Germline – The Subterrene War: Book 1, T.C. McCarthy (Orbit, 2011)

(Military Science Fiction, Near Future Science Fiction)

10432883Grade: Ε — (Epsilon) Readable in genre, but you could probably do better.  

In brief:

Germline is the lackluster, near future Military Science Fiction novel by T.C. McCarthy that serves as the first in the Subterrene War series.  Written in a journalistic style it is the first person narrative of a war correspondent for Stars and Stripes magazine reporting on a near future war taking place in central Asia (mostly Kazakhstan).  With sparse descriptions and unsympathetic and/or unexplored characters, the book failed to really pull me in.


A near future war between the US and its allies (France, the UK) on one side and Russia and its allies (not really named) set in Central Asia.  It starts in Kazakhstan, and moves to Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and other former Soviet countries of Central Asia as the story progresses.  There are some significant biological advances (cloning), but very readily recognizable and believable technology throughout.

In Depth:

Germline The Subterrene War: Book 1 by T.C. McCarthy is a story with a very interesting premise. Set in central Asia, it is the story of a war for resources between the US and the Russia,[1] with much of the war occurring in underground tunnels and mines as the two sides slug it out for minor advances. A clearly flawed central character surrounded by believable secondary characters must endure a hellish existence in a war of dubious motivation.  Fusion burrowing devices blast their way from tunnel system to tunnel system in order to allow miners to extract minerals used for technology for as long as each side can hold the line.  Added to this mix are short lived clone super-soldier special forces (all female for the US, all male for the Russians), born and bred for combat.  Though welcomed as relief whenever they show up for a fight, these clones are viewed as subhuman and distasteful by most ‘normal’ people. It is a great set up that just fails to deliver.

4143867The reasons for its failure are many fold. To begin with, it is clear right from the beginning that the US is in it for the wrong reasons.  We have invaded a foreign country for its mineral wealth.  While I have absolutely no problem with the US[2] being portrayed in a negative light, the book would have held a lot more weight it that was slowly revealed through the story rather than simply being told this out at the outset.  Indeed, one get’s the feeling that T.C. McCarthy could have done well by someone having mentioned to him that old writing adage, it normally it’s better to SHOW your readers rather than TELL them.  Alas, I get ahead of myself.

A more important problem with this tale the central character, with whom I just could not form any sort of sympathy. Now, I don’t mind having unsympathetic central characters, but I need to be able to bond with them or the people about them in some way.  Sadly, that just doesn’t happen in this book. When we first meet him, he is an ambitious war correspondent from a privileged background in search of a Pulitzer.  That is, in fact, the first line of the book:

“I’ll never forget the smell: human waste, the dead, and rubbing alcohol – the smell of a Pulitzer.”

So his first reaction to seeing war and it’s misery up close and personal is raw, unadulterated ambition – not horror, or fear, or sympathy for those who are fighting or living on the front line – nope ,it’s ambition.  I must admit, that didn’t do much to endear me to our hero, but I held out hope that such sympathy or character development would grow. Sadly, as the story progressed, that sympathy was, if anything reduced.

Shortly after arriving, the protagonist becomes a drug addict – though not as a way of coping with what he’s seen which for a while at least continues to fuel his career goals.  This addiction soon becomes the central thesis of the plot for much of the book, and much of the narrative there after is tied to the way the drug impacts his experience and his need to feed his habit.  All of which could have really created a good story[3] had I felt anything for this character, but that never developed.

9781441793560Not only does the protagonist remain so self-absorbed that he doesn’t even learn the names of two of the other major characters in the book, but we also discover that he comes from an extremely privileged background and that much of his motivation is basically a rebellion against his family and its wealth. Even this could have been used to build a sympathetic story, but it wasn’t mentioned until it became a major plot point – and that’s just bad writing. He does not start as sympathetic and become less so, nor does he begin as unlikable and become sympathetic (even if in the end he were to become unsympathetic again).  He just sort of starts off as distasteful and remains that way.  In fact, even at the very culmination of the events in the second half of the story, he ends up being selfish and failing the person he tries to help.

Even so, I don’t have to like a protagonist if the story itself, its setting, or its narrative flow catches me in some way. Indeed, there are some brilliant novels where I dislike the protagonist all the way through the book.  In this story, however, neither the writing nor the setting ended up grabbing me. Written in a tight first person narrative, it has a terse journalistic style. While I love the way that such a style plays out in Das Boot,[4] here the style fails because it almost never immerses you in the environment in which the story happens. Objects and situations that are new to us are never described to the reader – even when they are central to the story.

How fascinating a tale would this have been if we had been treated to gritty descriptions of the underground tunnels in which most of the war (but not most of the story) takes place?[5]  Not much detail provided.

How intriguing it would have been to hear a description of what the omnipresent environmental suits in which the characters spend something like 90% of the book. Nope.  Not really.  Oh, these head-to-toe anti-ballistic, anti-chemical, anti-biological combat environmental suits are given a little detail now and then, but never really described.  Everyone in the story wears one through almost all the book.  They don’t see each others faces for much of their time on the front lines, but I walked away with no real idea of what they looked like.  Nor almost any other piece of equipment.  Not to mention what life in the tunnels is like, or most of the characters.  Not even the Betties (clones) who play such a personally significant role to the main character. I don’t really have much of an idea what they looked like (though in the void of description I kind of filled in a Katy Parry look from the Part of Me video in my own mind).

Indeed, here is the core problem with the book. Very little gets shown, and even less gets explained and the degree of this is mind-boggling.  For example, the title.

The title of this book is Germline, right? Want to know why? So did I through most of the book.  They were wearing combat chemical and biological suits. Was it tied to that?  Nope.  That wasn’t it.  In fact, we never find out.

Oh, the series title of Subterrene very quickly made obvious as being the underground tunnels that serve as the front line of the war, but Germline? The term is not used in the novel once.

Never.  Not once.

Doesn’t comes up.  Not at all.

I’ve got the ePub version of the book, so I did a search.  The word Germline is not in the text of the book at all.

In fact, the only reason I know what Germline refers to is because of the sample of the next book in the series that appears at the end of this volume.  There it is used right from the outset, but NOT in the book we are reading. Had there been no sample of the next book, or had I skipped it out of disgust, I really would never have found out why this story was titled the way it was.

Oh, and by the way, it’s not like there is some plot or thematic reason the term isn’t explained.  It’s just not there.

So, for the record, the term Germline refers to the Betties, the female clone super-soldiers about whom the second half of the novel sort of revolves (if any element of the plot can be said to be revolving around anything).  It would have been so easy to drop that in anywhere in this book, but never once is the term actually used in the story.  Similarly, neither at any point do I see how the Betties[6] are really any better than just normal soldiers.

Oh, we are told they are better, but we’re not shown how that is the case. There is no point where they seem to kick ass. They don’t do any super-soldiery stuff, at least, nothing better than any normal human Special Operations team can do.  Neither do they seem to turn the tide of battle, per se.  It is simply stated they are better, people are glad to see them show up, but we are never treated to a good description of their superiority. Instead, they are kind of treated like little more than an object of desire for the main character.  A MacGuffin[7] by any other name.

In the end, this is a book about a selfish, unsympathetic character who seems incapable of seeing other people as individuals, and sort of aimlessly floats around combat arenas in a drug induced haze for much of the book.  When he eventually finds a cause (which even then is more focused on his obsessions than helping the person he decides to help) he stumbles his way towards completing it, but doesn’t really see it through.  There are many cool ideas hinted at throughout the book, but they are seldom described and never explored.

While this book is very clearly influenced by the author’s experiences in Afghanistan, and intended as a critique of that war, it fails in this because we feel no sympathy for anyone and get no sense of place or action.  Tremendously disappointing, because it had the potential for being a great story with an important meaning.

[1] Yes… I mean Russia… I know its set in countries that used to belong to the Soviet Union, but it is the US and the Russians who are fighting over the resources there.  The Kazaks, Turkmens and others play little role in the book beyond innocent bystander.  Condescending much?

[2] Or indeed, any other country that whose perspective the reader is in.  Indeed, one of the great bits about The Forever War, Ender’s Game and The Old Man’s War series is that we slowly learn that maybe the good guys aren’t as good as we thought. Hell, my own books are intended to keep the reader question right and wrong, but in this novel, the US just come off as wrong and we know that from the get-go.

[3] Indeed, this has made for great stories in the past.  There are lots of really interesting stories about veterans and their drug experiences in Vietnam and other wars. As it turns out, I’ve read enough real life stories of drug addled points-of-view in and out of combat that a story of a made-up man on a made-up drug in a made-up future really didn’t add anything to my life.  I love Sci-fi, and a good Sci-Fi tale of addiction or post-traumatic stress or the like can make for a good read.  This one, however did not.

[4] Lothar-Günther Buchheim’s gripping tale of u-boats in the Second World War, this story is not only told in a tight, first person, journalistic narrative, but told in present tense.  Yet is truly gives you the feel of life on a U-Boat during the World War II.  It is, in a sense, the opposite of this story.

[5] The best part of Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks was the description of life in the Trenches and Sapper Tunnels of WWI.

[6] Really, couldn’t he have just dropped the phrase Germline the first time he refers to the Betties?  For that matter I don’t think we ever find out why they are called Betties either.

[7] A thing to be desired or obtained in a story. Alfred Hitchcock.

About Thomas Evans

I'm a writer of mysteries, espionage, and speculative fiction. In my previous incarnation I was an archaeologist specializing in gender and identity in Iron and Bronze Age Europe. Mostly, however, I was known for my works with the use of geomatics, multiscalular spatial analysis and landscape theory within archaeology.
This entry was posted in Chronicle, Coming of Age tale, Dystopian, Hard SciFi, Identity, Military Science Fiction, Near Future fic, Part of A Series but can be Read without reading previous volumes, Post Colonial, Post Modern, Present Day Sci Fi, Saga, Science Fiction, Series, Stand Alone Novel, Thoughtful, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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