Germline (The Subterrene War)
by T.C. McCarthy
Cover Artist: Steve Stone
Review by Mel Jacob
Orbit Mass Market Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780316128186
Date: 01 August 2011 List Price $7.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Germline is a tour de force by T.C. McCarthy about a futuristic war and its aftermath. Stars and Stripes reporter Oscar Wendell leads a charmed life. With connections in high places, he worms himself into a frontline assignment in a dirty war between the Russians and Americans over prized metals in Kazakhstan. In many ways it mirrors the Middle East and Afghanistan wars.
Technology plays a major part including a brood of genetically modified women warriors raised in a militaristic ethos with the motto "Death and faith". They are condemned to die by the age of eighteen; killed in war or executed by their sisters or the military police at that age. If they survive, they rot and die.
A drug addict most of his life, Oscar seeks acceptance and atonement by serving on the Line, but spends most of his time zonked out of his mind. He makes a few friends, but most die in ever more hopeless battles. Unlike most soldiers, he finds the genetics attractive and falls in love with one. She saves his life and that of another soldier after their post is overrun and they retreat cross country. Her time has come and when they reach another outpost, she gives herself up and is executed.
The novel does not glamorize war. Men die in ever greater numbers. There are no heroes and personal survival is all that matters. Some men can no longer take the misery and die by enemy fire when they take off their helmets or protective gear. A few commit suicide.
During the retreat, Oscar tries to stay with the few friends he has made and they save his life and sanity. They retreat from outpost to outpost. At one, only the intervention of a Marine general saves him when he sends Oscar and a kid off on a drone sent to pick him up. He prefers to die with his men.
An important part of the book is what happens to so many of the returning soldiers and their difficulty in fitting into a normal life. Many remain drug addicts and homeless, unable to interact with those who never experienced the horrors of war.
The novel is set in the far future, but it echoes much of the past and present. Old national rivalries continue. That America and Russia survive as nations is noteworthy, but not necessarily realistic. New technologies appear in the weapons of war, medicine, and in the genetic soldiers. The Americans use young women as genetics, the Russians young men.
The second novel of the trilogy, Exogene (March 2012), explores other aspects of this world and war from the point of view of a genetic warrior. A third unnamed novel is in progress. The Legionnaires, a novella, is also set in the same world as Germline.
Some may quibble with Oscar's almost magical survival or feel the technological advancement doesn't go far enough. McCarthy has a background in biotechnology and was a CIA analyst in warfare and future weapons so he knows present developments and likely future ones. The novel works both as coming-of-age story for Oscar and as a depiction of war and survival.