PW Review of The Ghost Brigades

Oh, look. The Publishers Weekly review of The Ghost Brigades is in and it’s not bad at all. The opening line: “This fast-paced interstellar military drama doesn’t quite meet the high expectations set by its predecessor, Scalzi’s acclaimed Old Man’s War (2005), but it comes impressively close.” That works just dandy for me. You can see the entire PW review on TGB’s Amazon page.

One portion of the review that interested me was this: “Scalzi pays gleeful homage to Ender’s Game, The Forever War and Starship Troopers, sometimes at the expense of originality. All he needs to make the jump from good to great is to trust in his own ideas.” This is a fair cop — the book, as with Old Man’s War, is not only directly in line with the tradition that tracks through those books by Heinlein, Haldeman and Card, there’s actually a point in the book where the characters in the story read those books and note how they relate to their own lives to greater or lesser degrees. And of course, in addition to concretely serving the story it’s also me as an author making a nod to my honored predecessors.

As a writer, you can’t do that, or openly revisit the themes explored by those books and authors, without opening yourself to comment and comparison. Or at the very least, you can’t do it and act surprised when people note that you’re playing the changes. The ideas in The Ghost Brigades are to a significant degree an expansion of previous explorations on sf military themes. As I noted on Old Man’s War in my “Lessons From Heinlein” essay: “The flip side of so consciously appropriating such a well-known sf format… is that Old Man’s War cannot be accused of being breathlessly original, either in concept or execution. I think that’s a fair enough assessment. To speak of novel in musical terms, it’s best described as a variation on a theme or an improvisational riff off a classic tune.” As a writer I have no problem trusting my ideas; one of the ideas with these books is that because they’re an extension of a particular tradition of SF novel, so some derivativeness is going to be baked right in. I expect The Last Colony will be open to more of the same observations, as tonally and thematically it’s going to be in line with the other books in the series. I do think there are a number of original ideas in all the books, of course. You get a little from column A and a little from column B.

Having said that, I entirely understand the reviewer’s point of “Yes, we know you can do Heinlein — but can you do you?” One of the ironies here is that the book I wrote immediately after Old Man’s WarThe Android’s Dream — is rather different tonally than Old Man’s War or Ghost Brigades; and at the very least it can’t be said to be Heinleinesque because Dear Ol’ Bob never opened a book with a chapter-long fart joke. Indeed I don’t believe any science fiction author of note has done so. Thus will be my claim to fame in the years to come — when any future science fiction writer does something of a gastrointestinal quality, reviewers will say “it’s rather Scalzi-esque, though, isn’t it?” I don’t know that I could ask for anything more. I don’t know if Android’s Dream will be the book to propel me from good-to-great territory — one does not generally achieve greatness via flatulence, Le Petomane notwithstanding — but I guess you never know.

In any event — and aside from fart jokes — I’ll be interested to see what critics think of Android’s Dream when it comes out (not to mention the Two-Book Project I’m Currently Secretive About, which won’t be out until late 2007 in any event). I think both those will establish I have my own voice, for better or for worse. In the meantime, of course, there are worse things than being in the company of Heinlein, Haldeman and Card.

15 Comments on “PW Review of The Ghost Brigades”

  1. John – Am I misremembering? I had thought that at one point you’d said you had not read The Forever War when you wrote OMW?

  2. I had not, so any Forever comparisons to that are point to the reviewer rather than the writer, although I have read other Haldeman, of course. He’s also got a new collection out from Nightshade books called War Stories that I hear is very good, although I’ve not read it yet myself.

  3. Not quite the same, but I remember fart jokes being a key theme in the first chapter of Kurt Vonnegut’s Galapagos.

  4. And as he pointed out on NPR this morning, he has a Masters degree in anthropology from UofC…

  5. “The University of Chicago: It’s All About the Farting.” Yes, that’s the slogan to increase the endowment for sure!

  6. Isn’t Kurt Vonnegut a UofC engineering washout? Their sciences program has a grand literary tradition.

    Nice review, John. *g*

  7. I believe that as the review is now published, I’m allowed to out myself as having written it. *) You took it exactly as intended, which I’m always glad to see. As always, I wish they’d give me more room, but the important stuff is there. It really was–is–a good book and I kept wishing I could give it a star, but it never quite passed the mark for me. Another reviewer might have felt differently. It’s definitely right on that edge.

    I’d very much like to read Android’s Dream, especially if it’s that different; I didn’t have a chance to read OMW before TGB, and after finishing TGB I sort of felt that I didn’t need to read OMW because they seemed, from all I heard, to be flip sides of the same coin. I will gladly read it anyway in that mythical someday where I’m not reviewing three books a week on top of a fulltime job and my own creative pursuits, but something from you that takes a new tack and shows more of the personality that keeps me coming back to read your blog would be terrific.

  8. Rose Fox:

    “You took it exactly as intended, which I’m always glad to see.”

    Yup. It’s a good review both in the sense that it’s generally positive about the work and that I can track your line of thinking about the book, so in both cases I have no reason to complain (I’ve had positive reviews which I can’t fathom; those are frustrating). And speaking as a professional critic, I know as well as anyone that not all works appeal to all people in the same ways. What you hope for with reviews is a consensus view that you’re not wasting either your readers’ time or your own.

  9. The impression I get is that the PW reviewer gave the book a somewhat superficial reading. The “starship trooper” leitmotif may be obviously Heinleinesque, but it’s not as if readers don’t know that going in. Your space operas have always been an open homage to that style, which I never mind as long as its done honestly. I picked out a number of themes in TGB I’d not seen Heinlein address in the way you do, particularly those involving identity and choice. I don’t think there’a anything artistically illegitimate in following in established genre traditions, as long as you still can find your own voice (which I think you have) and tell a cracking story into the bargain.

  10. John: Over the years I’ve developed more of a… critical arrogance, I suppose, a willingness to imply that all readers will agree with me. I try only to use it on books that I think are really dreadful, though. (PW has scrapped a couple of my reviews because they were too harsh. I should dig some of those up and post them in my journal. Such gristly meat deserves to be skewered and barbecued.) The rest of the time, I do my best to write from the perspective of the target audience, even when I wouldn’t ordinarily be a member of it.

    Incidentally, I just pulled up Amazon to look for another book and see whether my review for it had gone up, and it has OMW and Agent to the Stars on the top of my “recommended” list.

    Martin: Unfortunately, I don’t have time to give my review books a close and thorough reading, nor the space for a deep critical analysis. I write two reviews a week and am limited to 220 words for starred reviews and 180-200 for the rest (with 180 strongly preferred). PW’s focus is on marketing, so references to other authors are as much about the target audience as about stylistic concerns. Of course there are differences between our esteemed host’s work and that of his predecessors in the genre. (Believe me, there are many ways I could have said “This book is a complete rip-off” without any ambiguity. I didn’t, because it isn’t.) Without much space to discuss the finer points, however, I touched on what I felt were the most important elements of the plot and the ways that the book fits into its cultural context. If readers want more detail, they’ll simply have to pick up the book themselves!

  11. I had thought that at one point you’d said you had not read The Forever War when you wrote OMW?

    I had not, so any Forever comparisons to that are point to the reviewer rather than the writer, although I have read other Haldeman, of course.

    John, did you ever get around to reading The Forever War after writing OMW? I seem to recall you saying that you had ordered it but not received it promptly. I was curious as to your perspective on it compared to Starship Troopers and your own work. Also, if there’s a point where the characters in The Ghost Brigades read the book and reacted to it, it would seem to make sense for you to have read it so you could write their reactions.

  12. Yup, I’ve now read it, although I started it near the end of writing TGB (i.e., after I knew where I was going with the book). Needless to say, it’s a fine read and I’m flattered to have my work compared to it. I can’t go into a detailed critique of it at the moment, alas, because I’ve got about six other things I’m doing at the moment. But, generally: Excellent.

  13. Well, Rose, I certainly understand how frustrating deadlines and word limits can be, having reviewed for newspapers before I went online. I don’t know if you’ve ever considered using your blog to post the longer and more in-depth reviews PW hasn’t got space for (for all I know you do this all the time), or if PW has a deal where they don’t allow that.

  14. The deal with PW is that I can’t write reviews elsewhere that are clearly “the same review, only longer”. Beyond that, however, it is technically permitted. (For example, I reviewed Naomi Novik’s His Majesty’s Dragon for both PW and Strange Horizons, with both editors’ blessings.) I have actually been thinking about starting a reviews blog, mostly for the sake of actually getting my name out there–I’ve been reviewing for PW for four years, but since their reviews are anonymous, you’ll just have to take my word for that–but I think I’ll wait until I’ve done a few more bylined pieces. I’ve got enough extracurricular gigs going already!

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