|Books That Cure What Ails You|
The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi
Tor, 2006, $23.95
Although John Scalzi is a relative newcomer to the genre (debuting just last year
with his terrific Old Man's War and Agent to the Stars [which you can read online
for free]), he's a veteran writer, with years of non-fiction writing under his belt.
That experience has transferred over successfully to his SF work, resulting in his
first few novels reading as if they're the work of a long-time pro.
The titular "Ghost Brigades" are the Special Forces division of humanity's
Colonial Defense Forcean elite squadron of genetically-engineered soldiers
created from the DNA of the dead. They are "born as adults, with skills and ability,
but no memory. No self. No morality. No restraint.... No humanity" we are told.
They're grown quickly in a creche (reaching full maturity in just months instead of
years) and are born without memory, but thanks to their BrainPalsa cybernetic
supercomputer that integrates with the brainthey come into the world with
certain skills already in place, and are able to become fully-functional soldiers just
days out of the tank.
In an interesting twist, the novel's protagonist, Jared Dirac, is a Ghost Brigade
clone of the novel's antagonist, Charles Boutin.
Boutin is a traitor to humanitya scientist who took military secrets and gave
them to the enemy. And with three alien races forming a heretofore unheard of
alliance against the Colonial Union, Boutin's betrayal comes at the worst possible
Boutin was thought to be dead and buried, but a captured alien scientist says that
Boutin is still very much alive. Boutin's body is exhumed, and it is discovered that
he faked his own death by murdering a clone of himself. Which means that he's
still out there, still helping the enemy.
Boutin was studying consciousness transfers before his defection, and part of his
experimentation resulted in a copy of his own consciousness being stored on a
Colonial Union computer. Seeing an opportunity, CDF scientists take this copy of
Boutin's consciousness and DNA from Boutin's clone, and use them to engineer a
clone of Boutin in order to extract information from the consciousness he left
If this sounds complex, well...it is. The reason Boutin needs to be cloned is that
you can't slap a consciousness into any old brain; it's got to go into a brain that's
just like the one it originated in. But even with a cloned brain, there's no guarantee
that the consciousness overlay will take; it's never been tried before, and no one's
sure if it will work. Since resources are not unlimited, the body the CDF clones for
the Boutin consciousness is a Special Forces body; the brass figures that if it
doesn't work, then at least they'll have a new soldier.
The consciousness overlay doesn't appear to work. This results in a new member
of the Ghost Brigades, whom they name Jared Dirac. Although the overlay didn't
take, scientists speculate that Dirac might need to accumulate some human
experiences before the consciousness can root itself in his brainthat is, when he
sees or feels something that was important to Boutin, some memories may be
In the meantime, Dirac is assigned to a platoon and is put under the command of
Lt. Jane Sagan. He goes through his training and becomes an exemplary
soldier…until a mission goes wrong, and he loses a member of his team that he
cared about. This loss is the first of several events that start to trigger Boutin's
memories, and as the remembrances of another man are integrated into Jared's own
mind, he finds himself changingnot into Boutin, but into a hybrid of the man
he'd come to be and the man Boutin was, and he begins to understand why Boutin
did what he did.
Like Old Man's War, the best part of The Ghost Brigades is not in its originality,
but in its execution. Scalzi does not apologize for the debts his books owe to
various other writersmost notably Robert A. Heinlein. And why should he?
What writer of militaristic adventure-SF doesn't owe Heinlein? Some writers who
borrow as many tropes as Scalzi does would churn out the sort of stuff that is
nothing more than derivative drivel, but Scalzi doesn't fall into that trap. He
injects his novels with enough of his own voice and his own unique spin on those
familiar concepts to make his novels distinctly his own.
First and foremost, The Ghost Brigades is fun. But that's not all it is. It's got a lot
of heart too. The reader cannot help but empathize with Dirac, and the
relationships that form between the Ghost Brigade soldiersthough different than
normal human relationshipsnonetheless feel very real. Scalzi also explores some
philosophical conundrums brought up by the futuristic technologies in the novel,
and shows humanity exploiting those technologies in very believable (and not
always pleasant) ways.
One other nice thing about Scalzi's work is that he pulls off an interesting hat-trick
having to do with accessibility. First, both Old Man's War and The Ghost
Brigades, though set in the same milieu, were written to (and do in fact) standalone
- you needn't read one to enjoy the other. Perhaps just as importantly, Scalzi's
work is what you might consider entry-level SFthat is, you could hand it to
someone not well-versed in the genre and expect them to be able to read it and
enjoy it without difficultybut at the same time works just as well for those of us
who are well-read SFphiles. In shortit's the sort of thing that you can
enthusiastically recommend to anyone who loves great characters, compelling plot,
and action/adventurewhether they've read hundreds of SF novels, or none at all.
If you enjoy Scalzi's work, you might also want to check out Questions for a
Soldier, his limited-edition chapbook from Subterranean Press (2006, $18.00).
Questions for a Soldier is a transcript of a Q&A session with Captain John Perry
(protagonist of Old Man's War). Or, as the story describes itself "Capt. Perry
meets with citizens of village of New Goa on Huckleberry Colony; answers
questions about life of CDF servicepersons and other queries." Over the course of
the interview, Perry relates several adventures of his past, including a trip to a
seemingly ideal planet that turns out to be inhabited by a race of giant worms that
make it not quite ideal after all. (And yes, this seems to be a nod to Frank
Herbert's worms of Dune, and this fact is only emphasized by Bob Eggleton's
artwork.) But perhaps the most interesting Q&A exchange occurs when one of the
New Goa residents accuses the political structure of the Colonial Union to be "one
of imperial colonialism and totalitarianism, and that [Perry] represent[s] the racist,
colonial impulses of that system of control," and Perry honestly explores the issue
in his reply.
It's a little pricey for a very-short story (though at Amazon, you can get it for the
more reasonable price of $11.70), but it's a good read with interesting pencil
artwork from Bob Eggleton, and those who have read Old Man's War won't want
to miss it.
The Plot to Save Socrates by Paul Levinson
Tor, 2006, $25.95
As the title suggests, this compelling, idea-driven SF novel revolves around a
number of time travelers who attempt to save the life of the philosopher Socrates
It all begins when a heretofore undiscovered Platonic dialog is discovered,
ostensibly between Socrates and a visitor who offers the sentenced-to-die
philosopher an escape from death via time travel. Carbon-14 dating proves the
manuscript's authenticity, leading to many questions. Graduate student Sierra
Waters is lured into this plot by her mentor Thomas O'Leary, who disappears
shortly after showing her the document. Her curiosity and her concern for her
mentor lead her to The Millennium Club in Manhattan, where she discovers a time
machine hidden in one of the exclusive club's rooms. Sierra's investigation of the
mysterious manuscript takes her back to ancient Greece and into her own future;
along the way she encounters a number of notable historical figures and even falls
The novel's primary flaw, which renders it merely a good read rather than a great
one, is that little to no time is spent on character development; for the most part the
characters are rather flat and lifeless, merely pawns used to drive the plot; also, the
action sequences are rather pedestrian and lacklusterlike the sterile recounting of
a surgical procedure. But several narrative threads are skillfully woven together in
presenting this intricate and thought-provoking plot, and when everything comes
together in the end, all the possibilities brought up in the novel feel resolved.
All in all, an elaborately-reasoned temporal talea novelized thought experiment
whose logic and ideas Socrates would have approved of.
In the Eye of Heaven by David Keck
Tor, 2006, $25.95
Durand is the son of a baron, but not being the firstborn, he's out of luck when it
comes to an inheritance. However, one of the baron's vassals is dying and without
an heir, so once Durand becomes a knight, he is due to inherit this land. But when
the vassal's long-lost son unexpectedly returns, Durand's hopes are dashed and his
14 years of preparation are rendered worthless. With no other options, Durand sets
out for a life of knight-errantry. He soon becomes embroiled a long-brewing
conflict between man and an ancient race known as the Banished, and finds
himself in the position of possibly being humanity's best hope for winning the
The richly-developed characters are the highlight of the novel. Durand, in
particular, emerges as a memorable hero, and the Banished serve as an unsettling
and serviceable foil. Unlike many fantasy heroes, Durand does not rely only on his
physical prowess; he's a thinking, intelligent warrior whose mind is as sharp as his
Though the fantasy world portrayed here is not exceedingly original, the world-building is praise-worthy despite this, as the author succeeds quite well in making
this other-world come alive for the reader. Keck's prose, meanwhile, is tight and
lean despite this being his first novel, although the characters' constant fantasy-swearing ("Host of Heaven!") does get a bit repetitious.
The plot doesn't often stray far from the heroic fantasy templatethe characters
spend much of their time traveling or engaging in physical and verbal battlesbut
the book excels when it does. There's plenty of adventure and action, but it never
overwhelms the story, and instead ably serves to ratchet up the tension, making this
not only a fast read, but a gripping one.
Despite its flaws, it's an entertaining coming-of-age heroic fantasy, and a
MechMuse Audio Magazine, March/April 2006
MechMuse.com, 2006, $5.00, 13 hours (unabridged)
MechMuse is a new digital audio magazine which will be appearing monthly,
though it debuts with a March/April double-issue to get things started in grand
My favorite piece here was "After a Lean Winter" by David Farland, which
originally appeared in the anthology War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches, edited
by Kevin J. Anderson. The idea of that anthology was that War of the Worlds was
an account of the Martian invasion, told from only one point of view: that of H.G.
Wells. The anthology, then, tells the same story but from 18 different points of
view, all from famous personages of that era. Some of the "narrators" include
Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson, Teddy Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, and Jack
London, the last of whom is the subject of Farland's tale.
The story is basically a survival tale in the frozen northThe Call of the Wild
meets War of the Worldswith some interesting twists. Farland shows an obvious
love for both London's and Wells' work, and demonstrates his depth of knowledge
about the two as well. The result is a story that works remarkably well, and left me
sorry when the story ended.
Performer Rick Jelinek reads with a rugged, manly tone that is an ideal fit for the
Londonesque narrative. He also shifts nicely into a variety of voices, including a
great French accent for one of the characters, and overall does a fine job of keeping
the listener riveted.
Farland's other contribution to this issue is the first part of a serialized novel, On
My Way to Paradise, which was originally published in 1989 by Bantam. I was a
bit disappointed in narrator David Wilkinsonhis voice is a bit too nasal for my
liking, and overall he sounds sort of bland and disinterested, though he does do a
good job with the occasional Spanish accent. Only the first three chapters are
available thus far, so it's a bit early to review it, but suffice to say that those
opening chapters are gripping and exciting, and definitely have me looking
forward to more.
David Barr Kirtley's "Veil of Ignorance" (also read by Jelinek) tells the story of a
group of friends aboard an orbital vacation house who unwittingly find themselves
experimenting with an alien drug that "creates localized telepathy with scrambled
ego," resulting in the group of friends experiencing everyone's thoughts, with no
one knowing which set of thoughts is his own.
The story itself is terrific, but this audio adaptation doesn't do it justice. I've
previously read this story, and heard Kirtley read it, so I know how I interpreted it
on the page, and I've heard how the author himself intended it. Jelinek just seemed
to be way off; he was never in sync with Kirtley's voice or pacing. Also, though
he excelled with Farland's tale, here he tends toward melodrama in his
performance, diminishing an otherwise superb SF story.
Luckily, Kirtley's other offering, "The Second Rat," fares much better in its
adaptation. In "The Second Rat," a man discovers he has the ability to travel
backward in time by "rewinding" life. Narrator Bob Barnes delivers a solid
performance, his raspy, intense voice adding an extra sense of urgency to the
This issue of MechMuse also includes stories by Richard Raleigh, Edmund R.
Schubert, Miles Romney (who also serves as editor), and a selection from early
20th century fantasist Francis Stevens.
The site itself is very slickly-designed, with a built-in audio player that lets you
listen to samples from the magazine as you browse the site. Each story has its own
artwork, and includes a brief note from the author about what the story means to
him or what inspired it.
But of course, no matter how pretty the site is, the real question is: is the audio any
good? The answer is: it's a bit of a mixed bag, but I felt like there's enough good
audio content here to justify the five dollar price tag.