Robert Buettner’s JASON WANDER/ORPHANGE Series

Most of these columns have focused on trilogies, some on duologies. This installment focuses on the longest book series I’ve coverd so far: five books. However, these books are relatively short compared to some of the previous books I’ve covered here at the Completist. The books I’ll be discussing: Robert Buettner’s five book Military SF series focusing on Jason Wander which begins with Orphanage. This series has a bit of a kink in its publication (which seems to be an undercurrent of this column…). Buettner’s debut (and launch of the series) Orphanage (and the second installment Orphan’s Destiny) were some of the last titles under the WarnerAspect imprint before Orbit took over as the SF imprint of Hachette. Once Orbit replaced WarnerAspect, the series was rebranded a bit with new cover art. But more of that later, on to the books…

This series is set approximately 40 years in the future with Earth being attacked by aliens who come to be known as Slugs. Many of the people chosen for this interstellar war are orphans, people whose families were destroyed in the attacks, which take the form of large stone projectiles, with no nuclear armaments, hurtling through space, which destroy the surrounding area where they land, most often populated cities like Pittsburgh or Indianapolis. It is with this premise Robert Buettner introduces the reader to the world of Orphanage and its protagonist, Jason Wander whose hometown is the destroyed Indianapolis.

The premise of alien invasion and a humanity that fights back is a familiar one in Science Fiction, and military Science Fiction specifically. Furthermore, the first person narrative Buettner employs is quite common in Military SF. However, it is no less effective. Rather, Buettner builds an effective, empathetic protagonist in Jason Wander. With his experience as a former Military Intelligence Officer, it should come as no surprise how effectively Buettner conveys military life.

Buettner’s Slugs are not bent on destroying our planet, though. They simply want us gone, in order to move in and make Earth their own world. Very little is known about the aliens, as of the early years of Jason’s life, no aliens have ever been found amid the wreckage of the enormously destructive projectiles. Buettner effectively and logically lays out how humanity may react to these aliens. Through Jason’s earliest words in the novel, we discover the aliens are Slugs, human sized Slugs. By creating giant Slugs as the aliens, Buettner does not create a species with which the reader can hold much sympathy. Slimy creatures, human sized at that, illicit a response of disgust in most circles, and this makes it easy, and almost too convenient for our characters to want to destroy the enemy aliens.

In the second installment, Orphan’s Destiny, Jason Wander is stuck on the Jovian moon Ganymede. The first wave of Slugs Jason and his regiment fought in Orphanage was only the first salvo in the Slug War. Jason’s story comes across very genuinely in Orphan’s Destiny, again told in the first person, and for all of Jason’s heroic acts, he comes across in a rather self-deprecating manner. Despite the successful campaign Jason led, he still has no preconceived notions that he is a hero, he considers himself simply a soldier. However, years have passed between Jason defeating the Slugs on Ganymede and his ultimate return to Earth.

Along with Jason, the scientist Howard, his pilot/best friend Munchkin, and soldier Brumby comprise his closest friends, and the ones who are keeping Jason company on Ganymede as he awaits the ship that will return him home. Jason’s military father figure, Ord also remains part of Jason’s supporting cast. In addition, Buettner introduces some new military personnel and a “handler” of sorts for Jason in his role as savior. Each character has their own voice and intermingles with Jason in their own way. Hibble provides a sort of comic relief with his scientific explanations that often frustrate Jason with their lack of necessary brevity.

Orphan’s Journey, the third installment of the series is the book when Orbit Books took over the SFF publishing reins of Hachette so I was pleased to find out Robert Buettner’s Jason Wander novels were among the books slated to continue.

After the conclusion of the Slug War(s), Jason and Sergeant Major Ord are running Black Ops missions, assisting governments who are allied with the U.S. When Jason gets overzealous, his higher-ups pull him from these missions and give him a very special assignment. In an orbiting Military Facility, the only intact and recovered Slug interstellar-vessel is under tight wraps Also on this orbiting facility is another of Jason’s old infantry-mates Munchkin and her son Jude – Jason’s godson and Howard Hibble, who has been charged with getting the Slug vessel running again. The problem is, human reaction and hand-eye-coordination isn’t accurate or fast enough to get the Slug vessel running. This is where Jude comes into the story – having been birthed on another planet (Ganymede to be specific) during the Slug war, his reflexes and acuity have a different set of parameters than those of normal humans making him the only human truly capable of piloting the Slug vessel.

Jason and crew eventually land on a planet inhabited by dinosaurs and two very familiar species – humans and Slugs. The Slugs are using humans as slaves in order to harvest Cavorite, the stones that fuel the Slug vessels. In order to fend of the slugs on this ‘new’ planet, Jason has to convince multiple warring tribes to unite for the greater good. There’s a man-out-of-water feel to the story that evokes the sense-o-wonder of a planetary adventure with a good dose of modern sensibilities.

Buettner had some decisions to make when he wanted to continue Jason’s story – he could have retold another alien invasion and military repulsion of the attack or expand Jason’s story. Orphan’s Journey shows that Buettner has long-range ideas of where humanity, Jason, and the Slugs will be going, how they will get there and just maybe, how humanity arrived there.

In book 4, Orphan’s Alliance, the human alliance has come into conflict with another human population even in the face of their single-minded enemies, the Slugs. While the first two novels dealt primarily with Jason becoming a man and Earth realizing it wasn’t alone in a hostile universe, Orphan’s Journeytackles a theme of exploration (albeit involuntary exploration) and family (both in a racial/human sense on a large-scale as well as the small-scale of close loved ones). Orphan’s Alliance, Buettner shifts once again to focus slightly on human political alliances in a galactic scale as well as the small battles of a greater war. It’s a credit to Buettner than he has been able to maintain the same dramatic tension and pleasing character voice of Jason despite the slight thematic shifts from novel to novel.

The series finale, Orphan’s Triumph, shows a Jason Wander has been fighting an interstellar war against the Slugs for 40 years. Jason is not only contending with the Slugs and a way to stop them, but the various political borders between the inhabited worlds of the Human Alliance. One of Wander’s closest friends, and one might even say his sidekick throughout the entire series, may have come up with a solution to the Slug problem.

Of course, this plan does not go off without a hitch and a secondary plan must be followed, and I was reminded a bit of Contact wherein a second wormhole machine appears fully created to move along the plot. Buettner’s handling of this back up plan was logical and not something that came out of the blue. Rather, he sets up the back-up plan early on allowing for a smooth and believable plot transition.

The outcome of humanity and the Slugs was a logical build-up from what had occurred in the previous volumes and the evolution of Jason as a character. Of course Jason is the one to visit the Slug home world. Over the course of the series, Buettner has painted the picture of a career military man, from his earliest days to his final days here in Orphan’s Triumph. In this last volume, Jason’s retirement is an oft-brought up subject. He’s of the age and many people feel he’s had enough of the military life – some want him out of their way others just want him to relax. Jason; however, wants to see the Slug war to its end, he was there at the beginning when they decimated the Earth and he wants to do the same to them.

With Orphan’s Triumph, Buettner has put a fitting close to what has been a top-notch series. Time will tell how it ranks against the predecessors in its genre subset like the Ender books by Orson Scott Card, Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, or the connected series of novels Joe Haldeman began in Forever War. If anything, Buettner’s story is more upbeat and positive despite the bird’s eye view of humanity possibly on the brink of extinction.

Original covers by Fred Gambino
Original WarnerAspect covers by Fred Gambino

I should also note the packaging/design of the novels. I thought Fred Gambino’s artwork on the first two volumes worked very well – a nice convergence of classic imagery with a modern approach which is not unlike the novels themselves. As Orbit took over the series, they redesigned the dress and covers to give the books more modern look, with photo-realistic images from Calvin Chu. The new covers/books stand out equally as well, with little star numbers on the spine to indicate the volume of the series, and will likely grab fans of the Halo franchise and/or Mass Effect and even Battlestar Galactica looking for something similar. Buettner has a nice write-up on the art of the series on his website: http://www.robertbuettner.com/artoforphanage.html.