Rating: 2.5 stars
Length: On the long side of average (373 pages)
Publication: August 1, 2011 from Orbit Books
Premise: Oscar Wendell is a drug-addicted reporter, on the edge of losing his job, but he manages to pull the right strings to wind up on the front lines of the war in Kazakhstan. The Americans and their allies are fighting the Russians for the rare heavy metals that have been discovered there, but living in battle day after day makes the war into a world all its own.
Warnings: pervasive graphic violence/gore, substance abuse and addiction
Recommendation: If you really need a near-future sci-fi book told from the gritty underbelly of the people on the ground, Germline excels at portraying the day-to-day boredom, terror, and search for meaning. If you're not interested in military science fiction, give this one a pass.
What gives this one the weight of realism:
T.C. McCarthy excels at conveying the feeling of being involved in warfare, from the blind panic of combat to the undignified boredom that stretches out for weeks or months. Wendell goes to the battlefront to write a story that can help save his flagging career, but the force of the war soon pulls that goal away, leaving him with an intriguing dependence on the war. Sometimes he loves it because he feels on some level that people are more honest and trustworthy so close to death, and sometimes he stays because he can't imagine another life anymore, but it always reads as realistic. He's an addict from the beginning, though he briefly thinks that he can get by without any of his normal drugs as long as he's distracted with the story, and the war shifts his addiction. Nicotine and things specifically developed from the limited resources of the front line are available, so his fixation simply shifts from his old favorites to a combination of drugs that take the edge off and the war itself. The narration never flinches from gore or grit, facing soldiers exploding onto his armor and infected anal sanitation tubes with equal frankness. It's not always pleasant to read, but this aspect of the book absolutely works, never caving to either glorious victory or simple preaching about pacifism.
The background grit of war is made more graceful-but-unsettling by the addition of the genetics, genetically modified soldiers who can react more quickly than any normal person and control their reactions to pain. All of this is typical enough, but the genetics are teenage girls bred and trained to combat prowess-- they enter the field at age fifteen but start rotting away on their eighteenth birthdays after insanity in the preceding months. They have names and hints of distinct personality, but they're bound together by their near-worship of death. To them, a bloody demise on the battlefield in glorious and will earn them a certain seat in heaven; the knowledge that they will rot alive until they're shot if they last beyond their expiration dates means that they love battle and pain while also having lingering echoes of normal urges like lust and wondering about parenthood, which sets them up to be tough but also quietly vulnerable in the knowledge that they will never be normal.
Although the genetics as a group are gone for long stretches at a time, something on the order of a year (more on that later), the other characters have their moment. It's hard to pin down specifics, in part because McCarthy doesn't give most of these characters names: they're all nicknamed things like "the kid" or "the Brit," which is actually a good touch. They know how to find each other and grab the right person's attention in conversation, so full names (or even first names, in some cases) never come onto the scene. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, it's easy to like these characters and enjoy their little quirks; General Urqhart in particular shines because he exemplifies the honorable and upright ideals of the military that seem so absent in the rest of the war. They can all be heroic or ready to crack or even sadistic, but these reactions read as solid and understandable from moment to moment. This works especially well for the kid, a young soldier barely old enough to qualify for military service, which in this era is available at fifteen. Wendell isn't an official soldier, but he's survived enough tough situations in Kaz (as the troops call it) that he qualifies as a reluctant mentor or sorts. The kid showed up with another young soldier who died almost immediately but survived that encounter with Wendell's help and refuses to leave his lucky charm. It's oddly endearing but avoids being saccharine-- while the kid is inexperienced and a little stupid at times, he's also prematurely aged by what he's living through, and he and Wendell stay together mostly because it's easier to stay sane with companionship.
The story slowly wraps up with Wendell getting out of the war; he's turned down several opportunities to get back to the safety of civilian life by this point (which causes most people to question his sanity), but for spoiler-related reasons he has no choice in the matter. He has some predictable symptoms of PTSD, like panic at the sound of loud noises like dropped boxes that might be explosions, but there's a more subtle theme of not being able to adjust to different expectations. People back home barely know that the war has happened (more on that later), so people will innocently ask him what it was like, or whether he ever killed anyone, while he finds himself living through the experiences again. Sometimes he lies and at other times he can't really form words about the whole thing; when he unexpectedly slides into memory, he loses himself and almost breaks a bystander's arm because he doesn't know what's happening. He's managed to stay clean of drugs for a while but almost goes back to them because he can't cope with the quiet and transition, and on the whole it's a great character study about how the war saved Wendell from himself but also warped him in ways that leave him fundamentally out of step with the world he left behind.
The red pen:
By far the most frustrating aspect of Germline is the scattered sequence of events and unclear passage of time. At times Wendell will mention how much time is passing, like if he's spent a few months at a particular military base, but at other times it can be hard to tell whether he's been caught in one encampment for two weeks or six months. This treatment of time can be effective if it's handled just right to create a blurring effect, but there are no external markers, so Wendell's own fatigue and involvement in the war spread out to the reader in a way that makes it hard to follow what's happening, let alone understand it. Having things play out this way could be a good method of immersion, but it comes off as a way to let events happen when it's convenient rather than because the plot has moving in that direction. By the end of the book it's almost impossible to tell how long Wendell has been in Kaz or what prompted a specific defeat or retreat besides a vague explanation that the Russians have the numbers and technology....even though they don't have genetic troops until maybe halfway through the book, half the nations of the world seem to have allied with America, and there's never any real explanation as to how Russia got to be a world power again after the Cold War. It's not an essential history lesson, but the complete lack of details makes it feel like Russia is more of a boogeyman than a world war-scale opponent.
This scattered style unfortunately also spreads into the worldbuilding to an extent, particularly the individual genetics and how Wendell relates to them. He enters into a relationship of sorts with two genetics at different points, and it never makes any sense beyond lust. His first relationship is with Bridgette, a genetic who is near her expiration but isolated from the rest of her unit when they die, so she and Wendell have to travel together to get back to safe territory-- along the way, they have a lot of sex and some discussions of the future. It could have built into rapport, but their relationship ends before it had the chance to more than the vaguely unsettling union of a genetic soldier looking to experience something before she dies and a dirty old man reporter who spends way too much rhapsodizing about how these underage death-soldiers are gorgeous and should have been driving boys crazy in miniskirts. The second relationship involves spoilers but is infinitely worse because it plays injured patient/angelic nurse tropes a little too straight and then resolves in a way that fails to provide drama, pathos, or even satisfaction. It could have been fascinating to see genetics in larger groups for a while (and that's apparently the focus of the next book), but this time around it's all about Wendell making out with like fifty of them right before they go die or about relationships, which means that the number of genetics with actual speaking roles who do not inexplicably want some of Wendell's dubious physical charms is....one, and she dies within two pages or so. It's tiresome and reduces the single most interesting element of the book to sexual tension.
The explanations for the American genetics are...flimsy at best and laughably ill-considered at worse. One genetic explains to Wendell that the female genetic troops are bred to die in battle and spare the lives of human women, which is fine until we hit the next step. With battlefields grown so enormous, every human woman is needed for birthing, so women are now barred from serving in the military unless they were in service before this ban went into place (there's one corrupt female general hanging around being insane for two pages early on, but that's it). Male genetic troops would be ideal for larger muscle mass, but they were too aggressive or unstable for some reason. The point about women protesting that it's unfair that they can't serve in war, even as medics or pilots or support staff as is currently allowed, is vaguely addressed insofar as the military being able able to say that the genetically altered women are allowed to serve in war and no more are required. So, three points: firstly, the genetically altered troops are purely for front-line combat and seem to have no support-staff capacity. Secondly, it seems like normal human women might have noticed and protested this whole broodmare scheme, since this urgent need for breeding would have become public knowledge. Thirdly, how in the name of all that makes sense have these scientists mastered genetically altered troops that live in pods/capsules for years and not, say, the artificial uterus? Or basic cloning so that the breeding stock and troop supplies of both genders never run dry?
All of this is without getting into the bizarre question of why scientists find Wendell aberrant for being attracted to these genetics when they look like sexy high-school students in the middle of a war zone where women are not allowed at all. It seems like the more relevant question is why men on the front lines of this inescapable war don't normally become lustful and try to seduce or rape some of these troops; it's a real issue today with regular leave and women allowed in many parts of the armed forces, but it's just....magically not an issue in this alternate future. Instead, the only soldier/genetic contact is between Wendell and his various hangers-on, all of whom can sense that he spiritually belongs in war or is special in some ill-defined way. This seems to hold true despite many genetics' desire to at least experience kissing or sex before they die and the ready availability of soldiers who can provide that. Wendell is unique because he has Protagonist Sex Powers, even though he's surrounded by other people who can't leave the war, and that does a lot to undercut the realism that's so painstakingly constructed elsewhere.
Brilliant though the battle and survival sequences can be, they lose
meaning when they're not part of a coherent narrative, and that's
particularly disappointing given that Wendell is a reporter. Granted, he
wasn't a brilliant one going in, but he does little more than make a
token attempt at observation during his first week and then give an
interview once he's back on home soil, though it's more an unplanned
talk with an old friend about what things were like. There was so much
room to explore how he might try to find meaning or assemble a story out
of what was happening; even putting some time into thinking about how
the war has grown too large and brutal to be explained in articles could
have been great, but for nine-tenths of the book it's completely
irrelevant that he's a reporter. The story just as easily could have
been told from the perspective of a drug addict who was drafted, and
that takes the edge off of how Wendell could have been distinctive. He changes a very little bit, in that he becomes dependent on the war and bonds with some of his comrades, but the framing of his arc as a coming-of-age story falls a little flat because he spends more time explaining how he's changed than demonstrating those changes.
On the whole, Germline does a brilliant job of conveying the feeling of being in danger on the front lines but falls down in several other areas, particularly in worldbuilding on a larger scale and allowing the characters to actually change. It's not a bad book, but it falls short of the glimmers of excellence that it displays-- odds are I'll wait a year or so and see if McCarthy has embarked on any new projects.
Prospects: This is the first book of The Subterrene War, followed by Exogene and concluding with Chimera, which came out last June.
Enjoyed this? Try:
~Cut to the chase and read Starship Troopers. It doesn't address the same questions about humanity twisting and destroying itself, but it does a far better job of wrapping personal growth in the journey through a military career.