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Bookends: Finding One’s Place in the Universe October 15, 2011

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends.
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Bookends: Finding One’s Place in the Universe

By Dan Davidson

October 3, 2011

Star, Oct. 7/11

– 822 words –

The Ghost Brigades

By John Scalzi

TOR Books

343 pages


In Old Man’s War, John Scalzi introduced us to a hostile universe in which humanity has been forced to fight for its right to exist and adapt itself to the task. Senior citizens from the home planet were given a chance at renewed youth and an opportunity to emigrate provided they would sign up for a hitch with the Colonial Defense Forces. They thought they were going to be rejuvenated, but instead their memories, personalities (and souls?) were transferred into new bodies cloned from their own and bioengineered for combat. They were equipped with built-in neural hardware/software (called a Brainpal) that enabled them to learn quickly, communicate mind-to-mind and share a degree of combat integration never before known.

And those were just the regular members of the Colonial Defense Forces.

As step beyond that were the Special Forces, or the Ghost Brigades, so-called because there were made up of the bodies and basic personas (but not personal memories) of men and women who had originally volunteered for the forces but had died before the viable brain pattern transfer could take place. The bodies have been force matured within years of what would be a normal growth, and the soldiers are combat ready within weeks of being “born”.

This is the story of one such soldier, Jared Dirac, whose basic template is that of a brilliant scientist named Charles Boutin. Boutin, for reasons known only to himself, has turned traitor to humanity or, at least, to the CDF, and is plotting the destruction of humanity’s military might with an alliance of three alien races.

Jared is “born” from Boutin’s DNA and force-fed a memory imprint of his original’s mind, but it doesn’t seem to take, and so he goes through a normal training routine and becomes a regular member of the Ghost Brigade. The early part of the story follows the classic outline of the stranger in a strange land type, in which a newcomer to a way of life slowly becomes familiar with his lot and learns to fit in.

At a certain point, however, the Boutin memories begin to resurface and what had been a series of disconnected military missions becomes an extended story arc in which Jared tries both to find his progenitor and uncover the reasoning behind Boutin’s decision to betray humanity.

There are other viewpoints followed in this novel, notably that of Jane Sagan, who was a major character in Old Man’s War, being the Ghost Brigade reincarnation of that novel’s narrator’s dead wife. Jane is given the task of supervising Jared, both bringing him along as a member of the CDF and watching him for any signs that he might be following in Boutin’s footsteps.

During this novel, Scalzi considerably expands the scope of the world building he had done to create this particular future, delving into the motivations and politics of the human race, developing the structure of the alien races with which humanity has to coexist. It’s still sketchy, but they are now more than just the ENEMY, as in the first novel.

Boutin’s ultimate plan is to find a way to disable the Brainpals that enable all CDF soldiers to mesh so well as fighting units. The Ghost Brigade members are actually the most sensitive of all to this plot, since they have never been without their artificial mental aid since the day they were decanted (born). In finally tracking Boutin down Jared discovers that he has, in fact, delivered into his original’s hand the very thing Boutin needs to make his plan work, that thing being Jared himself. He can become the patient zero for a kind of software virus spread through the Brainpal network. All that is required is for Boutin to transfer his own mature consciousness into Jared’s body, thus overwhelming Jared’s self, which is, at this point only about a year old.

All through the novel Jared has been struggling with his sense of self, who he is, who he was, who he would like to be. This gets even more difficult for him after the death of his CDF lover, Sarah, and the emergence of Boutin’s memories, which collide with his own and subtly alter his personality. In the end he comes up with a way to foil Boutin and make it clear that he, Jared, is more than just the sum of his memory implants and social conditioning.

I wondered where Scalzi could go with this concept after the success of the first book, which was nominated for a Hugo Award the year it appeared. The Ghost Brigades showed that this universe has a lot of potential. So far there are two additional novels, the second of which, Zoe’s Tale, was also nominated for a Hugo.  I’m looking forward to reading them.




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