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Germline - T.C. McCarthy

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Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Germline - T.C. McCarthy

Wow. Before I go any further into this review I want to be up front that I don't really feel qualified to review or judge this novel until I read it a second time. Nevertheless, I'm going to give it my best go. Please consider this more of a "first impressions" review that some kind of detailed analysis.

(Edit: After finishing the review, this has got be the longest "first impressions" post ever.  Oh well, my blog, my run on incoherent thoughts.)

I finished Germline over the Fourth of July weekend. More accurately, I sat down with it Saturday morning and didn't even get up to eat until I finished it. It stunned me. The novel's blurb doesn't begin to encompass everything it has to offer. I don't think Orbit Books is trying to mislead anyone, but a few words can't capture everything T.C. McCarthy is trying to do. This is not, I repeat not, a military science fiction novel in the tradition of Honor Harrington (Weber) or even the more recent Old Man's War (Scalzi). Instead, over the course of 300 pages Germline is an incredibly dark coming of age story about a broken man who can only justify his existence by going to war.

Oscar Wendall is a reporter and not a particularly good one to ask his editor. Lucky for him, he's made a few well placed friends over the years that help him pull the "plum" assignment of being the first civilian allowed on the Line. He quickly finds himself in Kazakstan joining a battalion of Marines fighting the Pops (Russians) to secure rare minerals "vital" to the U.S. economy. Already an addict, Oscar begins to rely on drugs more and more to survive the terrifying world he now inhabits.

Told entirely in first person, Germline reads almost like stream of conscience at times replete with run on sentences and incomplete thoughts. What at first feels a bit like self indulgent writing quickly starts to feel more like an authentic look inside the mind of a drug addled narcissist. Having never done any serious narcotics, I'm not sure how close McCarthy hits the mark on the paranoia and dependence but he describes it as I've always imagined it to be - super shitty.

Germline's narrative style seems to give McCarthy carte blanche to toy with his reader's emotions. The inherent bias in a first person narrative makes the reader privy to all of Oscar's affectations. It allows the reader access to all of his fantasies of the mind as well as the truth of his motivations. Early on Oscar is the star of his own story, but then later describes himself as a coward who only stays because he can no longer rationalize life without the war. It wouldn't surprise me if some readers find it all a bit overwhelming. Oscar is a dark figure without many redeeming qualities (especially in his own mind). He starts off annoyingly naive full of unwarranted confidence and willing to put his life on the line for a Pulitzer because he has no idea what that life is worth. He's unemotional at times when he loses friends, and cripplingly emotional at other times.

That said, one of the things I kept ask myself time and again throughout the novel was how others perceived Oscar.  Telling the story solely through Oscar's very flawed eyes, McCarthy leaves the answers to questions like that open to interpretation.Thankfully, McCarthy's ending is incredibly cathartic. If I'd read the ending by itself it may have come off a bit contrived and convenient. After the roller coaster of emotion that Germline sent me on for the first 250 pages though, I couldn't have handled anything except what McCarthy gave me. I found myself choked up on at least three occasions at the novel's conclusion - an extremely rare occurrence.

Like any good science fiction novel Germline includes gads of social commentary. The most prevalent is the theme on which McCarthy is building his trilogy - Some technologies can't be put back in the box. For the most part this debate plays out through a squad of soldiers known as genetics. Women raised for no other purpose than to die in combat (and kick serious Russian ass), the genetics are McCarthy's opening statement into a larger debate of how the concept of shared humanity survives when a man's (in the larger sense) first and last line of defense is dehumanizing everything around him. I believe he extends the metaphor throughout the entire novel using Oscar's journey to redeem the notion that while things can never be put back in the box (Oscar's own humanity or sense of community), they can be made right. I think it'll be interesting to see how this discussion continues to take place in future novels.

Additionally, those who have a political leaning one way or another will quickly make a connection between McCarthy's description of Kazakstan's minerals and oil in the Middle East. There's a scene in the book that really focuses in on this discussion and it's so thinly veiled as to make me wonder if the commentary is merely coincidental. Given the author's background in international conflict analysis, I find that hard to believe. I didn't find it heavy handed by any means, but it's there. Readers with a feminist bent (I mean that in the nicest possible way) might also struggle a little bit as the only two female characters are an overbearing socialite mother and clones bread to kill.

Brief aside: I would be totally remiss if I didn't at least comment on Germline's cover. Where the blurb fails to convey the heart of the novel, the cover nails it. Reminiscent of the Blackhawk Down movie poster, I think the art absolutely captures a man totally beaten down, but still willing to shoulder his burden and move forward. I'm usually not a fan of the "photo realism" covers, but I think artist Steve Stone nailed it. I guess McCarthy agrees.

Germline is a tremendous debut novel.  To be honest, I'm a little nervous that I've butchered the author's true intent in trying to communicate how it made me feel.  I'd love a chance to talk with McCarthy at some point because I don't know how a character like Oscar Wendell gets written without leaving an author hollowed out when it's all over.  Hell, I felt hollowed out just reading it.  This novel isn't for everybody and I wouldn't touch it as a so called "summer read".  For me, it's immediately going into my personal pantheon of war novels next to Gates of Fire and All Quiet on the Western Front.  Hell of a debut, T.C.

P.S. - McCarthy's second novel Exogen is due out next year as the second installment in his Subterrene Trilogy.  Germline stands so well on its own that I hope future novels set in the same world steer clear of Oscar Wendell.  

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At July 6, 2011 at 6:09 PM , Blogger Alexander Field said...

Great review Justin. Thanks for your thorough analysis! : )


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