Mass Market Paperback
Military Science Fiction is one of the most popular sub-genres of Science Fiction, often centering the story on (obviously) some sort of military conflict. The scope can range from the first person narrative of a singular protagonist to a wide-scale cast of characters relaying the story. When the story focuses on one character/protagonist, the story is often told in the first person. Such is the case with T.C. McCarthy’s debut novel, Germline which is the first novel in his Subterrene War trilogy. Where McCarthy’s novel differs slightly from much of the Military SF on the shelves is that his novel is not set in the stars, but rather inside the earth as the United States and the Russians are at war over the mineral rich Kazhakstan region in a future advanced enough to have genetically engineered super soldiers. The protagonist here is Oscar Wendell, a reporter looking for one last chance to salvage his journalistic career.
Where to begin with this one? Well, bleak might a good word for starters. Few novels I’ve read have depicted the dirtiness, pain, monotony and sheer distress involved in war. Wendell is not a hero, he has serious drug problems, which have led to and compounded his family problems, he isn’t the nicest or bravest guy in the world, and he has a tendency not to turn his writing assignments in on time. One thing at which Oscar excels; however, is endearing himself to the soldiers with which he follows on their tours of duty. Here is where McCarthy shows nice touches, after a minor bit of hazing from the Marines, Wendell fits in with the Marine nicknamed Ox. The camaraderie between them throughout the novel is one of the strengths and something that continually returns as Oscar travels through various points in the war zones.
Did I mention this is a bleak novel? Raw might also be appropriate, disjointed as well. McCarthy is after all telling a story of war and nothing is spared – the death, the blood, the sickness, even the pure discomfort of having what is essentially power armor which includes a system to get rid of personal waste – there’s the rawness, and that is merely one fraction of it. Some people may consider disjointed a negative comment, but here, the disjointed feeling of the narrative is, I gather, completely intentional on McCarthy’s part. Again, this is a novel depicting war on the front lines from a protagonist with serious addiction issues and mental instability. There’s almost a dream, rather nightmare, sense as Oscar bounces from platoon to platoon over the course of the novel thanks to the many battles and near battles in which his squads get involved.
Adding to Wendell’s instability are the genetics – squads of genetically engineered female supersoldiers placed on the front lines as the elite fighting forces. For reasons that come to light as the novel progresses the only supersolders are females. Just when the novel seems to be about Wendell’s struggles for sanity, cleanliness and war, in comes the relationship angle and the question of “What is humanity?” The genetics are perfected humans, at least physically, but they unfortunately have a very short shelf life, very few living beyond 18-20 years. When Oscar first sees one from a distance, he’s fascinated, though his comrades in arms try to dissuade him from engaging with the genetics. When he does meet and talk with one in particular, Sophie, his fascination grows and becomes a physical attraction that one might say leads to obsession.
McCarthy is juggling a number of themes in Germline, and what shows his skill to an even greater degree is how these themes integrate into a sum of a novel that is greater than their parts. It should be noted that McCarthy has a governmental background so a good deal of the elements in the plot feel genuine.
Germline is an impressive debut that manages, thanks to McCarthy’s honest and raw authorial voice, to add something new to the Military Science Fiction genre. Wendell’s narrative isn’t the easiest one to follow (moreso because of the brutality of what he sees and not because McCarthy has any shortcomings), but it does emit a great sense of fascination that is difficult not to continue reading. McCarthy is off to a very impressive start in the Subterrene War saga. I am very intrigued to read and find out where he next takes his story of this future war.
© 2011 Rob H. Bedford