor, 2006; $23.95 hb; 320pp
reviewed in New York Review of Science Fiction 217, September 2006

Science fiction is like any other literature in that it reflects the culture and mores of the authorís society. What, then, does it say about contemporary American society that the default option for new writers seems to be militaristic sf? Even when a writer is of the left, as John Scalzi clearly is, there are numerous incidents throughout this second novel (a return to the universe of Old Manís War) which make liberal sensibilities blench. In the very first chapter we are treated to the sight of a non-combatant captive being tortured, and we are meant to applaud this because itís done by the good guys, it produces valuable intelligence, and torturer and tortured apparently become friends later. At another point our bunch of intrepid heroes is required to kidnap and then kill an infant. The infant is, to all intents and purposes, an insect grub, but the intense psychological pain it causes to the mother is clearly shown. Scalzi recognises that there might be moral qualms about such a deed, but when they are raised they are summarily dismissed: ĎOur enemies donít have the same high standards as youí (p.141). It is a phrase Donald Rumsfeld would be proud of. If these are the sentiments espoused even on the left of the American spectrum, is it any wonder that Bush and co have so far been able to get away with Iraq, Guantanamo, Abu Graib and the rest?

I donít want to make too much of this, there is no way that this novel should be read as an apology for current American foreign policy. Nevertheless, it comes across as a paean to American Special Forces. (The ĎGhost Brigadesí of the title are clones bred to fight and to obey, and okay they are green, which avoids any racial implications, but their naming convention gives them the surname of a famous scientist and a forename chosen Ďat randomí. Scalzi is self-conscious enough to have his villain point out that there are no Arab, or indeed non-Western names in the mix.) The anti-American foes that these Special Forces attack are, literally, sub-human (one race is insectoid, another is described at great length, in one of the novelís innumerable and often very clunky info-dumps, as having no culture). When fighting for your very existence against such enemies it becomes permissible to cut ethical corners, to launch pre-emptive strikes, to ignore the so-called rules of war. In other words the characters in this novel with whom we are meant to identify (and there are few enough other characters for there to be any choice in the matter) all operate within the very same conventions that Bush has created for his Ďwar on terrorí. The implication in the end is not that Bush did wrong but that he had no choice. Repeat often enough that torture and pre-emption are the only ways to defeat our sub-human enemies, and the atrocity of Guantanamo becomes acceptable.

A good way through the novel you suddenly get a glimmer that something a little more satirical might be intended. Scalzi has carefully crafted a threatening universe, one in which every hand (or feeler, tentacle, claw, whatever) is turned against poor, isolated humanity. We have to fight every inch of the way for our very existence. And now three of our worst enemies, three races which have, up to now, been fighting each other, have suddenly banded together in an unlikely alliance whose sole purpose is to wipe out human kind. Against such a background, flouting the rules of war seems at least understandable. But then Scalzi slips in the information that humanity is alone in the universe in regarding every other race it meets as an automatic enemy. Moreover, the other races are struggling towards a sort of United Nations of space, an organisation which Earth pointedly refuses to join. Meanwhile external threat and military necessity have allowed the military power structure to assume a fascistic hegemony over ordinary men and women, a power which they are understandably reluctant to surrender by accepting peace.

Briefly, this novel promises to become something altogether more complex, more nuanced, more interesting. But all these revelations come from the villain of the piece. All the best villains have an interesting sliver of humanity which complicates their character, and in this case it is a love of his daughter. But in every other respect he is a melodramatic baddie of the blackest kind, even obliging us by telling the hero everything thatís going on while the hero is tied up and about to undergo something nastily terminal. Since he continues to behave with mustachio-twirling villainy even while producing these revelations, it does little to persuade us of the justice of his cause. And then Scalzi sinks any satirical intent with a twist revelation at the end which suggests that the human military were right all along.

What makes the gung-ho political underpinning of this novel so disturbing is that Scalzi is a very good writer who clearly feels a great deal of unease about the military convention he employs throughout the book. Already, in Old Manís War, he has found a liberal solution to the age old problem that wars are waged by the old but fought and suffered by the young. His cannon-fodder are the elderly, even the recently dead, who get a new lease of life cloned for combat. Here in The Ghost Brigades he repeatedly draws comparisons between military service and slavery, and continually questions the way military conditioning denies choice and independent thought. Even the camaraderie of the services, which he recognises and extols, is shown to have a negative side. This is no unthinking neo-con celebration of butchery and the butch. Nevertheless, the enthusiasm for fighting, the bending of rules (science fictionís favourite son, the competent man, has always been much closer to Dirty Harry than to a socialist man of the people), the ingenious new ways to make the other guy suffer are all going to come across more vividly, more excitingly than the far more subtle anti-war messages that might underlie it.

Even the basic plot is laden with the implication that might isnít so much right as it is the only option. Humanityís genius scientist, Charles Boutin, the man responsible for most of the technological innovations that keep us just ahead of the game in the endless galactic war, has defected to the enemy. Not only that, but now the three alien races we fear most are banding together in an unlikely alliance. Humanity has just one possible ace in the hole: Boutinís brain pattern has been recorded, by uploading that into the brain of a clone of Boutin, we might get a clue to his thinking. When, at first, the upload does not appear to have worked the clone, now named Jared Dirac, is simply drafted into Special Forces. We follow his training and a couple of very bloody missions, including the kidnapping and murder of the infant heir of a supposed ally in order to keep them out of the enemy alliance. But on this mission Diracís girlfriend is killed (Scalzi is good at killing off characters) and the experience triggers the beginning of the integration of Boutinís mind. Eventually he has the clue to where Boutin might be hiding, so the scene is set for a climactic raid into the heart of enemy territory, a raid which leaves huge numbers of dead bodies in its wake (while making sure that Boutinís little girl is safe), and which provokes all sorts of revelations about human perfidy (all of which are subsequently reversed). The action scenes are very effective (one of the reasons the underlying conception is so disturbing), though Scalzi does have a habit of stopping the preparation for each bit of action long enough to have several pages of info-dump. I wish I could believe that Scalzi was just parodying the worst excesses of the genre when he does this.

We are left, then, with a powerfully written action adventure, and if Scalzi can leave the military behind he will be a talent to watch. Unfortunately, the militaristic story, and more importantly the underlying principles that are unquestioned, raise more disturbing moral and political questions than they answer.