Sunday, November 05, 2006

John Scalzi, The Ghost Brigades

John Scalzi's The Ghost Brigades is likely to be a strong candidate for this year's Prometheus award. It may be the best I've read so far. (Since the competition includes Vinge, a past winner, and Stross, a past nominee, that's an achievement.)

Humankind is one of many species competing for living space around the galaxy. There's a little cooperation, and a lot of war. Our government is keeping most of the population in the dark about who our friends and enemies are, and how we're fighting them. Our best weapon is an army of vat-grown, genetically enhanced soldiers who are effectively brainwashed slave labor.

The conflict arises when Charles Boutin, the genius scientist who has helped develop the technologies, becomes convinced that the government was careless about protecting his wife and daughter, and in his grief, lends his assistance to some of humanity's enemies. In order to help track him down, his memory backup is loaded into the mind of Jared Dirac, a custom-designed soldier. Since the mind transplant doesn't take at first, Dirac develops his own personality, with idiosyncratic quirks and abilities. This isn't on the program for the enhanced soldiers, which results in a lot of trouble.

Many of the tropes of near-future technological enhancements are on display here: mind melding soldiers, nano-suits that protect the wearer from minor injury, instant access to information. Scalzi does a decent job of merging them into a plausible society: Dirac is as likely to use his tools and skills while joking around with his buddies as he does in battle.

The deeper issues include Dirac and the other soldier's ability to make choices and control their own fate, the moral issues surrounding combatants and bystanders in war, and the morality of allowing population pressures to force the choice of going to war. Scalzi lets Dirac and his fellow soldiers explore the issues without forcing particular answers on them or us.

I liked the answers Dirac came up with better than those Ken Chinran came up with in Michael Williamson's The Weapon. Chinran was a nearly omnipotent military force on his own. He accepted his assignments without question, carried them out as best he could and worried about ethics after the fighting was done. Chinran sometimes made morally doubtful tactical choices in the heat of battle that undermined his strategic objectives, and ended up several time regretting his choices. But he never learned to make better choices in battle.

Dirac considers the possibilities as he proceeds, and limits his tactical choices to behaviors he has already decided are morally acceptable acts of war. In one incident, Dirac and his squad are tasked with abducting the immature heir to the throne of one of humanity's enemies, the Eneshan. The squad recognizes that the morality is questionable. Some members, while willing to participate in the raid, ask to be left out of the dirty work, so the squad leader asks for volunteers. Dirac recognizes it as dirty, but accepts the necessity in a time of war. The important point for the story is that Dirac and his companions are making moral choices, even though they weren't given any choice about being soldiers.

Dirac continues to make moral choices right through the end.

No comments: