“I’ll never forget the smell: human waste, the dead, and rubbing alcohol – the smell of a Pulitzer.”
That’s what journalist Oscar Wendall thinks as he makes his way to the front line of the Subterrene War. It’s the 22nd century and the USA is once again fighting her old favourite enemy, Russia, in a bloody war over the mineral resources buried in the mountains of Kazakhstan (simply referred to as Kaz). Oscar is the first member of the press allowed on the front line (currently underground), but he doesn’t find a story so much as a new life, fighting alongside the soldiers amidst plasma bombs that will cook you alive and flechette bullets that rip you to shreds.
In fact, Oscar is a dreadful journalist but a decent soldier. It’s not long before he gets fired by his paper, but he finds ways of getting back into his armour and out onto the battlefield. He falls in love with one of the “genetics” – beautiful teenage girls genetically engineered to be the USA’s supersoldiers. They’re clones, indoctrinated all their lives with a religion that teaches them to live for war and hope for a glorious death in battle. They’re often on Oscar’s mind and he finds his way from one battlefield, trying to deal with all the horrors of war.
Germline is known as a non-stop, action-packed novel about the brutality of war. This is true. I couldn’t keep track of the number of battle scenes, each of them full of explosions and death. The novel hurtles along from one action scene to the next and apparently doesn’t have much time for things like character development or world building.
The result is that a lot of events or emotions feel tacked on. It’s not that these things are necessarily implausible, but the build-up to them is rushed and insubstantial. The author tells you things that you don’t quite feel. For example, we’re told that fighting underground causes soldiers to be fearful of the surface. In the tunnels, danger comes from only one direction, but topside it can come from multiple directions, with the sky being the most threatening. This makes perfect sense, but it doesn’t feel right for Oscar to develop this fear within the very first chapter. The novel doesn’t give us a chance to really understand the experience of being in the tunnels and the effect it has on people. We just get a quick run-through, and suddenly Oscar is speaking like a war vet.
There are other examples. Oscar makes a few friends among the soldiers and when some of them die he goes on and on about how deeply this affects him. It sounds insincere when these friendships don’t have much time on the page and Oscar doesn’t even bother to learn the soldiers’ real names, going only by their nicknames. When Oscar falls in love with a genetic named Bridgette, he does so in a matter of hours, claiming that it “was easy to fall in love because neither of us was likely to live long anyway” (p.66).
The world building is equally feeble. We’re told almost nothing about the war beyond the simple fact that Russia and the USA (along with some allies) are fighting over mineral resources in Kazakhstan. But how did the war start? What are the metals they’re mining used for? How the hell can the Americans lay claim to mineral resources in Kazakhstan? (my boyfriend answered that last one by pointing out that they’re basically doing the same thing in the Middle East. Fair point). What kind of social changes allowed the USA to regress to the extent that genetics have replaced female soldiers with the idea that there will be more women to give birth to more soldiers? What do US citizens and the rest of the world think of the war? Is McCarthy saving the details for the second and third books in the series?
As a journalist Oscar is the ideal character to give the reader this information, but he’s so bad at his job that he just doesn’t seem interested in any of it; he just wants to be in the warzones with a gun in his hand. I can’t understand how even a barely competent editor could have given him this assignment. Besides being an awful reporter, he’s got a long history of substance abuse. He actually picks up a new drug addiction in the first chapter, and seems to be addicted to being in the war as well. That’s the only good explanation I can think of for why he insists on staying. Oscar himself is rather evasive on the topic. For all his interior monologues on the war, his character is a bit flat. We don’t learn much about anyone else either – a disappointment for me, because I really wanted to know more about the genetics, the most interesting feature of the novel. I wanted to know more about their weird religion (a kind of modified Christianity), the prayers they say before battles, and the fact that they are shot when they turn 18, because their minds become unstable and their bodies begin to rot. Oscar’s obsession with the genetics seems to end at wanting to be close to one of them; he doesn’t ask them many questions when he is.
So let’s face it – the focus of this novel is combat. It’s about the weapons, the armour, the explosions, the gunfire, the corpses. It’s a barrage of bullets, grenades, plasma bombs, blood, gore, faeces, and mangled bodies. We follow Oscar from one battleground to another, with him pontificating about the war in between. He talks about his armour, mostly about how disgusting it is when it comes to waste disposal (or lack thereof). He goes on about either wanting to fight or wanting to get out. He talks about the friends he’s lost. And then a bomb explodes and he’s running for his life.
Despite all the graphic violence, Germline has this odd PG-13 feel to it because anything sexual is glossed over. When Oscar puts on his armour for the first time and hooks up the tubes used for his waste disposal, he refers to his penis as “your you-know-what” (3). Later, there are a few sex scenes, but they’re all just start with a bit of kissing and then fade out with “when we were done” or whatever. It’s like either the author or the publishers are trying to keep this clean enough to market to a teenage audience, and violence, insanely, has always been deemed more acceptable than sex. However, it seems so ridiculous that a man like Oscar is uncomfortable referring bluntly to his own genitals or that he’d go into detail about everything that happens to him but not the sex that he apparently finds so fulfilling. A pity; I think the sex scenes could have done a lot to give a little emotional depth to this novel.
In many ways, this Germline reminds me of The Forever War by Joe Haldeman (1974) – the constant fighting, the pace, the lack of character development, and a sense that the war is being fought for its own sake, rather than for the reasons stated. But even though I often didn’t understand the science of The Forever War and I found the characters forgettable, it still made an impact on me. You really felt the brutality of the war, and the unbelievable waste of life. It was a short book, but a forceful one.
Germline is longer but has less of an impact. It didn’t live up to the hype, and I didn’t particularly enjoy reading it. With its lack of emotional engagement or details about its world, it was often boring. All those action scenes just didn’t do it for me, especially since I didn’t really care what happened to Oscar.
Strangely enough though, I’m actually looking forward to reading the sequel, Exogene. Exogene’s protagonist is a genetic, and shows the war from their perspective. I wanted to whack Oscar over the head for not asking more questions about them, but book 2 will give me a chance to get that story while Oscar won’t be there to get in the way.