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Review © 2005 T. M. Wagner.
Book cover art by Fred Gambino.



Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it's still imitation. Orphanage is Robert Buettner's debut, and it's been getting enthusiastic praise in many quarters. Yet — alas — I must join the dissenting voices. Many military SF novels have paid homage to Starship Troopers over the decades, just as many fantasies have tipped their hats to Professor Tolkien. But Orphanage is to Troopers as The Sword of Shannara is to Lord of the Rings: more knockoff than tribute, with originality handily back-burnered in favor of slavish devotion to genre clichés. Sure, it has a pretty entertaining climactic battle scene, but even that doesn't veer too far from the "all seems lost for our heroes, until suddenly..." stock ending that's one of war fiction's moldier chestnuts. I'm happy to give Buettner an A for effort (with bonus points for having his heart in it), but the story, propelled by implausible plot contrivances when it isn't just following the dots, didn't light my fire.

Jason Wander is a juvenile delinquent who's given a new lease on life by a kindly, father-figure judge who makes him an offer he can't refuse: go to jail or join the Space Force Infantry and Become A Man™. Wander takes the only path he can, and we land in the midst of a routine coming-of-age-in-the-service boot camp sequence. Now, Wander turns out to be the biggest screwup among all the trainees. He actually kills a fellow trainee in a grenade-throwing accident. But never fear: it's Captain Contrivance to the rescue! As Wander is bracing himself for administrative punishment and a dishonorable discharge, along comes the aforementioned father figure, Judge Dickie March (ugh), who just happens to be the friend of the father of the commanding officer in whose hands Wander's fate lies. What a break!

Now why on earth would a judge personally come down to rescue one mere juvenile moron, out of the doubtless-thousands that must move in and out of his docket? What's more, why would he damage his own reputation by lying to get this one-kid-out-of-thousands from getting the punishment he has frankly earned? (And to be honest, Wander would be getting off lightly.) Answer: a judge wouldn't — not in real life or anything resembling it. But in Buettner's world, a judge would put his neck on the line for a nobody simply so the kid wouldn't end up back in his court. And then, there's the whole father figure cliché; Wander is an orphan, and the judge is there to provide the right kinds of heartwarming life lessons right when the story requires him to. I guess the message here is that military service will make a loser into a man, but just in case the discipline and training don't take, it's handy to have influential friends to cover your six.

Little contrivances are common in Orphanage. For instance, right after Wander's bacon is saved by Judge Dickie, we see him preparing to go AWOL, as his anguish over what he has done has led him to existential despair, questioning his future and the Point Of It All, that kind of thing. But lucky for him, right at the exact moment he's about to walk out that door and not look back, in walks a fellow trainee, injured in boot, who gives a little speech about Not Giving Up, and there is Jason's change of heart, all delivered in a nice package with a ribbon. I've seen After School Specials that are less emotionally phony.

So Wander's military career is saved, and it's a good thing, too, as the Earth is being attacked by the Slugs. No, not the Bugs, the Slugs. Wouldn't want you to think this is Starship Troopers or anything, after all. We're never told why they're attacking (usually a good idea in this kind of tale), but they're very thorough about it, sending massive kamikaze-piloted projectiles plowing into Earth's cities. There's another unanswered question lingering here — to wit, why, since it's obvious the Slugs are targeting major cities, people aren't evacuating the cities en masse — but it's not that big a deal. There are other contrivances that are more irksome, like the hint that Wander possesses some kind of "sixth sense" towards the Slugs, which is given no convincing development at all and is clearly only in the book to make this world-class screwup suddenly of great value to the military. (And anyway, this extra sense doesn't help him much during one key sequence in the climactic battle scene on Ganymede.)

Orphanage's second half is, to be fair, better. Really the only objections I could find about the later chapters were those pertaining to formula predictability. But it's not as if that's small beans. Much genre fiction is about packaging old wine in new bottles, I know. But the best genre writers know how to own the clichés, adding their own flavor to the familiar recipe. The Forever War was in many ways a riposte to Troopers. Just about any military SF author of the last 40 years who has earned his stripes has given the genre books that expand upon the very concept of the war story, just as the great fantasy writers (not necessarily the bestselling ones) have sought to redefine, reimagine, recontextualize, or just plain ignore Tolkien, as opposed to simply following in his footsteps.

Orphanage just doesn't bring anything new of consequence to the table. What pleasures it has — and it does have some, as the Ganymede battle finally gives you some electrifying action and characters to feel for — are of the most superficial, and its flaws aren't mitigated by them. There's a lot of spectacular military SF out there. Too much, in fact, to kill time on a book like Orphanage, a book that's mostly shooting blanks.