Book Review: The Ghost Brigades – by John Scalzi

There are a lot of aliens in The Ghost Brigades. Toward the beginning of the book, Cainen, a scientist and one of the protagonists, is trapped in a cave by an explosion when aliens are attacking his planet. He describes:

Through the light beams one of the invaders came forward, jabbering something in its language, and Cainen finally got a look at the species he was dealing with.

His training as a xenobiologist kicked in as he ticked off the particulars of the species phenotype: Bilaterally symmetrical and bipedal, and as a consequence with differentiated limbs for arms and legs; their knees bent the wrong way. Roughly the same size and body plan, which was unsurprising as an inordinately large number of so-called intelligent species were bipedal, bilaterally symmetrical and roughly similarly sized in volume and mass. It was one of the things that made interspecies relationships in this part of the universe as contentious as they were. So many similar intelligent species, so little usable real estate for all their needs.

But now the differences emerge, thought Cainen, as the creature barked at him again: A broader torso and abdominal plain, and a generally awkward skeletal structure and musculature. Stump-like feet; club-like hands. Outwardly obvious sexual differentiation (this one in front of him was female, if he remembered correctly). Compromised sensory input thanks to only two small optical and aural inputs rather than the optical and aural bands that wrapped nearly entirely around Cainen’s head. Fine keratinous fibers on the head rather than heat-radiating skin folds. Not for the first time, Cainen reflected that evolution didn’t do this particular species any great favors, physically speaking. It just made them aggressive, dangerous and damned hard to scrape off a planet surface. A problem, that.

The creature in front of Cainen jabbered at him again and pulled out a short, nasty-looking object. Cainen looked directly into the creature’s optical inputs. “Fucking humans,” he said.

This jarred me. The entire first chapter, telling the story of an alien attack and invasion, was told from the point of view of Cainen, who was an alien scientist, which I did not realize, until I read “fucking humans!” The humans were the invaders.

I had to read again the descripton of what humans would appear like to aliens that saw them for the first time. Even though I have lost most of my “fine keratinous fibers on the head” I could identify. Ok, my knees bend the wrong way…

The Ghost Brigades is the sequel to Old Man’s War, but the story is a completely new one.

There are 603 alien species in the near-by universe that compete for “real estate” and the Colonial Union, a military-dominated government, is in charge of humanity. Humanity is particularly bellicose and difficult, constantly picking fights with alien species.

Most of the story involves members of the human Special Forces who have enhanced bodies, senses and capabilities.

I am divided about the author. Some of the concepts are so intriguing and unique, they are fascinating to read about. But just as in Old Man’s War, he misses out when describing the environment and the aliens.

The Eneshans, the Rraey and the Obin are three of the alien species that play a crucial role in this story. I know that the Eneshans are insectiod, since they have a thorax, and heads. The Eneshans are several feet taller than the Rraey. The Rraey have aural and auditory bands around their heads. I also think they are insectoids, since at one time somebody calls Cainen, who is a Rrael prisonor, a “bug.” Another species, the Obin, are essential to the plot. A good part of it plays on one of their home worlds. Yet, I have no idea what an Obin looks like.

It would not have been hard for the author to create vivid pictures of the aliens in my mind, both in the way they look, smell, sound and act. But the author just left that out. I am stuck with the concept that most non-human aliens are insectoid.

A good story, too much dialog, not enough description, yet good, page-turning entertainment.

Rating: **

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