Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Book Review: Germline by T. C. McCarthy

Pros: realistic depictions of war, interesting use of genetically engineered soldiers, deals with the aftermath of war as well as the war itself

Cons: character driven, very intense descriptions

War between the Americans and the Russians over minerals in Kazakhstan is big news, and Stars and Stripes reporter Oscar Wendell is the first reporter allowed to visit the front lines. His addiction to drugs, the time he spends at the front and meeting a contingent of genetics irrevocably change him so that when his brief mission is up, he decides to return to the war rather than go home.

I've only read a few military SF books (Starship Troopers and On Basilisk Station are the only ones I can think of), so this was a unique read for me.

Germline is told from a first person perspective that really gets you into the war. And while most SF and fantasy allows you to experience things like violence from a distance, Germline gets you up front and very personal with war. Because though it's set in the future, take away the fancy weapons and genetics and this could be a book about a reporter in Iraq or Afghanistan today.

While the story was fascinating, there were times when I just couldn't handle more descriptions of random deaths and body parts flying through the air and had to put the book down. Not to say that this book is needlessly graphic. It's not like Battle Royale where the point of the story is to shock you with violence. It was just TOO real at times and I needed to put some distance between myself and what Oscar was going through. In fact, some of the more horrifying moments are when people around him die so suddenly that Oscar doesn't have time to react to the deaths, depriving you of the chance to deal with what just happened via his emotional response.

I'm not too keen on character driven stories, and found Oscar difficult to like at times, mainly due to his drug addiction. There are a few jumps in time to speed up the story which was a bit disorienting interposed as they were between the visceral every day experiences. But half way through the book it becomes very linear as the story simply follows the last few months of the war.

I loved how Oscar takes time to appreciate how the war has changed him and the world around him, questioning the cost vs benefit of what they've done. It's the first book I've read in a long time that had me highlighting passages. Like this one:

"Almaty had once been a city like any other, with people who had dreams of doing something other than being invaded and killed, and I doubted that many of them even knew the current market price for rhenium or selenium or lanthanum; they probably didn't even know what the metals were used for. But we did. The Russians did. At the moment word got out that Kaz had something everyone wanted, someone at the Pentagon dusted off the abacus and did the math, a simple equation that estimated the cost of deployment, engagement, and retreat, to be balanced against the estimated reserves of rhenium and someone's wild-ass guess at how much we could get out - a kind of lottery that the locals hadn't even known they'd played until they were notified of winning the grand prize: us. ... Now it was like seeing a trillion one-dollar bills in person versus hearing it described; if you saw the cost of getting our share, it was indescribable, and you'd realize that there had been no words for all this until now. The cost was a hotel in the middle of an empty rubble field, surrounded by the dead."

I also liked that the novel ends by showing how war changes people. Oscar suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, having flashbacks and startling at every loud noise. This is a part of war that most people tend to ignore, how to reintegrate with society after suffering through so many MANY horrors. It reminded me of stories I've heard about what happened to Vietnam veterans when they returned to the US.

This is a well written novel that makes you consider the costs of war in very personal terms.

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