Sci-Fi Trench Warfare in Germline

Geek Culture

Fresh off a few weeks of reading non-stop steampunk novels, the timing couldn’t have been better for author T.C. McCarthy to inquire whether I might like to take a read of his new novel, Germline. A day-after-tomorrow sci-fi warfare novel fought with genetically engineered female warriors and power-suited grunts for control of some of Earth’s most valuable rare metals? Ten-hut!

I’m going to try to avoid spoilers, but it’s going to be difficult. This is a gritty tale — a first-person narration provided by Oscar Wendell, Stars & Stripes war correspondent and drug addict. Oscar sees the frontline as a chance to earn a Pulitzer but also as a last-chance job for a journalist who has burned his previous employer with some unprofessional behavior back home. You’re pulled into the story thinking Oscar will redeem himself, find the heroes of the war and tell their tales, and return home to his own hero’s welcome. But reality is a lot worse.

From the moment Oscar lands on the battlegrounds of Kaz (Kazakhstan), nothing goes right. Of course, this is what makes a great story, right? Predictable is boring, so T.C.’s done a great job of never letting the reader catch his or her breath. Oscar jumps from one fight to another, from one completely hopeless situation to, quite honestly, a more hopeless situation. I actually started wondering when T.C. was going to put Oscar out of his misery.

I’ll return to my initial statement that Germline is a gritty story, but I think that term may be a misleading. This is a tough story. Soldiers die. Badly. The descriptions of battles, the hospital scenes, and even the post-fighting discussions between grunts is deeply disturbing stuff. I often found myself shaking my head at scenes where the carnage was so descriptive — I believe it takes real skill to lead a reader into actually seeing, smelling, and hearing (and maybe even tasting) the realities of war.

Let’s jump to some details — the war (at least this story’s war) is all about resources. (Aren’t they all, I guess?) Rare metals are just that — rare. So the US and her allies (currently UK and French forces) are battling it out with the Russians over key deposits of a handful of rare metals and minerals. As the armies fight, they also dig… deep underground. You’ve got fighting above and below, and none of it is a place you’d want to be. But Oscar sees it all. He goes from war correspondent to participant, and develops the same outlook as other soldiers who see no hope on the horizon and only a handful of ways out.

Fighting alongside the mainly-male armies are each faction’s own genetically engineered fighters. The US has females… the Russians have males. (Without giving it away, the explanation for why the US uses female G’s is quite disturbing but also a very realistic explanation for today’s world.) These Gs have a shelf-life… they’re designed to fight until they are killed by the enemy. Or worse. I’ll leave that hanging for you.

The technology in the story is believable, especially given today’s advancements. Most soldiers spend their entire term of duty inside an armored suit, capable of protecting them (somewhat) from the environment but not much from the plasma-based weaponry that both sides have operational. Medical tech has obviously advanced, too, to keep up with the range of injuries sustained by the soldiers.

The focus on the book, however, really isn’t on the fighting. It’s on the relationship between Oscar and those individuals (both human and G) that he interacts with — some in the time it takes a bullet to be fired and others over the entire story arc. Don’t get attached is a frequent motto for some TV shows and books, and I think it’s a safe statement to make for Germline as well.

Germline isn’t a book for everyone. It’s definitely sci-fi, but it’s harsh stuff. Scalzi is a good comparison, but so is Heinlein. Starship Troopers and Old Man’s War (and its follow-ups) are in good company, but Germline brings its own tale of war that’s darker and hits much closer to home with its future headlines vision.


I’d like to thank T.C. for taking time to answer some questions about Germline and its part in The Subterrene War trilogy:

GD: Did you develop Germline as a standalone story or did you have a trilogy in mind when you started writing the first book?
T.C.: Germline was originally called Subterrene, which was a fix-up novel – three separate novellas sandwiched together. I shopped it around to agents and one guy, Alexander Field, liked it enough to sign me; that’s when the fun started. We submitted it to all the big publishing houses and got a few nibbles, but then I got a phone call from an Orbit Books Editor, DongWon Song, who saw something he liked. DongWon and I talked for a while and by the end of the conversation we’d torn Subterrene’s novellas apart with the decision to expand them into three separate novels, the first of which was to be called Germline. So, the answer to your question: yes and no?
GD: The first-person narrative allows for some fairly graphic depictions of war — were you ever concerned about the timing of the book’s release given our country’s current fighting in a nearby region?
T.C.: Yes. Absolutely, yes, but it wasn’t something Orbit and I ever discussed. I knew that if the country was sick of war, there was a chance that people wouldn’t want to read something so analogous to current events. On the other hand, it was the story I wanted to tell and trying to get the timing right would have been almost impossible so the question was never raised.
GD: The war of your story revolves around natural resources, specifically rare metals used in our growing electronics demand. What kinds of research did you do in terms of real world demands on rare metals?
T.C.: Researching this issue took some time, but being a geologist helped. I dug into the mining literature on rare earth elements (REEs) and other metals, their consumption rates, and known reserves and was shocked to find that there are numerous metallic resources (not just REEs) that are due to expire in a matter of hundreds of years. Some would argue that we’ve already “peaked” on nickel, copper and gold – that we’re mining more than we’re finding. In the end, I think I only specifically mention rhenium (not an REE) in Germline, but also allude to the fact that US and allied forces are pulling anything they can get out of the earth. Outside of academia, few people talk about metals today, it’s always oil. But even now, China – the world’s largest supplier of REEs – is hoarding a strategic reserve of this stuff; it won’t last forever, and finding replacements will be exceedingly difficult.
GD: You pair up the US/UK/France armies against the Russian armies in the story — was there a specific reason for this matchup versus against other countries?
T.C.: I went with the alliances (Western Europe) and enemies (Russia, China) we’ve had historically, simply because it was something my audience would be able to relate to without thinking. Call me lazy!
GD: The technology used in the story runs the gamut from real-world to pure sci-fi – which technologies in your book are based on real-world research versus tech that you just made up? Are there any weapons that you discovered in your research that make you nervous or just plain scare you?
T.C.: I love my Maxwell carbines!!! These are theoretically possible, and are based on the premise of a coil gun, although making a handheld infantry model is beyond us at the moment. The plasma artillery is a bit more hand-wavy, but also possible if one accepts the assumptions that someday we’ll (a) create fusion reactors and (b) figure out how to deliver appreciable amounts of plasma at great distances before its energy dissipates. Thermal gel? A total fabrication with no basis in science. I wanted something as horrific as napalm that one could package in a grenade, and this stuff scares the crap out of me.
GD: In the story, there’s this broad-reaching hint that the folks back home are completely clueless of the goings-on on the frontline — did you draw any comparisons with our current war situation and the public’s knowledge of the events going on over there?
T.C.: I drew comparisons with every war we’ve been in – not just the current ones. In World War I and II, we didn’t have instant news feeds, live from the front. Same with Korea. And even though the news coverage was (some would argue) better in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, speaking with vets suggested that there’s a system shock when a warrior transitions from the front to the peacetime world, a sense of disconnection from reality. Many of them argue that “if you haven’t been there, there’s no way to describe it.” I tried to capture this phenomenon in Germline’s last chapter.
GD: Exogene (2nd novel in The Subterrene War trilogy) appears to tell a story from the G’s point-of-view, the genetically engineered female fighters who are designed to die fighting or “expire” after a very short shelf-life. I have to ask — did the Replicants from Blade Runner offer any inspiration to your creation of the Gs?
Yes and no. I couldn’t write this book without considering the prior art in this subject area, and agreed with Blade Runner’s premise that a manufactured human would need a shelf life. But if you’re creating bioengineered humans for the military – from scratch – it made more sense to have them all identical, which didn’t seem to be the case in Blade Runner. This would, in turn, make “field maintenance” more easy, where field maintenance would likely consist of administering drugs and psychiatric care. You’ll see more about this in book two.
GD: Throughout Germline, the soldiers basically live out their lives in this shell-suit, rarely taking it off unless medical attention is required. Where did you get the idea for these suits and do you think the real military servicemen will ever require (or be forced to use) such equipment?
T.C.: The Army has been researching this issue already, and if you google “future warrior” you’ll see what I mean. I think we’ll be gearing-up with something very similar one day – if not identical. Fighting in something like a spacesuit gives you complete protection from chem-bio attacks, and there’s no question that we need something to protect our troops from the advances we see every day in motion and shape detection, and thermal imaging. The real trick is figure out a system that lets them go to the bathroom.
GD: I was surprised that a futuristic-style war would be fought with so few robots – you explain why robots and drones don’t really work in this type of warfare, but I’m wondering whether you think robots will actually have a major presence in future military action?
T.C.: I actually do, and in Germline the robots we see constantly are the semi-aware drones that rule the skies. I started to include ground robots but then it occurred to me: bio-based, throw away units would be cheaper. After all, metals are precious. So I went with a hypothesis that the genetically engineered troops rendered ground robots more or less obsolete, except for certain specific tasks, because humans are so much more functional. Also, there are only so many plot elements you can include in a book! But yeah, if you argued that my book needed more robots, I’d probably concede the point.
GD: Any hints on the 3rd story? Point-of-view? Main character?
T.C.: A burnt-out Special Forces soldier, Stan Resnick, is at the top of his game and bottom of his life when he gets plucked for a special mission: find out what the Koreans are doing and how it relates to a Chinese invasion of Russia. All my books are character studies. In Germline, you see Oscar Wendell grow up; in Exogene (book two) you see a genetically engineered soldier (Catherine) find meaning in her life; and in Chimera (book three), you see Stan Resnick realize that some people are natural born killers. Kind of.
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