The Short Version: After a Colonial Forces scientist goes rogue with the intent to start a war that would cripple humanity, the Special Forces of the CDF are tasked to find and stop him – but they carry with them a new recruit: a soldier with that traitor’s consciousness buried inside of him. When that second consciousness starts to awaken, it quickly becomes apparent that the Colonial Union has been keeping secrets of its own…
The Review: Where Old Man’s War was a classically styled sci-fi war adventure, this is the Mission: Impossible analogue. The special forces of the CDF, introduced to us in the form of Jane Sagan in that first novel (and who returns as an important supporting character here), are the badassest mofos you’ve ever seen – and Scalzi has a hell of a lot of fun showing us just how great they are. I’d say that the early chapters, showing Dirac’s integration and training with the Ghost Brigades, are the most perfectly executed – because they take everything we experienced in the first novel and built on it. Training was a huge part of the first novel and it allowed us to acclimate to the universe Scalzi has created, so it was logical that using the same concept would help us come to know this other part of the same universe. And it does: getting to see how Special Forces operatives use their BrainPals in the same ways as ordinary soliders except… moreso, and better… it’s just cool. In the same way that we enjoy the ridiculous gadgets and stunts of each successive M:I movie. It all seems ridiculous if taken out of context, but within context, you just let out a whoop and carry on for the ride.
The plot itself is also pretty full of derring-do, albeit pretty standard stuff – the turncoat scientist, the possible sleeper agent, the death-defying escapes, and even the realization at the very end of the novel during a conversation between two high-level flunkies that there’s WAY more going on than we were ever aware of. The thing is, Scalzi (as he did in the first novel) makes it refreshing. The plot might have elements of predictability but it also goes almost out of its way to put a new spin on those elements – it’s nice to see an author who can acknowledge the classic archetypes AND say “look, there’s still quite a bit to be done with these!” instead of feeling as though they’re pressed to come up with something new (and, inevitably, delivering a less-than-engaging novel).
The most impressive thing about Scalzi’s work, however, is his continued examination of what it means to be human. We dealt with it from John Perry’s perspective in the first novel and that whole idea of “is it our consciousness?” becomes “is it our distinct consciousness?” – the Gamerans, for example, consider themselves human… but we might not think of them as such. Even Dirac, who is arguably even a bit different from the already-pretty-different Special Forces, sees them as not-human – but they seem themselves as human. It’s an important scientific question to consider as our society moves further into technological advances and one that the best sci-fi novelists will (hopefully) continue to pursue. But I don’t know that I’ve seen someone handle it with such grace and humor – in addition to well-rounded insight – as Scalzi has managed in these first two books of the series.
Rating: 4 out of 5. I think the only thing stopping this from being better than the first book is the slight sense that, well, I liked John Perry better than Jared Dirac, in terms of main characters. Dirac, although he manages to create his own personality and so on, never quite managed to feel as well-rounded. I guess that’s part of the idea – he’s a newborn, quite literally – but it makes for a slightly less compelling narrative if you can’t quite care about him as much as you may have cared about a previous hero. Still, that’s a minor quibble: this book was perhaps even more fast-paced and exciting than its predecessor.