Approximately 40 years in the future, Earth is being attacked, cities are being destroyed, and people are being drawn into the armed forces in hopes of defending our planet. Many of the people chosen for this expedition are orphans, people whose families were destroyed in the attacks. These attacks take the form of large projectiles, with no nuclear armaments, basically large stones hurtling through space, which destroy the surrounding area where they land, most often populated cities like Pittsburgh or Indianapolis. It is with this premise Robert Buettner introduces the reader to the world of Orphanage and its protagonist, Jason Wander, hometown, the now destroyed Indianapolis.
The premise of alien invasion and a humanity that fights back is a familiar one in Science Fiction, and military Science Fiction specifically. This is not to say entertaining, intriguing and enjoyable stories cannot be spun from a familiar palate, because Buettner delivers at the least, all three of these admirable qualities. Beuttner employs a very effective fist person narrative throughout, giving the feel, almost, of a war journal. Through this journal-like style, Beuttner builds an effective, empathetic protagonist in Jason Wander.
As I was reading the novel, two comparisons, fairly or not, sprung to my mind – Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game and the Stanley Kubrick film Full Metal Jacket. A good portion of this novel deals with Jason’s training, and his development into a mature man, so with both of those comparisons, Buettner measures up fairly well. The trainees are not nearly as young as those depicted in Card’s novel and the level of military drudgery is not quite as deep as depicted in Kubrick’s film. While those works did echo in the back of my mind, Buettner infused the work with a strong enough dose of his own authorial voice for Orphanage to stand on its own merits.
The aliens are not bent on destroying our planet, though. They simply want us gone, in order to move in and make Earth their own world. Very little is known about the aliens, as of the early years of Jason’s life, no aliens have ever been found amid the wreckage of the enormously destructive projectiles. As Jason’s story unfolds and we (Jason and the reader) learn more about the aliens, Buettner effectively and logically lays out how humanity may react to these aliens. Beuttner uses an effective storytelling device to start the novel, the first chapter takes place towards the end of the narrative and the majority of the novel is told in the war-journal-like flashback. Through Jason’s earliest words in the novel, we discover the aliens are Slugs, human sized Slugs. By creating giant Slugs as the aliens, Buettner does not create a species with which the reader can hold much sympathy. Slimy creatures, human sized at that, illicit a response of disgust in most circles, and this makes it easy, and almost too convenient for our characters to want to destroy the enemy aliens.
With his military experience (Buettner is a former Military Intelligence Officer), it should come as no surprise how effectively Buettner conveys military life. Jason takes some time to adjust to the structured life, but when he does, the promise those who supported him during his early tribulations saw beneath his immature exterior. Again, Buettner builds up Jason’s character effectively and logically throughout the majority of the novel.
All told, Orphanage is an impressive debut by an author with admirable storytelling skills. Robert Buettner tells the tale with a cinematic flair, draws characters with depth and plausibility and maps out a futture partly conceivable and partly scary. The novel draws to an open-ended enough close to allow for more stories of Jason Wander and humanity’s future. I for one, look forward to reading where Mr. Buettner takes Wander and his future.
© 2004 Rob H. Bedford
Author Web site: http://www.RobertBuettner.com
Publisher Web Site: http://www.twbookmark.com/sciencefiction/index.html