John Scalzi’s first science fiction novel Old Man’s War was widely acclaimed. He created an interesting world where 75 year olds volunteer to fight for the Colonial Defense Force (CDF), defending colonists on other planets. They go thinking their bodies will be rejuvenated, only to find that what actually will happen is the transfer of consciousness into a robotically and genetically enhanced clone of themselves. We also learn of this shadowy group of Special Forces known as the “Ghost Brigades” because they are clones of volunteers who never made it to 75, trained from birth to fight. One of these was a clone of the wife of John Perry, the central character in Old Man’s War, named Jane Sagan. She plays a key role in this second novel, where The Ghost Brigades play a central role.
Sagan appear in the opening scene, capturing a Rraey by the name of Cainen working on an Eneshan base and through him the CDF learns of a triple alliance of Eneshan, Rraey, and Obin against the CDF. The news gets worse. Charles Moutin, thought to be killed, in fact has escaped to the enemies, with all his knowledge about consciousness transfer. It is urgent to discover what he knew, why he defected and how he is helping the enemy.
A copy of his consciousness exists in his lab. So in desperation, they decided to grow a clone into which they attempt to transfer the consciousness pattern. The clone has all the enhancements of a Special Forces soldier. But the consciousness doesn’t appear to “take”. He is like any other new born Special Forces clone with only a BrainPal to instruct him as his own consciousness develops. He is given the name Jared Dirac and turned over for training as part of the Ghost Brigades.
But there are some who are not so sure that he is just another Special Forces clone. So he is put under Sagan’s command and watch until the fateful day when on a desperate mission to kidnap the heir to the Eneshan throne, he loses a comrade he loves and witnesses a gruesome killing, and Moutin’s memories begin to emerge.
Meanwhile Special Forces crews have vanished with their ships on seven occasions in Obin space. It is suspected that Moutin has something to do with this as a prelude to war. So Jared/Moutin becomes an increasingly important part of the equation. But who, in the end, will he help? Will he have a choice, and if so, how will he choose?
Once again, Scalzi explores the brave new world of cloning, robotic and nanobotic enhancement, and consciousness transfer. The most interesting question to arise surrounds Jared and his fellow special forces: what are the ethics of breeding a race of soldiers trained from the moment they were conscious to be soldiers, and never given a choice? There are also larger issues of the justification of war on an interplanetary scale that parallels the wars of colonial expansion in our own history.
My one criticism of the plot was that I thought I saw from the get go what the nature of Boutin’s treachery would be, and I was right–but everyone in the story was clueless. Too many bread crumbs and not enough mis-direction it seemed.
That aside, Scalzi combines a riveting plot, the potential of a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde character in Jared Dirac that actually turns out quite differently, and an exploration of the implications of science going on in research labs around the world. Scalzi helps us explore a world that may not be the best of possible worlds.