I’m not particularly well-versed in science fiction — at least current science fiction — but occasionally I see something that really intrigues me. I’ve always found novels about future warfare particularly compelling, such as Robert Heinlein’s famous/infamous Starship Troopers (1959), John Steakley’s Armor (1984), and Joe Haldeman’s Forever War (1974). Such stories never get tiring — any single war is far too big and complex for a single novel to capture its immensity and complexity.
Perhaps that is why T.C. McCarthy is actually writing a trilogy of novels about the same fictional future war! I finished the first of these novels, Germline, a couple of weeks ago:
I first learned of the novel through my network of Twitter friends, and started following the author there (@tcmccarthy_). From there, I became intrigued by the novel’s description, and decided to give it a read.
I was hardly prepared for the intensity of the storyline. Germline is a hard-hitting and dark novel that explores the devastating effects of warfare on humanity.
We see the war through the eyes of Oscar Wendell, who starts the novel as a reporter for “Stars and Stripes”, and the first to be allowed to view the action on the horrific front line. We learn little of Wendell in the beginning, other than suggestions that he is a substance abuser and barely keeping his life together.
Only a person with serious issues would volunteer to visit the front lines of battle in Kazakhstan (“the Kaz”). The United States and Russia have gone to war over control of the supplies of precious metals in the region, vital for advanced technology. Front line warriors spend most of their time deep underground, in the mines and tunnels; the surface is constantly being scorched by superheated plasma artillery that can melt a human in seconds. In the hellish underworld, new tunnels are constantly being carved in search of resources as well as flanking positions on the enemy.
On one of his first excursions with the troops, Wendell is seriously wounded. Rather than taking the first transport back home, he opts to return to the battlelines, and becomes entrenched deeper and deeper in the war. As the novel progresses, he experiences many different aspects of it, such as surviving in a city under siege, manning a remote outpost, and fleeing the advance of the enemy. Wendell pushes himself closer and closer to the point of complete madness, and gradually supplants his journalism job with the role of a soldier.
As I noted, the novel is incredibly grim and very intense. Despite being a science fiction novel, there is nothing fanciful about McCarthy’s carefully thought out depiction of war, which is violent and unrelenting. When we are not experiencing a scene of brutal, unglamorous action, we are faced with Wendell’s psychological struggle. Human life is very cheap in the Kazakhstan War, and Wendell must face the death of many people he comes to know. Life is so cheap, in fact, that the U.S. has genetically bred its own race of super-soldiers: teenage girls who are trained to fight without fear and die no later than age eighteen. The title “Germline” refers to the genetic material used to construct these soldiers. Wendell will learn there is more to them than meets the eye, and eventually will find his fate closely entwined with theirs.
I was really caught off guard reading Germline. The insanity of the novel swept me along, and I pretty much couldn’t put the book down until I was finished with it. This is about the highest praise I can give!
It’s difficult, however, to find the right words of praise for Germline. Saying I “enjoyed” it doesn’t seem quite right, any more than one would “enjoy” watching Saving Private Ryan or taking a trip to the Holocaust Museum. The book is an experience, and feels like it is taking the reader on a very perilous journey. It is a journey well worth taking, though.