Review of Germline by T.C. McCarthy

Title: Germline
Author: T.C. McCarthy
Series: The Subterrene War #1
Published: 
26 July 2011
Publisher: 
Orbit
Genre:
 science fiction, military sf
Source: own copy
Rating: 5/10

“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.

Buy Germline (The Subterrene War #1) at The Book Depository

Review of Seed by Rob Ziegler

Title: Seed
Author:  
Rob Ziegler
Published: 15 November 2011
Publisher: Night Shade Books
Genre: science fiction, biopunk, dystopia, post-apocalyptic
Source: Review copy from publisher via NetGally
My Rating: 7/10

It’s the 22nd century. The world’s oil supplies have finally dried up, but humanity has done the damage and the climate has risen by a devastating 5⁰C. North America is a wasteland, with most of its people reduced to starving migrants wandering across the land in the constant search for food and water.

The only viable course of food is Sartori – a massive, sentient, bioengineered city made of living flesh and bone. Its inhabitants are all post-human, genetically engineered beings whose main purpose is to design, produce and grow seed – a climate-resistant seed whose crops are now America’s only means of survival.

Then Pihadassa, a Sartori Designer (geneticist), defects from the living city in order to play out her own plans for sustainable life. Among the migrants, Pihadassa becomes known by the rumour of ‘the Corn Mother’ – a woman who will save them all from starvation. To Brood, a Latino teenage orphan, it’s just a rumour. He and his austistic brother Pollo, along with Hondo, an old man, get by as small-time thieves and Brood has no interest, or faith, in a search for a different life. Nevertheless, circumstances put him on the path to the colony that the Corn Mother is supposedly establishing, where fresh food is freely available.

Also on the hunt for Pihadassa is Agent Sienna Doss, the soldier who never Fucks Up. The US government – or at least the remaining scraps of it – want to get the Designer under their control so she can create seed for them. The government resents the power and necessity of Sartori, especially since its only remaining function is to distribute seed around the nation – a function Sartori could easily perform on its own. It’s a government “afraid of its own obsolescence” and Pihadassa represents an opportunity for it to reclaim power.

In the meantime, within the flesh walls of Sartori, Pihadassa’s mate Sumedha suffers the pain of his partner’s absence, while continuing with a series of genetic experiments that will affect both Sartori and the future of the human population.

Brood, Doss and Sumedha’s stories slowly move toward each other in an interesting and relevant novel that depicts a painfully plausible environmental future, the possibilities of genetic engineering, and the many ethical conundrums that are inevitably raised.

This review has been a difficult one for me to write, because there’s a hell of a lot going here. I’ve outlined the structure of the plot, but in fact it takes a while for it all to get put into place. Much of the first half of text is devoted to world-building and getting to know the characters. This isn’t a bad thing, but it does slow the overall. The characters  themselves undergo a lot without moving the main plot forward all that much until the last third or so. For example, we spend a lot of time with Brood, who gives us a glimpse into what is now the life of the average American – endless travelling across a hot, dusty landscape, the constant threat of violence, and hunger that’s as much a part of life as breathing.

Doss on the other hand, enjoys a relatively privileged life as a government agent. She has a diet of “vat-grown chicken breast and weirdly perfect Sartori vegetables”, has well-made clothes and shoes, and is in good shape to do the many violent things the government requires of her. Normally I admire strong female characters, but I have to admit I didn’t particularly like Doss. She’s an archetypal American soldier – brash, gung-ho, and cold; patriotic but increasingly jaded. She’s not the type of character I generally have much interest in, and I felt no different here.

The most interesting character was Sumedha, Pihadassa’s mate, partly because he gives us a perspective on the best part of the novel – Sartori and all its related genetic creations. I’ve encountered other structures made of flesh in science fiction, but the scale of Sartori and its situation in a barren land makes it especially alien and amazing:

The city spread out below, an intermingled series of bending muscle towers and soft domes twined abruptly with the concrete, brick and plexi of the old city. Shadowy bone latticework showed through translucent skin. A thousand hearts beat oxygen and heat into a thousand buildings, pumped waste out onto the compost heaps along the northern fields. Far beneath Sumedha a group of landraces moved slowly on their hands and knees along a snake scale street. Their rough voices sang as their hands polished the scales with fur brushes. Sumedha closed his eyes and touched the wall, sure he could feel the city’s pleasure at the touch of its children’s brushes. A warm sensation spread through his body…Love. He opened his eyes and the helix [DNA] danced. Each building a different expression of its strange and brilliant will, yet part of a whole that fed sensation down lush nerve matrices to the center, here, to Satori tower, where Sumedha stood touching flesh, almost connected. Over it all stretched the dome, a mother’s womb shielding the city and its children from the mad seasonal swings of a climate knocked from its axis.

Sartori manages to be both grotesque and beautiful, depending on how you feel about its organic structure. People sleep cradled in flesh pods or amniotic sacs. Opening a ‘door’ involves a muscle contraction that parts flesh. Light comes in the soft glow of biolumes under the skin, and in some cases the colour changes to reflect the mood of a room’s inhabitant. Most of Sartori’s energy comes from photosynthesis, and the skin of the dome turns green and gurgles with sugar production in the hot sun. During winter it grows fur for warmth, and the rooms too have floors covered in soft fur.

Sartori’s inhabitants include Designers, advocates and landraces. The landraces are worker clones, designed with an instinct for labour. The advocates are perhaps the coolest creatures in the book, but also the most vicious. They’re designed for security purposes and although they look mostly human, they have the DNA of a variety of predators spliced into them. The advocates have a constant, barely controlled lust to kill things with their bare hands (their fingers are hard and sharp and can easily rip out throats).

Then there are the Designers, Sartori’s geneticists (responsible for creating seed, landraces and advocates) and general managers. Sumedha is one of these, and I appreciated the complexity of this very alien character. As a post-human creation with carefully designed instincts, outlooks and ways of communicating Sumehda was difficult to relate to but fascinating nevertheless. He and the other Designers have faces “so perfectly proportioned it made the rest of the world feel distorted”. They communicate not only through speech but through touch, smell, and their ability to ‘read’ DNA. They have an intensely sensual relationship to each other and to Sartori, to the extent that Sumedha experiences Pihadassa’s absence as much more than just an emotional loss. Their attitude to life in general is also one of deep appreciation and fascination, an attitude that’s an essential part of their design. The creator of Sartori insisted that if life on earth were to continue in the wake of all the environmental disasters humanity has caused, then human beings not only needed to change morally or ethically, but genetically.

While I admire these things about the Designers, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that they also come across as very cruel. Although they value life deeply, individual lives mean little to them, particularly the lives of humans and the ‘lesser’ genetic creations, such as the landraces. You get the impression that Pihadassa and Sumedha often view humans as nothing more than a combination of DNA strands to be studied and if necessary, killed and dissected. Sumehda, for example, is running a series of experiments on a young girl he has genetically engineered. He does without compassion, ignoring her protests that what he does hurts her. At one point her amputates her arm (under anaesthetic, at least) as calmly as he would take her temperature. He’s also paying a group of gangsters to bring him migrants who are suffering from a disease called ‘ theTet’. He needs them for his experiments, and doesn’t bat an eyelid at the fact that these people are locked up in cages and live in filthy conditions.

This plays into the novel’s ongoing debate about genetic engineering and the use of a being like Sartori. Clearly, it presents wonderful possibilities, and might even be a necessity in an ecologically damaged world.  However, it is dangerous in the hands of someone as cold as Sumedha. Pihadassa offers a more viable alternative as she wants to return to a more natural existence in which “the mother shapes the helix, as she has always done” with only a little genetic management on her part. But it’s clear that Pihadassa is not exactly the loving ‘Corn Mother’ of the migrants’ rumours, so who then, should guide future developments? Of course the government wants to do that, but you know that’s just a struggle for power and has nothing to do with ethics.

Other issues come into play as well. Is it right to engineer beings like the landraces? They’re designed to enjoy manual labour, but are not acknowledged as individuals, as real people. The same question comes up with the advocates, who are nothing more than organic killing machines; they do not seem to want anything else but the chance to kill.

While I like the idea of a post-human future (it’s part of what makes me a sci fi fan), Seed cools my enthusiasm even as it ignites it, offering a sobering picture of the future. It’s a good book and an impressive debut that I appreciate for its ideas and the depiction of bioengineered life forms.On the downside there’s a large cast of characters, a complex plot and a lot of information about the world of the novel so reading can feel a bit of a chore at times. There’s a great deal of action and violence, but it doesn’t exactly transform this into a page-turner. However, the characters are refreshingly diverse, well-developed, and the world itself (Sartori in particular) is intriguing and relevant enough to keep me interested, if occasionally confused. Speculation about the future of human and animal life on our planet offers some much-needed food for thought regarding our lifestyles today, while revitalising the post-apocalyptic movement in fiction with some great ideas. If you’re interested in the recently defined biopunk genre or fiction that tackles issues of climate change, environmental sustainability and genetic modification, then I recommend you get a copy of Seed. 

Buy a copy of Seed at The Book Depository

Spares by Michael Marshall Smith

Rating: 7/10

I feel cheated. Spares isn’t really about spares – clones created to provide convenient, fuss-free body parts when their rich, conscienceless originals damage their own. The spares might be there at the start, but then they get… amputated. The story that remains is an able, fast-paced thriller, but it’s not the one I expected or the one I would have preferred.

I think a re-titling is in order. “Jack Randall’s Redemption” perhaps, because the book is more about Jack than the spares he tries to save. Jack is a burnt-out ex-cop and ex-soldier with a drug addiction, a drinking problem, and a price on his head. He regularly admits, and others complain, that he’s not terribly smart, although terribly reckless would be a better description. A bunch of goons describe him as “the big fucked-up guy”. He’s the quintessential fallen man with a dark, secret past and a truckload of guilt. He is one of the worst people to try and save a group of young, terrified clones owned and deemed sub-human by the customary evil corporation, but unfortunately he’s the only person who gives a shit.

The idea of the spares is utter horror. They spend their entire lives on isolated Farms, lying naked in underground tunnels, waiting to have their body parts removed without anaesthetic: “…none of the spares could speak. None of them could read. None of them could think. The tunnels were a butcher’s shop where the meat still moved occasionally, always and forever bathed in a dead blue light” (45) .

Every now and then, a team of doctors arrives to harvest a body part for a spare’s wealthy counterpart, slowly whittling the clones down to scarred torsos. When Jack’s duty finally gives way to his compassion and he teaches some of the spares to speak, think, and act like (relatively) normal human beings, it’s a bittersweet gift – what they gain in humanity is matched by the horror of understanding what is being done to them.

Admittedly, there are a few flaws here, the most obvious of which is how the spares could be treated so poorly when the uber-rich are paying for them. Without any exercise, wouldn’t their muscles atrophy? They’re regularly abused by the orderlies who come for their parts and by the supervisors employed to watch over the Farms, so surely someone would complain about receiving scarred transplants and skin grafts? On the whole, how do they remain healthy enough to be used as spares in the first place? But, niggling concerns aside, the spares are some of the most tragic characters I’ve ever come across, and I felt for them more than I have for any group of characters in a long time.

And then some bastard kidnaps all but one of them and they almost disappear from the novel. For the rest of the story the spares feature mostly when Jack reminds himself that he has to save the poor clones unless they’re already dead. He’s otherwise occupied with a serial killer investigation, strange people trying to shoot him, unfinished business with a mob boss, and rekindling his addiction to hard drugs. It’s as if Smith suddenly realised early on that he couldn’t, or didn’t want to run with the spares’ story for an entire novel.

I was a bit miffed by this, but Spares is saved by 4 things:

  1. Michael Marshall Smith is a great storyteller, even after ripping half the heart out of this tale. The thriller that remains is a little pulpy, but in a funny, self-deprecating way. Smith avoids the tedium of convention by making fun of it.
  2. Good writing. Smith just has really cool, witty sentences. In one line he can be funny and tragic, both brutal and heartfelt. When Jack first mentions the spares he says that they’re on “their last legs” (9), a joke Jack admits is in bad taste, but which also gave me an emotional connection to the spares that never faded.
  3. I like Jack. He’s a complete fuck-up, he’s a bastard, but he cares about the spares, he saves a mistreated cat, and he’s got a very satisfying passion for merciless justice.
  4. Funny AIs, crazy gadgets, and some whack-job ideas. And you really need that dose of humour and weirdness with all that blood splattering the walls.

Eventually I gave Smith the benefit of the doubt by conceding that a small group of teenagers who’ve only recently learned to stand up straight and haven’t quite mastered speech yet might not be as captivating after 250 pages as they were at 25, although they really deserved a bit more ink. However, you can read more about them in Smith’s excellent short story “To Receive is Better” (1994).

And as a sci fi noir thriller Spares doesn’t disappoint or fail to shock. It has a lot in common with Only Forward (1994), Smith’s first novel, which I really enjoyed. Jack is a rougher version of Stark, with a similarly dark sense of humour, a tragic past, and an intimate acquaintance with gore. Both novels also feature an alternate reality, but while Only Forward’s is a dreamworld that can be both a paradise and a nightmare, Spares‘ alternate world, known as The Gap, is a place of unrelenting terror where you have to be on hallucinogenic drugs just to stay sane and the light will burn the eyes out of your skull. Be warned that Spares has some truly grotesque violence, including some horrific sexual abuse, so sensitive readers might want to get their crime thrills elsewhere. But if you’ve got a stomach for the brutal I recommend this for a good read.