T.C. McCarthy‘s first novel, Germline, was recently released by Orbit books to relative acclaim, earning a starred review from Publishers Weekly, who stated that the book “crafts a portrait of the effects of battlefield stress that is difficult to bear but impossible to put down.” McCarty’s background includes work with the CIA as an analyst during the earlier days of the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East. He also holds a PhD from the University of Georgia. He recently took some time to speak with us about his first novel.
SF SIGNAL: Germline is your first novel, a military science fiction story set in the near future. The United States and Russia are at war over mineral rights, with your central character Oscar Wendell caught in the middle of the war. What drew you to military science fiction?
TCM: I’ve always been a fan of Heinlein and Haldeman. The Forever War and Starship Troopers were my introduction to the genre and it’s kind of like your first love: you never forget him/her, even after you’ve moved on. So there was no question; when I made the decision to write SF novels, the first was going to be a military one.
SFS: What were some of the influences on Germline as you were writing it?
TCM: The reality of insanity. I’ve largely moved away from SFF to read non-fiction, which impacted my ability to really enjoy the genre that once consumed me. War is – in part – about politics and the calculus of tossing youth into a meat grinder. Sometimes fighting is necessary to save a race from extermination; sometimes it’s necessary so that the self absorbed can demonstrate that the piece they’ve written on tactics and strategy works — thereby ensuring a slot for them in the Joint Chiefs. Michael Herr influenced the style for the first portion of Germline, and the rest of it was a combination drawn from personal experience, reading other authors of war accounts, and by paying close attention to how war twists individuals caught up in its storm drains. (Full disclosure: I have never served in the military, been fired upon, or shot at another human being.)
SFS: Your central character, Oscar Wendell, is a journalist covering the war: he reminded me a bit of some of the stories that I’ve heard about John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway and Sebastian Junger. What is it about combat journalism that leads people to willingly risk their lives for a story?
TCM: Stupidity for one. An appreciation for what’s really important for another? I recall being nineteen, loving firearms, and wanting to enlist in the Marines so I could take part in the invasion of Panama, and when I think “why?” there’s no logical answer. It was stupid — an instinctual reaction to having played war as a child for so long that I needed to see one for real. Maybe it was to understand it or to be a part of something larger than life. But as an old fart, it occurs to me now that the journalists and writers you mentioned above potentially had another reason for going: war is one of the most extreme environments on earth. What a thing it must be to witness first hand the way human beings react to it, where some respond with sociopathic cruelty, others with courage and generosity, and still others with instances of both. Someone impartial needs to document these emotions and reactions, because they’re just so fucking important. I have no idea what answers Hemingway or Junger have given in response to this question, though, so give us a link to them if they exist on the intertubes!
SFS: Wendell finds himself in the middle of the war, and essentially becomes a combatant at various points, fighting alongside those he’s befriended, can you tell us a little about how you’ve seen combat affect people?
TCM: There was one man who refused to talk about it, and who had a footlocker filled with pictures he took while serving in MAC-V-SOG. I took his eyes. There was another who wouldn’t look at anyone while recounting his service as a fighter/bomber pilot, and whose face melted as soon as he started talking. I took his tone. One guy laughed and told me about how he wanted to go back to the theatre and pick up his Javelin (the anti-tank missile system, not the spear) again, because it was so useful in blowing out dug-in Hajis. I took his enjoyment. Another man spoke in dead-pan about being on a mission in which he carried an M-16 in one hand, a bloop-gun (M-79 grenade launcher) in another, and when an enemy popped onto the trail in front of him he couldn’t remember which was which; the grenade sent body parts into the trees. I took that insouciance. When the 82nd dropped into Afghanistan I started crying and my wife freaked because it was so odd and because she didn’t know that some of the troopers were my friends; neither did I at the time, but it was a safe assumption. Those tears came from nowhere and there’s still no explaining them now; they went into Germline.
SFS: The military has a long history with substance abuse: your future military sees soldiers (and Oscar) using drugs to cope. What are your thoughts on this, especially since many soldiers use drugs (legally) to function on long missions and to get through the day?
TCM: People want to escape — always have, always will. So I’d argue that illegal drugs will be a problem for the foreseeable future, especially with men and women in war zones. As far as legal drugs, intended to assist troops in combat, this is going to be an integral part of our future forces. There’s a lot of research today on the topic of human performance enhancement (HPE), where HPE consists of genetic modifications, mechanical improvements (cybernetics, exoskeletons, etc.), and drug therapy. Have I examined all aspects of HPE in terms of moral and practical implications? No. Only the genetic component, with some thought given to the drugs artificial troops might need to maintain their sanity. So I can’t give you my thoughts right now on drugs intended to amplify the abilities of normal humans, but what an awesome idea that is for a book…
SFS: The last couple of chapters in Germline focus on the effects of returning home, and the lingering issues that soldiers face. Do you think that the issues that soldiers faced a hundred years ago will be significantly different from those fighting a hundred years from now?
TCM: I hope for the best but believe in the worst. So yes, I think they will be the same. Right now we have the best understanding ever of post traumatic stress and its associated disorder(s), and still it’s an epidemic among troops. Modern drugs help. But until we find a way to re-wire the human mind and wipe the horror clean, I fear that returning home in a hundred years will be just as difficult. Maybe this is a GOOD thing; maybe PTSD keeps us from waging war with the same ease we take a piss after waking up.
SFS: Do you think the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will have an impact on the future military science fiction stories that will be written? What do you predict will be some of the main themes?
TCM: No, I don’t. And I say that because the current crop of military SF doesn’t seem to reflect it (I could be wrong having not read EVERYTHING), so why should the future crops? Go to a major airport bookstore and take a look at SF that sells well, and there you’ll find future special forces fighting crab monsters. Why? Maybe it’s because SF is where people go to escape reality and see depictions of the future where the author’s optimism won-out over realism. Maybe people like happier stories more than sad ones. On the other hand, your question is broad and my immediate reaction was to assume that themes like the ones I use in Germline (depressing ones) are the only important ones, and to me they are; but this doesn’t mean that there aren’t a whole slew of happy themes that one might pull out of current conflicts. So my prediction? If Iraq and Afghanistan influence future SF stories, the main themes will be ones that can be used to depict hope and victory of good over evil — not the darker aspects of war. Thanks God for Orbit, DongWon Song, Tim Hollman, and Anna Gregson, or Germline may never have made it to stores.
TCM: Almost all positive, but it’s only now starting to reach troops in theatre. Here are some quotes from Amazon reviews and fan mail:
“I just wanted to thank you for writing Germline. Imagine my surprise when I began to realize it was a story about a guy I used to be and guys I used to know, and the things we went through. I cannot thank you enough for writing this touching, heartfelt, and most of all – true – story. Thank you, brother. You get it.”
“You have renewed my interest in the genre. I was thoroughly horrified by your book and couldn’t put it down.”
“Not sure about the quality of the book, but it did come in a box of candy/Easy Mac as part of a care package sent to war zone from the author with instructions to review it on here. FIVE STARS. Will review remainder of series pending arrival of future care packages.” (Note: my sister sent copies of my book in care packages to her husband’s friends in theatre; she did this, not me!)
SFS: Are there any particular books in the genre that you particularly like?
TCM: I just got into super-hero fiction! Lou Anders’ anthology, Masked, was fantastic, so I’ve decided to dig deeper and am looking for my next purchase.
SFS: Exogene is the next book in the Subterranean War trilogy. What can readers expect from that book? What else do you have coming up?
TCM: Exogene covers the same war from Germline through the eyes of a genetically engineered soldier, Catherine. Totally character driven. Catherine starts off as a perfect killer, whose mind and body breaks down as a result of genetic safeguards, and who escapes from the war. It’s a journey in which she has to find freedom while repairing her mind. I also have a new story for Orbit Short Fiction: “A People’s Army.” It’s set in the same universe as the Subterrene War, but far into the future where a Korean tank commander has to keep his crew alive while navigating through a battlefield and political shark tank.