Friday, June 27, 2014

The Ghost Brigades ( a book review post)

The Ghost Brigades is the sequel to Scalzi's book Old Man's War, which didn't get the highest recommendation from me. You can check that review here.

I was hoping that I was going to be able to say that this one is better than the first and, for a while, a long while, I thought I was going to be able to say that. For one thing, Ghost Brigades is in third person, so that was a great improvement for me. For another thing, there is much less exposition about Scalzi's scientific ideas. And Jared Dirac is a much more interesting character with much deeper internal conflict than John Perry from the first book. Everything was there for this to be a better book.

Then it wasn't.

Actually, there was a pretty significant hiccup at the beginning of the book, and I was willing to overlook it when it was the only wrinkle but it becomes more noticeable when combined with how the book ends. I mean, when the opening is weak and the ending is weak, well... it makes it difficult to look kindly on the book.

The book opens from the point of view of an alien [and this is a bit of a spoiler, but it's only the first 15 pages or so, so it's not much of one], only we're not supposed to know that. The way we don't know that is that we're experiencing everything through the character's internal perspective without any external descriptions. That way, see, we're "surprised" to find out that this character was really an alien with animosity toward humanity. The problem I have with this is not the trick of it (okay, actually, I get annoyed with these kinds of tricks by authors where we're only fooled (if we are) because the author purposefully left out information which, honestly, we ought to know) but that the alien acts entirely human. His emotions and thoughts and everything are equivalent to what humans would have so, really, he's not an alien when he ought to be completely strange. Just on Earth, humans can have such cultural differences, while still being human, that we are, at least, disconcerted to be around the other person. That a species of an entirely different planet would think and act like a human so much so that we are "fooled" by it is mildly ridiculous at best.

But I got past that issue, completely forgot about it, once I moved into the story proper. That character at the beginning of the book is mostly inconsequintial and easily dismissed once we've gotten caught up in the mystery of Charles Boutin and Jared Dirac. And that was a good, engrossing story right up until somewhere around 75-80% of the way through the book.

Then the bottom falls out of it.

At least it did for me. And there will be a major plot point spoiler here, so feel free to skip past.

There's this bit of tech in the book (both of them) called the BrainPal. It's pretty much what it sounds like, a computer in the brain to assist the soldier and allow things such as internal communication with other soldiers with a BrainPal. Scalzi felt the need to disable the BrainPal en masse, so he went back to an 80s trick and had Boutin do it with a secret backdoor in the code. Now, I get that this a thing that we've been seeingin movies and books for about three decades, but, at this point, the idea of a secret backdoor in a program is ridiculous. Everything about it is ridiculous.

So, in the book, the reason the backdoor is there is to allow Boutin easier access to the program he's working on, but I think we all know that to access, well, anything all you need to do is input your password (or whatever the equivalent is). To get in through a backdoor, you have to input your password (or whatever the equivalent is). It doesn't allow any kind of ease of access or speed up the process, so, from that standpoint, it's pointless.

Beyond that, Boutin is not the sole architect of the computer program he's working on. In fact, he's not even the primary architect. He's just part of the design for one small part of the BrainPal, the consciousness transfer aspect of it. Asking us to believe that Boutin was able to put in an exploitable backdoor when working within a group and not even the lead in the group is asking us to believe something that is totally implausible, and it's easier to accept things that are plausibly impossible than implausibly possible. Basically, Scalzi is asking us to believe that everyone Boutin was working with was incompetent, in which case, the BrainPal wouldn't work, anyway. [This is on par with expecting us to believe that John Perry is the only one to understand the truth about the Consu in Old Man's War. It's just not plausible.] Scalzi does, at the end of the book, acknowledge (through the characters) that a backdoor like that shouldn't have existed, but it doesn't make it less of a contrived scenario to create tension at the end of the book. Basically, he had created a "Superman scenario" and used the backdoor as his Kryptonite.

So the book fell off of a cliff for me and plummeted to the rocks below. There's nothing that will ruin a book more than bad ending.

Sure, it might just be me, but anyone who knows anything about computers and how people work together and will probably find the contrived backdoor fairly laughable.

And I'm not even going to talk about how ridiculous the motivations of Boutin were. I thought as I was reading through the book and the obvious motivations were given that it must be a trick because it was so cliche. I figured Scalzi had something more interesting, more clever, up his sleeve but, no, it was all straightforward cliche and based on things that went against how given characters and races should have acted. It even had the super villain monologue at the end. To say that I was disappointed doesn't come close to how I felt at the end of the book.

Still, I will probably read the next one, though I'm not sure if I know why. I do want to find out what Scalzi has going on with the Consu, which is barely touched on in this book, so, yeah, I will probably read at least one more to get more of the meta-story. I just hope it's better than this one, though.


  1. So the first one was first person?
    I've lived all over the world, and yes, people have the same basic drives and needs, but there are vast differences in how they think and view the world. An alien would indeed view the world a lot different.
    Add that it sounds more focused on tech and it's probably one I'll skip.
    Would you buy the backdoor if Boutin was the primary architect?

  2. Interesting that you didn't like either book but still want to read more - on some level, even with you, the author succeeded.

  3. I was thinking the same, to want to read the third book means something has appealed to you somewhere along the way.

  4. Have you read any Scalzi that you like? I'm always nervous to pick up "celebrity" status authors and possibly get disappointed. (Happened with Wendig's many blog-post-turned-writer-advice-books.)

  5. Alex C: No, I really wouldn't. Lots of people go over the code of any kind of project like that. It's not like you can hide it in the code. That would be like having a sentence in the middle of a page that said "this is a backdoor" and expecting people not to see it. It's just a flawed idea.

    TAS: As an author, he did not succeed, actually. The success is that I follow his blog and like him as much as you can like a person that you've never met or spoken to. It makes me willing to extend more benefit of the doubt than I normally would.

    But to go back on what I said in the post, after getting some new info, I think I'm not going to continue this series. It sounds like he never addresses the only thing I found of interest, anyway.

    Jo: See my previous response.

    Alex H: Well, I've only read the two books, and I wasn't crazy about either of them. I might still try Red Shirts.

  6. Wow. With all the books there are to read, it's somewhat surprising that you'd read the sequel when you weren't all that impressed with the first book. And now you may read another? Methinks you must like these books more than you think you do.

  7. Susan: No, I really don't. And I've already decided to not read the next one since writing this review.

    Really, I just have a hard time quitting something once I've started, no matter how bad it is. That's why I got into the middle of the horrid Sword of Truth series before my wife made me quit.

  8. This is very interesting. I keep hearing how Scalzi, Konrath, and Hugh Howie are millionaires from their own self-published books, but I've yet to read a self-published book that really impressed me, and I've started a few novels by these guys and put them down. You're the first I've seen who isn't gushing about them. Great review!

  9. Oops. For all I know, you are a big Konrath/Howie fan, so in that last part, change "them" to "him." lol

  10. It sounds like except for the beginning and the end, it was a good book. Sometimes I'm able to ignore plot holes, but they sound a bit too large in this book. It seems weird that Scalzi even mentions that the backdoor doesn't make sense. He should have been able to work around that.

  11. You should review his Redshirts. I think he's the one who wrote it. I'm curious if it's any good.

  12. Hmm.

    I'm not as skeptical of 'back doors' as you are. The idea of a back door played a significant role in "Ready Player One," which I found to be a pretty enjoyable book. I know nothing about programming, but I do know that Easter Eggs were slipped into Atari games in the 80s because Atari forbid programmers from getting credit, so programmers did that to fight back. Disney movies have all kinds of slip-ups and things that disgruntled workers put in, like the single-frame naked woman in 'The Rescuers" that required Disney to recall the movie.

    So it's not impossible that something could be slipped in. The bigger problem, for me, is that apparently he created an entire system for the book that then required that he disable the entire system for the book, and I'm having trouble wondering whether that WAS the plot, that the guy realized his invention was no good, or what? It doesn't seem to make sense.

    You're mentioned a lot in my article in the latest IWM; it's on POV, and part of what you say here called that to mind. The beginning part, from the alien's point of view, sounds like it's entirely extraneous to the story. So why is it there? Not only does it not seem real, as you point out, but Scalzi apparently wastes 15 minutes on a trick opening that adds nothing. At least when they do that in James Bond movies (like they used to? I haven't seen very many Bond movies)the adventure that were unrelated were kind of cool. This sounds dumb.

  13. I hate when that happens. A book shows so much promise in the beginning, then falls apart. SO disappointing!

  14. Lexa: I've read more than a few really excellent self-published books, which is not to say that I haven't also read some really horrible self-published books, but, then, I've read plenty of horrible traditionally published books, too. The difference is that bad self-published books usually have to do with the writing and bad traditional books usually have to do with the story.

    I haven't read any Konrath or Howie and don't have any plans to. I picked up Scalzi because I read (and like) his blog.

    Jeanne: It was well-written with some stupid elements. And it's not that he says that the backdoor doesn't make sense; he acknowledges that it shouldn't have existed, which is to say, "I know this is a thing that shouldn't happen, but I'm making it happen anyway so that my book will work."

    Shannon: It's because I want to read Redshirts that I picked up these other books. I wanted to start with his earlier work before I jumped into his most recent stuff.

    Briane: Well, see, you're pointing out exactly what I'm talking about: "Backdoors" were a thing of the 80s, something that happened before we knew we needed to look at that stuff. We don't have the same viewpoint on programming, etc anymore because people kept doing things that undermined the product.

    The rest I can't explain succinctly nor without actually explaining the books.

    Stephanie: Yeah... The last book I was this disappointed with was the first Shannara book. Stupid, stupid ending.