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The Completist: THE SUBTERRENE WAR by T.C. McCarthy

With my bagel overlords here at SF Signal doing a some Military SF podcasts over the past few weeks, as well  an interview with Joe Haldeman, I figured now would be a great time to highlight a very recent example of the sub-genre, and a superb example at that. T.C. McCarthy’s SUBTERRENE WAR trilogy is a fascinating trilogy for many reasons.  For starters, T.C. takes a smart step back. That is, much of Military SF is set in space in the far and distant future (Jack Campbell’s Lost Fleet, David Weber’s Honor Harrington, even Heinlein’s Starship Troopers for that matter).  While McCarthy’s series is indeed set in the future, the future might be best described as Twenty Minutes into the Future, and is firmly entrenched here on Earth.

While I haven’t read every Military SF novel out on the shelves, I’ve read my fair share and nothing I’ve read in the subgenre feels so filthy, dirty and uncomfortable as do these books by McCarthy.  McCarthy is, after all, telling a story of war and nothing is spared – the death, the blood, the sickness, even the pure discomfort of having what is essentially power armor which includes a system to get rid of personal waste – there’s the rawness, and that is merely one fraction of it.  Some people may consider disjointed a negative comment, but here, the disjointed feeling of the narrative is, I gather, completely intentional on McCarthy’s part.

On to the three books which comprise this brilliant, intense and grimy trilogy…

Cover Illustration Steve Stone

Germline (2011) is the first novel in the trilogy and introduces readers to the conflict inside the earth as the United States and the Russians are at war over the mineral rich Kazhakstan region in a future advanced enough to have genetically engineered super soldiers.  The protagonist here is Oscar Wendell, a reporter looking for one last chance to salvage his journalistic career. Wendell is not a hero, he has serious drug problems, which have led to and compounded his family problems, he isn’t the nicest or bravest guy in the world, and he has a tendency not to turn his writing assignments in on time.  However, Oscar excels when it comes to is endearing himself to the soldiers he follows on their tours of duty. Here McCarthy shows nice touches; after a minor bit of hazing from the Marines, Wendell fits in with the Marine nicknamed Ox.  The camaraderie between them throughout the novel is one of the strengths of the novel and something that continually returns as Oscar travels through various points in the war zones.

Adding to Wendell’s instability are the squads of genetically engineered female super-soldiers placed on the front lines as the elite fighting forces.  For reasons that come to light as the novel progresses the only super-solders are females. Just when the novel seems to be about Wendell’s struggles for sanity, cleanliness and in war, in comes the relationship angle and the question of “What is humanity?”  The genetics are perfected humans, at least physically, but they unfortunately have a very short shelf life, very few living beyond 18-20 years. When Oscar first sees one from a distance, he’s fascinated, though his comrades in arms try to dissuade him from engaging with the genetics.  When he does meet and talk with one in particular, Sophie, his fascination grows and becomes a physical attraction that one might say leads to obsession.

Germline is an impressive debut that manages, thanks to McCarthy’s honest and raw authorial voice, to add something new to the Military Science Fiction genre.  Wendell’s narrative isn’t the easiest one to follow, but it does emit a great sense of fascination that is difficult not to continue reading.  McCarthy is off to a very impressive start in the SUBTERRENE WAR saga.

Cover Illustration Steve Stone

In the second novel, Exogene (2012) McCarthy shows us the war from one of the female genetically engineered soldiers on the frontline, Catherine. As the novel begins, Catherine is beginning to spoil, though McCarthy flashes back in many scenes to her life before she goes on the battle-lines. This is an effective way to parallel where her character is going with how she came to be who she is. While Germline gave readers a glimpse of the SUBTERRENE WAR from a spectator’s point of view (albeit a closer than front row point of view), Exogene shows what it is like to fight in the war from the living weapons who comprise a majority of the war’s frontlines.

We learn of the indoctrination germline soldier’s experience, believing in a God who sees soldiers as His ultimate tool. Subsequently, the ultimate goal for these soldiers is to fight and die in service to God. Like many a war novel prior to Exogene, the focal soldier character begins to question the teachings she’s lived by and as she spoils, her questions about the war itself become more frequent. During the germline soldiers’ indoctrination, the ‘why’ of the war is never a consideration, the soldiers are simply trained to fight for God.

McCarthy storytelling takes a leap in Exogene, on a thematic level. A greater examination of what makes a soldier on the front line comes to light – the morals, the stress, the anguish all from the point of view of a soldier. Bringing religion and faith is nothing new to war, as many a historian have said more men/women/soldiers were killed in the name of God than anything else, so it would seem a logical thing for artificially created soldiers to be molded by faith in God with their ultimate purpose to fight and die for that God.

Smartly, McCarthy doesn’t provide hard and fast answers to this or any of the questions he raises.  The characters navigate these questions in the midst of a war fought as fiercely as any the world has seen with tools and weaponry superficially similar to past soldiers on the frontline, but quite different below the surface.

Cover Illustration Steve Stone

The final novel, Chimera (2012) introduces the most broken character in the series (and one of the most fractured characters I’ve encountered) in Stan “Bug” Resnick an entrenched soldier, a man who has been killing and participating in the theater of war for the majority of his adult life.  War is the only state of the world in which he can find an approximation of comfort. When he returns home to his estranged wife, he suffers mentally and physically after years on the front lines of the Subterenne War. As the war concluded, his job became that of a hunter, he was tasked with finding and destroying satos, the genetically engineering super-soldiers featured in the previous two installments of THE SUBTERRENE WAR.

Keeping the otherwise unpleasant themes of the trilogy together was the compelling power of McCarthy’s narrative. In Chimera, Stan is our first person narrator and the angst he feels throughout the novel is palpable. He resents his wife, initially blames himself for his old partner’s death, and he hates the germline soldiers  most of all. Stan immediately dislikes his new partner whom who Stan gives a racially derogatory nickname/call-sign of “Chong.” About the only characters with whom he gets along are his wife’s son (who is the result of an affair with a nameless man from the factory where the genetically engineered soldiers are created) and the artificial intelligence housed in his body armor, Kristen.

Despite being a person filled with a lot of hate, and a man who has spent a great deal of his life as a ruthless killer, McCarthy has built up an ample amount of empathy for Stan and his plight.  . In addition to the female soldiers, he encounters something the Chinese have developed that is only the slimmest margin of human by appearance. With each step deeper in the jungle up to and beyond meeting the ‘leader’ of the female soldiers Margaret, Stan can’t help but take a deeper look at himself and consider his own humanity. He compares his own ideology to that of the genetically programmed ideology of the female soldiers. A lot of these scenes give a hint that McCarthy might be as adept at plying his trade as a horror writer as he is as an SF Writer.

McCarthy’s claustrophobic feel extends to personal freedoms.  When ‘out’ of the theater of war, at home, or in civilian life, Stan, like all citizens, is constantly monitored.  He is unable to have any private discussion with his estranged wife and only when he is in the deepest, least civilized sections of the jungles does Stan come close to feeling unsurveilled.  This ratchets-up the paranoia level and lack of privacy that pervades the narrative.

As a whole, THE SUBTERRENE WAR trilogy is more of a thematic trilogy, since the three books don’t tell a continuous story. I would even go as far to say that it might be possible read these three books without adhering to the published order. Each of the three novels gives a different perspective on war, the first, Germline from a reporter caught on the firing line; the second, Exogene, from the perspective of one of the genetically engineered super-soldiers and Chimera the perspective of man suffering PTSD

In short, THE SUBTERRENE WAR is essential Military Science Fiction and essential 21st Century Science Fiction. You don’t have to take just my word for it, McCarthy’s writing excellence was confirmed when he was the recipient of the Compton Crook Award (presented to the best first novel of the year written by a single author) for Germline in 2012.

Lastly, kudos to Orbit for creating this viral Web site in support of the series:

About Rob H. Bedford (62 Articles)
Rob H. Bedford writes The Completeist Column and curates Mind Melds here at SF Signal. Elsewhere, he is the Lead Book reviewer for SFFWorld, where he is also a Moderator in their discussion forums. In addition to over a decade’s worth of reviews at SFFWorld, his reviews and articles have also appeared at and in the San Francisco/Sacramento Book.

5 Comments on The Completist: THE SUBTERRENE WAR by T.C. McCarthy

  1. Thanks, Rob.

    MCcarthy has written a couple of stories and novellas in this universe, too, yes? (I’ve read one of those, I think)

  2. Yes, at 3 novellas. I haven’t read those myself, but I did read “Somewhere it Snows” and thought it excellent.

  3. Awesome series. Germline is one of my all time favorite reading experiences. I was lost and loving it as the reporter foughtto escape war and addiction. If I loved these books, what should I read next? (Tabbing this article to read in full later in case you already answered that question, sorry).

    Also, is Somewhere it Snows a novella? I thought all his side story stuff were novelettes. I’m excited for longer stories.

  4. I’m not sure if Somewhere it Snows would be considered novella or novelette, but regardless it is very good. I think TC is working on a full length novel/series set in that world.

    The one similar book that immediately comes to mind is Dan Abnett’s Embedded, which was one of Angry Robot’s first titles. I reviewed it a few years ago at SFFWorld.

    Thematically, in that the protagonist is something of a journalist/scribe following a military unit, I would suggest Jeff Salyard’s debut novel Scourge of the Betrayer. While the novel is fantasy, it felt like a cousin to McCarthy’s work. It has the same drudging through mud feel, in a good way.

  5. I never finished the first one. I guess I thought it was aimless.

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