Posted on September 20, 2011


review first published at

Book Name: Germline
Author/Editor Name: T. C. McCarthy
Book Series: The Subterrene War
Number in Series: 1
Publication Year: 2011
Publisher: Orbit
ISBN: 978-0-356-50041-6
War is Oscar Wendell’s ticket to greatness. A reporter for the ‘Stars and Stripes’, he has a pass to the front lines of a brutal conflict over natural resources, where genetics – the germline soldiers – battle heavily armed troops deep beneath the icy, mineral-rich mountains of Kazakhstan.

But the front is nothing like Oscar imagined. The genetic soldiers are more human than he’d bargained for too. Hooked on a dangerous cocktail of drugs and adrenaline, lives are beginning to blur. And if Oscar doesn’t find a way out of the chaos soon, he may never get back.

I dislike trying to sum up a novel in a single word but on this occasion it is not hard to do so: brutal.

Initially I was expecting something along the lines of space opera or military sci fi but I was a long way from right.

This is a future where the USA is the aggressor in a war for mineral resources. In a short time, losses on both sides are horrific, despite the introduction of the genetically engineered super-soldiers. On the US-side, these are all identical teenage females, which if they survive to age 18, are killed due to increasing mental stability. Yet these female genetics were more successful and stable than attempts with males.

After Oscar has a brief relationship with one of the genetics, he finds himself being interviewed by two men from the Department of Defence who explain they are trying to increase the mental stability of the germline soldiers.

“To make it so they don’t get attached to men like you. If we can do that, we have a product that’s useful over a greater period of time and, consequently, worth more to the Defence Department. It’s all about lowering production and maintenance costs and making a larger profit. Commerce.”

That is about the coldest attitude towards human life and war as you are going to get.

Oscar goes through Hell – both on earth and his own mental torment. We see an already flawed individual fall even further.

In reading, I found myself thinking of two particular influences: the filth and horror of the World War I trenches and the drug-fuelled desperation of some of the US draftees in Vietnam.

Desperation is a repeating theme through the novel, desperation in the battle lines among the soldiers, leading to a variety of responses. I am left with the impression that McCarthy researched his subject well.

This is not a ‘nice’ read. But it is a compelling story all the same. In places I was reminded of Sebastian Junger’s powerful narrative about the current fighting in Afghanistan, ‘War’.

I definitely want to see where McCarthy takes this story in future instalments.

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