Military sci-fi, like the hard sci-fi of meteorological anomalies and aerospace engineering, is a subgenre where writers can instantly out themselves as the rubes they are, wandering well out of their depth with some woefully misaligned conception of what war is and how armies actually function. As a former CIA analyst from a military background, TC McCarthy deftly assembles a convincing depiction of a near-ish/far-ish future war like a blindfolded rookie in your Vietnam movie of choice, pulling an M16 back together from its composite parts.
We’re betting that he’s seen a lot of films like that, and books too. The spectre of Michael Herr’s utterly vital Vietnam War log Dispatches looms heavily over Germline’s extended cast, while the central character himself – a junkie reporter with a thirst for war – recalls Anthony Loyd’s autobiography My War Gone By, I Miss It So, or perhaps a less otherworldly Hunter S Thomson if you fancy reference point that’s easier to grasp, and more points in between – The Kid is reminiscent of the ADHD-afflicted lost youth of Evan Wright’s Generation Kill, echoes of Apocalypse Now in the character’s break-down, and the retreat in Stalingrad in the US’ desperate escape from the Caucasus under renewed Russian assault. That’s not to say that McCarthy has pilfered any of this wholesale, but simply to say that his grasp of fact, history and the conventions of war movies and literary, make for a convincing blend of familiarity, like something you’ve read before and can’t quite remember, and the occasionally nugget of unapologetic coming of age war movie cliché.
Cushioned by the things you understand from your narrative, the emphasis falls on the fantastical to drive your enthusiasm, and here McCarthy’s obvious passion for the relentless march of military technology elevates Germline beyond many of its dull, Haldeman-aping contemporaries. The thin line between the speculative, but possible, that you can easily imagine being considered in some Pentagon boardroom, and the speculative, but outlandish, is smudged and scuffed until the demarcation becomes indistinct, and everything becomes equally plausible, everything apart from the genetically engineered teenage girls who just want to love. But eventually even this glorified product of a throwaway 2000adstrip ceases to annoy, because this isn’t a book about genetic engineering, plasma spitting drones or power armoured underground skirmishes – it’s a book about people, dehumanized and disenfranchised by war, where psychological survival is every bit as unlikely as physical survival.
Proudly declaring itself the first book in the ‘Subterrene War’ – of which surprisingly little is actually subterranean – it’s not immediately clear where Book Two could take us. Will it follow the conflict into its new phase between China and Russia? Will it take place within the same timeframe as the first? Or will it be set even earlier and reveal the ugly politicking that pushed the US war machine to such an undignified breaking point? One thing is certain, for all its cliché and familiarity, and sexy teenage ass-kickers, you’ll not only find yourself asking the same questions, but also find yourself hungry for the answers.