Germline, T. C. McCarthy’s ambitious debut novel, is the first installment in his Subterrene War trilogy. While it is ostensibly labeled as work of near-future military science fiction, that description barely scratches the surface of the true scope of the novel: Germline is, in essence, a gritty and confronting coming-of-age story featuring a deeply flawed protagonist. The result is intense, uncomfortable, and more than just a little bit brilliant.
A grim, believable future, and a protagonist to match
Germline is set in a decidedly bleak near future where US and Russian troops battle for the Earth’s few remaining mineral deposits. Foremost in the American arsenal are deadly squads of all-female, genetically engineered super-soldiers. These women, known as Genetics, are indoctrinated into a cult-like religion of Faith and Death and exist for the sole purpose of killing as many enemy soldiers as possible before they themselves are killed or are “honorably discharged” (via a bullet to the head) at the age of eighteen. However, the US advantage is short-lived, as the Russians soon begin to engineer Genetics of their own. As the supply of healthy human troops dwindles, women are “encouraged” to stay at home breeding future war fodder while the US military recruits old men and boys.
Enter Oscar Wendell, a sub-par, drug-addicted reporter with a few friends in high places and ambitions for a Pulitzer Prize. When Wendell manages to secure an assignment with US troops on the front lines in Kazakhstan, he believes he has finally scored the story that will make him famous. However, he soon realizes that nothing could have prepared him for the realities of war. Already an addict, Wendell begins to rely increasingly upon narcotics while his former life as a reporter and the civilian world gradually fade from his tormented mind.
Daring and confronting
I say Germline is an ambitious debut because it is in no way the kind of “safe” first novel we sometimes see from new authors. McCarthy refuses to limit his fiction by sticking to familiar or uncontroversial concepts, or those we can view from a comfortable distance. Nor does he feature characters and scenarios calculated for the broadest possible appeal or least likelihood of causing offence. Instead, McCarthy chooses a nihilistic and disturbed protagonist, places the reader inside that character’s broken mind through first person narration and then proceeds to pack his novel with biting social commentary.
So many things could go wrong with this kind of setup that one has to admire McCarthy’s daring, if nothing else. Yet he manages to pull the novel off in spectacular fashion, creating a grueling experience sure to impress the reader.
A harrowing first person perspective
Oscar Wendell’s first person narrative is undoubtedly one of the key factors making Germline such an intense novel. Reminiscent of Hunter S. Thompson, Wendell is not necessarily a likeable protagonist, and the reader is privy to his every flaw. He is a selfish, self-indulgent, broken wreck of a human being whose emotions jump between extremes with alarming regularity. Furthermore, he is not even particularly competent compared to the novel’s other characters, and his continued survival in a war-zone is just as often due to the efforts of friends in high places, genetics, fellow soldiers, and dumb luck than the result of any actions of his own.
Despite all this, Wendell is somehow the perfect protagonist to carry the reader on an eye-opening journey through McCarthy’s desolate future. In addition, although I am no expert on psychology and addiction, McCarthy’s depiction of this aspect of Wendell’s character seems very true to life. Wendell is, in essence, a deeply flawed and believable human being who—seemingly beyond hope—must learn to take responsibility for himself the hard way. “The hard way” doesn’t get much harder than this.
The prose itself is direct and unadorned in a way that perfectly complements the setting and protagonist. After all, there is little time for poeticism when the world is falling apart around you.
No shortage of social commentary here, sir
Germline gives the reader their first glimpse of a world where basic human rights have been all but stripped away and provides countless hints of more to come. Although we are limited to Oscar Wendell’s personal experience in this world, much more may be read into the novel once one looks below the surface. The horrors that Wendell witnesses cannot be viewed in isolation; they are, after all, the product of the society that allowed them.
For instance, the gender of the Genetics serves a dual purpose. The accepted explanation to the Genetics’ gender holds that the initial male prototypes, unlike their female counterparts, are too prone to uncontrollable, testosterone-fueled violence; but the female models provide yet another benefit. Their presence on the battlefields can be used by those in power to counter any allegations of sexism in excluding women from the front lines. While this idea may make some readers uncomfortable, it is deliberately calculated to be troubling and one would be hard pressed to say that this kind of set-up is in any way acceptable.
And now for the really uncomfortable part…
All in all, although Germline is a work of science fiction, in many ways it is not all that far-fetched or unfamiliar. The technology depicted throughout the novel is futuristic yet disturbingly plausible. McCarthy merely takes already existing and swiftly developing technologies such as genetic modification and cloning to the next level. As someone who has some familiarity with genetics and related science, there was nothing depicted in the novel that I found particularly implausible.
Likewise, the novel’s premise, despite being unpleasant, is also quite believable and finds its basis in real world issues. Most would agree that humanity is just beginning to realize, somewhat reticently, that natural resources are not infinite. Furthermore, it is not hard to believe that if we continue to rely upon such finite materials too much longer we could well end up with the kind of resource war scenario McCarthy depicts. Some may be so bold as to suggest that, to some extent at least, we already have.
So why should you read this book?
Germline is without doubt one of the most intense and affecting books I have read in long time. The fact that the details of the novel remain clear in my mind a month after finishing it should be a good indication of the extent to which it engaged me as a reader. Nevertheless, it won’t suit everyone: Germline is not a light read, nor is it an easy one. What it is, however, is a well-executed and relevant novel that will haunt you long after you finish reading. It is gritty, unsettling, confronting, and at times quite harrowing—yet I wouldn’t have it any other way.