Monday, June 27, 2011


I have a fondness for military science fiction, having dabbled in it a time or three myself, and my guy at Powell's, Peter, will now and then spot an example he thinks I might enjoy and hold it for me. Thus, Germline, by T.C. McCarthy, an advance copy of an Orbit paperback I've just finished reading.

Billed as The Subterrene War #1, which is a clue there will be more, in case you miss the preview of the next one in the back, it's a near-future novel that deals with a war ostensibly over rare metals, between America and Russia.

McCarthy, whose background seems fascinatingly-diverse, and who did a tour as a CIA analyst, offers up what for me is a conundrum: For a first novel, it's well-written and most evocative, grit and grime, worth a starred review at Publisher's Weekly. 

On the other hand, the points he wants to make seem to be 1) War is hell. 2) War is really hell. 3) No, I mean it, war is really, really, hell. 4) Even after the war is over and if you survive? it's still hell.

Okay. I get it. 

There is a market for the blood and puke and exploded-body-parts-flying kind of war novel, crotch-rot and scaly skin and suits dumping pee and turds on the floor hither and yon, and if you are looking for that, this book is for you. 

The protagonist, one Oscar Wendell, a reporter for Stars and Stripes, is a mostly-washed up junkie still thinking he's going to win a Pulitzer when he manages to get posted to the tunnels on the front. He loses that notion pretty quick, as he endures–and that's the word I want–a series of progressively uglier and grubbier episodic adventures demonstrating how awful it is to live in a combat suit for weeks at a time in a place where you can be vaporized at any second.

Where madness and combat fatigue are the norm rather than the exception, the mood ranges from depressed to manic in the space of a couple heartbeats. It don't mean nothing. Any of it ... And you know pretty quickly not to get attached to anybody, because chances are good they'll be dead real soon.

Yeah, yeah, I know that's how real war is. Not about honor, nor glory, and most of us who have written about it even without having experienced it, have pointed that out. 

Slaughtering people on a battlefield isn't pretty. It's not Star Wars bloodless, nor should it necessarily be depicted that way; on the other hand, past a point, piling it on doesn't make the story better. And that's what you want, isn't it? A better story? 

The germline aspect comes from the clones–all women on the U.S. side, men on the Russian side–who have been bottle-bred as cannon fodder, trained, infused with a hokey dogma, and whose shelf-life is about the same as the replicants in Bladerunner. Disposable people, and most of them happy to be wiped if they survive past their expiration date. (After which, if not killed, they begin to rot, much like a combination of frostbite and gangrene ...)

It's not giving too much away to say that McCarthy must have really liked Bladerunner, because there are echoes of it throughout. 

This kind of book raises more questions than it answers, and the biggest one for me was, How did we get to a place that can't be more than a few decades away where we could breed clone combat slaves and happily send them off to die? That's a pretty big leap, and McCarthy doesn't speak to it in this book. He might do in the next, where it seems the protagonist is going to be one of the genetics, aka betties.

There's an aspect of technology in being able to do such medical things that seems to make the notion of grunts on a line shooting at each other seem archiac. (If you can teleport living humans through time and space, ala Star Trek, do you really need photon torpedoes and phaser cannons? Materialize any odd bit of junk you have laying around inside the hull of an enemy ship, and you get a nifty nuclear explosion, no two objects being able to occupy the same time and space and all. 

If you can create from scratch a cup of Earl Gray tea, cup and all, from energy? Jeez, that makes the rest of the Enterprise a Model-T by comparison. The ship needs to be way cooler, to deserve that cup of tea.)

If I can create humans from scratch, I can certainly create some nifty viruses and bacteria that will cook enemies like a giant Fourth of July barbecue, wanna bet? And if I don't, why not? I can come up with reasons, but I'd rather the writer did that.

So a mixed review. I like the guy's ability to write. I don't much like the level of ick he offers in this book. It's depressing, and worse, the ending doesn't work for me. It feels tacked-on, and it needed more.

Still, I thought it was worth reading, and I'll look to see what he does next, but this a qualified, and not a rave, review.

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