Tuesday, 27 November 2012

John Scalzi's ... Ghost Brigades

One thing I liked straight away about this book is that I found it in hardback in the library - always gives a book more depth and character - and the next thing was the cover art. I like! I like it in a boyish way, with a little of the same wow! gosh! factor of walking away from first seeing Star Wars on a big screen at age... ten? twelve? The cover has a space battle above a planet, anyway. Pretty generic, but it sets the scene. Inside back jacket tells me the artist's name is John Harris. Let me look him up... Aha. I see that he's illustrated for the likes of Allen Steele and Jack McDevitt, both of whom I've been reading in the past few months.

But onto the story. John Scalzi is a joker, which I learned from following him on Twitter. Read the opening of Ghost Brigades and you'll see an example... let me say no more. It was a neat trick, well pulled off. So far, I can see that JS is staying true to the war-in-space genre of the first in the series, Old Man's War (see my last post), expertly imagining future technology, alien technology, interstellar genocidal warfare, and what that might do to the human (and other) people who get caught up in the military mincing machine. This last part, the human story, is the only reason I would read the whole thing. What happens to people who live and breathe the disciplined and controlled application of deadly violence?

The world we live in is over-militarised, and I grew up in a town neighbouring one in which 'squaddies', ordinary soldiers that is, are trained, barracked and sent out to do our government's bidding, to do their dirty work. And from the few times I met those young, beer-inclined, very physical men, I've wondered what chance they ever had of enjoying a normal human life, if there is such a thing. They're trained to be tough, ruthless and to obey their commanding officers. Civilians stay in their comforable homes and feel horrified at the innocents being bombed, sometimes at the expense of their own tax money; meanwhile, the frontline soldiers often feel that they're paying the price for those civilians' comfort. There's something screwed up here; perhaps you can enlighten me and tell me why one group of people are turned into killers while the rest of us rest easy and veg out in front of TV.

Governments maintain armies to keep hold of their status and economic position, not essentially to keep you and me in beer and Pringles. (Is this turning into a rant? I'll stop here.) So thankyou Mr Scalzi for making me think a little. If your series is intended, in part, to be a meditation on the present state of affairs, I'd better keep reading until the end of Book Three to appreciate the fulness of your thoughts.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

John Scalzi's Old Man's War

Did you ever read 'Starship Trooper' by Robert Heinlein? It was fun as a teenager to read. Starships (obviously), space marines with jet packs, laser guns, lots of battles. Then I thought, hey, the 'Skinnies' and the 'Bugs' that the trooper fights don't get much mercy. Aren't they kind of people too? Does this breed or reflect a kind of contempt for the 'collateral damage' and civilian casualties in the wars waged by the Western world on those so-called 'hot-beds of terrorism'? The debate over this novel was long. Heinlein was talking about the need to cultivate a citizen's willingness to serve his or her country.

Along came John Scalzi, and in his debut novel published in 2005, 'Old Man's War', tackles the same subject with a number of major twists and updates. I saw it in the public library and snatched it up - JS is one smart writer. I haven't reached the full expose of what's going on in his world, but it does look like he's asking the questions I had - Does waging war deface the warrior's humanity? Is it enough to say 'Violence is human!' or, 'It's necessary - we gotta defend ourselves' ?

It's a well-told story, with well-imagined characters, but liberally peppered with blood, gore and post-human stuff. Maybe I'll let you know what I think when I've finished it.