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Will there ever be anything like a "good war" fought ever again? It feels like there was a time when people took up arms, and the cause might actually have been noble and just. Perhaps it was all about thwarting the ambitions of an evil tyrant and defending liberty and freedom, or eradicating some poisonous social wrong like slavery or ethnic cleansing. Now we're faced with a future in which wars will be waged over dwindling natural resources. When we're killing each other to stay alive, that's a sign the human race itself is in its terminal stage. Having a nice day so far?

T. C. McCarthy's Germline is the first in a military SF trilogy that explores the inescapable dehumanizing consequence of war. Superficially, McCarthy does this by introducing the overly familiar concept of the super-soldier. More effectively, though, he gives us a thoroughly human viewpoint character who begins his experiences as a hollow shell, and endures a nightmarish odyssey that leaves him hollower, until he finds the best way to recover his lost humanity involves embracing the inhuman. In contrast to so much military SF — glamorized battle porn obsessed with idealized notions of heroism and sacrifice, seeped in jingoistic, banal moral clarity — Germline comes from the Forever War school. Unflinching and relentless, its depiction of war as pure bedlam set against an almost surreal, Boschian landscape of hell gone mad often recalls the more haunting and horrific moments of Apocalypse Now or Full Metal Jacket.

Oscar Wendell begins his tour in Kazakhstan as a correspondent for Stars and Stripes. With only a very basic level of combat training offered civilians in his position, Wendell is looked upon as more than a little crazy by actual soldiers. After all, they have to be there. But Wendell's heart, to put it mildly, isn't in his work. He's a drug addict who's so intent on seeking escape from the rut his life has been in that he thinks nothing of escaping into the worst of all possible worlds, a savage war against the Russians deep within mines beneath the bleak Kazakh landscape. I had to look up rhenium on Wikipedia just to see what it's used for, but here, it's the thing we've chosen to slaughter each other to possess.

The soldiers Wendell meets are so acclimated to the underground that any time on the surface sends them into panic over their exposure. As he journeys deeper into the heart of this darkness, the war reaches a stage where the Russians have a solid upper hand. Our side is doing more retreating and digging in than fighting. There are few combat scenes, in the traditional sense. The theater of war for these soldiers is simply an endurance test, where moments of retreat are punctuated by petrifying heavy weapons barrages. You keep your head down if you want to keep your head. Curiously, nonstop numbing horror ends up having something like a narcotic effect on many of the men, including Wendell. They're so changed by what they're going through that as bad as it is, they can imagine nothing else. Going home to a peacetime life seems altogether alien.

Wendell makes a few friends. One is a naive young kid fresh out of boot camp, another a weary yet affable British grunt. He never learns either of their names. That must happen a lot during wartime. He also enjoys the patronage of a crusty old general who's one of those officers, like Robert Duvall's character in Apocalypse Now, you can imagine going the entire war without a scratch. But Wendell's strongest bond is with some of the genetics, specially bred and conditioned soldiers whose only reason for being is to fight and die. They are all women. Apparently men were tried first, but their aggression was too much. Women were just right. The fact that the Russians' genetics are male probably has a lot to do with why they're winning. It's war, and scruples just get in the way.

I'd have liked to learn more about the genetics, though I imagine McCarthy is saving much of that for book two, where one of them is the viewpoint character. But some details about their nature have intriguing potential, like the way they are indoctrinated into a curious and deeply intense form of religious practice to anchor and enhance their zealotry in combat. I guess we've learned a thing or two from jihadists, including the idea that the best soldiers are the completely expendable ones. When you can create those in a lab, it definitely saves the inconvenience of mailing condolence letters to next of kin.

Germline disappoints a little in that, considering how promising the concept is, McCarthy's main use for the genetics in this story is for them to serve as Wendell's personal-growth catalyst through the trite convention of having one become a love interest. It ends in a way that, given the harrowing experience of the story overall, feels too pat and contrived (however much Wendell might have earned a little happiness for a change).

Yet on the whole, I can think of few milSF novels that have so powerfully and with so much conviction and intensity communicated the direct experience of the soldier — from the blind terror of being in the thick of things, to the baffling disconnect of coming home to an indifferent and oblivious peacetime world. The people who look at combat veterans like they're some exotic zoo animal, and ask insipid questions, as if combat were some especially exciting party they missed, may be insensitive clods. But their blissful ignorance is a luxury we should all be so lucky to have.

Followed by Exogene.