Germline by T. C. McCarthy – Book Review [Shadowhawk]
Shadowhawk reviews the first book in T. C. McCarthy’s Subterrene War near-future SF series.
“Relentless, ambitious and disturbingly dark, Germline is one of the most interesting novels I’ve read, but it also leaves something to be desired.” ~The Founding Fields
Germline has the distinction of being the first novel I’ve ever read that I found truly frightening. Tim Marquitz’ Prey came close, but Germline leaves it far behind. I picked up the novel because I’d enjoyed interacting with TC last year over Twitter and he was also kind enough to send me a review copy of his third book in the series, Chimera. The series was also on my “25 Series I Want To Read In 2013” list. I went in expecting a very different kind of book, and what I got was extremely surprising.
Germline is the story of a young reporter Oscar Wendell who snapped up an assignment to the frontlines of a raging conflict between American and Russian forces in Kazakhstan. Oscar arrives as a naive journalist with romanticised notions of war, but he soon gets sucked into the moral depravity that comes with it as he is forced to wear a full-body suit all the time, and has to subsist on some rather dubious foodstuffs, in addition to getting shot at, shooting back at the enemy, watching his friends die, suffer delusions and fall further into drug addiction. The novel charts how Oscar becomes a broken man haunted by delusions, falls in love, and his recovery.
The novel is definitely one of the most disturbing books I read, moving into the truly frightening category because of how real and convincing TC drew me into Oscar’s world, particularly his drug addiction and his delusions. Therein lies the ambitiousness of this debut novel, originally conceived as a three-part novel and later transformed into a trilogy. Having read a fair few military SFF novels, few have ever come close to the gritty nature of Germline. Perhaps that has to do with the fact that this is a near future Earth setting, and the people involved are regular humans assisted by vat-grown genetic crack troops all fighting over precious natural resources somewhere north-east of the Middle East region.
As such, the novel also offers a fair few moments of social commentary on life at this particular time in Earth’s future. Drug addiction, genetic experiments, test-tube soldiers (who all happen to be women), military discipline, everything gets covered in extreme detail. The realism inherent in the novel is one of the most up-front and in-your-face things about it, although none of it comes across as heave-handed in any measure. These concepts play a central role in the narrative, and the novel is constructed around them, rather than it being the other way and these concepts being shoved into the novel’s framework. Oscar Wendell becomes the focus lens through which TC shows off this world and he does a great job at it too.
Unfortunately, it didn’t always work for me. It was a bit too gritty and too realistic for my tastes. I liked Oscar Wendell’s character quite a bit, and consider him to be one of the most unique characters I’ve read, in the context of a military SF novel like Germline. His reactions to events around him are genuine and heart-felt, although there were times when I considered some of them suspect. One of these moments was when he falls head over heels for a Genetic, and she responds to his affection in the same way. This was a WTF moment for me, and in my opinion, TC did not do so well on making that moment, and the subsequent events, all that realistic. It was all too quick, and the moments seem rushed.
One of the stand-out moments however is when Oscar is attached to a small frontline unit and is, at the time, full on into his drug addiction and the withdrawal phase alike. It marks the lowest point of Oscar’s narrative and to see him fall full on into his delusions is quite heart-breaking to see unfold. This is the moment when TC has his stride in full and is on his best form, despite the entire sequence being one of the bleakest moments in the book and also very uncomfortable. TC has definitely managed to make the character sympathetic while also making his narrative a dark and disturbing affair.
The novel is ambitious because TC has not pulled punches in showing off how bleak the novel is, and has risked alienating readers with the narrative and realism of it. The novel is very much an experiment in that regard. I bemoan the fact that I’ve not been reading must of the latest science fiction stuff that has been coming out of late, and therefore cannot compare how Germline stands up to its contemporaries. My only experience in that regard is lies with the Warhammer 40,000 books, which are themselves set in a gritty setting in the far future where Mankind is prey to countless horrors of the galaxy and the value of an individual is next to nothing. I love that setting, and I think that I like TC’s own world almost as much because of the thematic relationship between the two.
Given the nature of the novel, there are often a lot of highs and lows in the pacing and it is very uneven. Combined with Oscar’s first person perspective with its deep look into the character’s psyche, it can make for a frustrating experience, right until the ending. There are also some unexplained things in the novel, such as the lifespan of the Genetics and how that impacts Oscar’s plan to get his lover away from a life of war. That did bother me quite a bit, since it was all essentially handwaved. To the best of my understanding, all it would have needed to fix this issue would be a handful of pages, nothing more.
Barring all that, Germline is quite a decent debut novel. It is unusual in many regards, such as its bleakness and the loss of identity for the main character. I’d recommend it for the experience at least. To experience how different it is.