So this weekend, I finally finished the reading I began on my vacation a couple of weeks ago. As is my wont, I always pack a couple of sci-fi novels for long road trips, and this time around I headed out with Glasshouse by Charles Stross, and The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi, my Jedi Master.
I’ll start with Brigades. It’s the direct sequel to Old Man’s War (which won Scalzi the Campbell Award for best new SF writer, and came in third for the Hugo, SF’s equivalent to the Oscar), but in a few ways I think it’s a better novel. The plot is as follows: A genius scientist betrays humanity, so Earth breeds a super-soldier clone of the traitor to outmanuever the enemy. I found Jared Dirac, the protagonist in TGB, more interesting than John Perry, his counterpart in OMW. Also, the main carryover character between the books, Jane Sagan, really starts to round out a lot more in TGB (mostly, I believe, because she’s given some internal monologue/narrative, which I don’t recall her having in OMW). Scalzi uses an actioner plot to breeze through some interesting metaphysical territory–namely, the relationship of consciousness and memory to the ephemera of the soul–but doesn’t really spend a lot lot of time or energy there. This isn’t an Orson Scott Card novel. Scalzi does shine, I feel, when his genetically bred supersoldiers gain access to other SF media during their training. (Scalzi was and is a film critic with some particular wit and experience.) Watching SF characters analyze other SF characters is a fun little recursive loop, and it’s a real bright spot in the book. Overall, The Ghost Brigades is a brisk read, very accessible, and the kind of military sci-fi novel that you could recommend to a casual fan without worrying they’d get bogged down in the more gnarley or challenging hard-SF elements or concepts found in other novels.
Which brings us to Glasshouse, which may or may not be a sequel to Accelerando, Stross’ Hugo-nominated tour-de-force SF short-story collection. Glasshouse is complicated, to put it mildly, and packs more plot and setting into 335 pages than you’ll find in an entire season of Deep Space Nine (which is not a dig at DS9). So much so, that I felt the ending was rushed. I was nearly 300 pages in before I was clear on exactly what was going on, and then the whole thing ends in a rather brisk and violent showdown that doesn’t do justice to the previous 300 pages of buildup. Still, watching Stross work is a marvellous treat, as his ideas are so complex and insightful as to be almost hallucinogenic. To try and summarize: Glasshouse is the story of Robin/Reeve, a former hyperfuturistic war criminal so disgusted with his/her own past that he/she erases large chunks of his/her memory, switches gender, and signs up to join a retro-20th century revivalist community–only to find out that his/her old enemies are running the place, and her past is wildly more complicated than she ever suspected. Also, it’s a love story, with sword fights and a sly deconstruction of gender politics and mob mentality. There’s a lot to like about Glasshouse, I just wish Stross had thrown in an extra 100 pages to decompress the ending a bit.