The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Ghost Brigades

[Contains mild spoilers for Old Man's War and its sequels.]

A couple of years ago, when I read John Scalzi's Old Man's War, I couldn't find anything nice to say about it. This was extremely uncharitable of me, because it is a fine and entertaining book: not really as good as The Forever War, against which it is measured, but good enough to deserve the comparison. Instead of noting this, I said:
In Old Man's War, as in David Brin's sequence of space operas beginning with Startide Rising, humanity attains interstellar travel only to find itself in a universe crowded with largely hostile aliens... the aliens are irrational because they're all crazy religious freaks!
Mr. Scalzi not only noticed, but responded with a comment longer and better written than the original post, saying in part:

I don't think it's inappropriate to show alien cultures influenced by their religions, as among other things our cultures so clearly are. I also don't think it's inappropriate to show humans having biases or misunderstandings of the religions and cultures of those they fight, since (again) that's something that's not unknown here in reality. I do agree that in the narration the aliens are seen as incomprehensible and irrational, but the question to ask is: Is that because they are (and, additionally, that it is due to their religion), or because the humans in the story are working from bad premises? Are the humans in the book taking seriously the tenets of faith of those whom they fight against?

I have my own personal opinion on the matter, of course. Yours may (or may not) vary from this. There's a lot that's left ambiguous in the text partly so I could expand on it in future books (and partly because the book has to end sometime) but also because I think it has the potential to engender discussion and debate (like this).

I will say this: There's a character in the OMW sequel The Ghost Brigades who is both alien and religious; I also think he's the most morally-engaged person in the story, and his moral point of view ends up being -- in my opinion -- the heart of the story.

Unfortunately, by this point one of the Good Little Capitalists had sequestered my copy of The Ghost Brigades, so it was some time before I was able to evaluate Mr. Scalzi's claims. As the reader may already have noticed, they reduce to pointing out that the humans are unreliable narrators, and the aliens need not appear rational from their viewpoint.

This is a valid defense, though it may be post hoc. It is clear in The Last Colony (the third book of the series) that humans have no special moral advantage in Mr. Scalzi's universe; and, at the time of the above exchange, Mr. Scalzi was already writing that book. This ambiguity is not manifest in Old Man's War.

The Ghost Brigades is the most interesting book of the series. It shows both Mr. Scalzi's improvement as a writer, and also the loss of innocence in his -- and America's -- thinking about war. [This is not to say that these novels are in any way allegorical: they are not. Nor that Old Man's War disregards the pain and loss of war: it does not.] The Old Man's War is reminiscent of the Pacific campaign of World War II: cruel and slaughterous, but according to terms agreed by both sides, allowing combat with honor. The Ghost Brigades is informed by the spirit of Vietnam and Afghanistan: it shows special forces soldiers, not striving in combat, but kidnapping, murdering and being murdered.

Mr. Scalzi is a thoughtful guide through this new moral maze: his writing, more mature and confident than before, brings his not-quite-human characters to realistic life, and shows their dilemmas, and often their deaths, in heart-wrenching detail. My only criticism of The Ghost Brigades is that it simply isn't fun in the way Old Man's War was; and, given the nature of the story being told, it seems callous even to notice this.

[I thank Mr. Scalzi for responding to my earlier post, and for two really excellent books; and I apologize to anyone who noticed the two-year delay in this response. Cross-posted to Chequer-Board.]