Tuesday, November 10, 2015

A Future Imperfect

Series Title:
The Subterrene War Trilogy
TC McCarthy
Orbit, 2011, 2012, 2013

The future isn't just the undiscovered country (Hamlet), but also a boot stamping on a human face (Orwell), and nothing (Vonnegut). If you look for things people say about the future you find a lot of optimistic and positive things, but you also find Einstein musing about WW IV fought with sticks and stones.

But science fiction, at least in the beginning, was an essentially optimistic literature. It was all about American exceptionalism and manifest destiny, and the technology that was going to give it to us.

Well, if the past few decades have taught us anything, it's that we're not that special. Once other nations gain access to our technology they quickly catch up, and the might that we once had deluded ourselves was ours alone we now share with dozens of nations, and another hundred are rapidly climbing up to meet us.

It should be an uplifting image. If you are Gene Roddenberry, you see a bright future, with all of us standing shoulder to shoulder to strive together for common goals.

If you're TC McCarthy you see people fighting each other for scraps on a resource depleted planet.

The Subterrene Wars, a series of three books that are not so much linked by plot as by setting, concern, as Bug Resnick realizes, the genetic suicide of mankind. We first learn of the nature of this suicide in Germline, where Oscar Wendell, a drug addled journalist hoping for Pulitzer Prize material, is embedded with a group of American marines who are fighting Russian soldiers for access to Rhenium mines in Kazakhstan.

Most of the weapons we see the soldiers use against each other are just advanced forms of the weapons we have now. The marines, as well as Wendell, wear suits of armor reminiscent of space suits, covered with high tech camouflage skin, and equiped with powerful computers and communications gear. They carry Maxwell carbines which fire streams of flechettes, and the artillery uses shells filled with gel that will burn through anything and fusion generated blobs of superheated plasma. There are orbital kinetic kill weapons and tactical nukes.

Wendell is familiar with all that, and so are we, in the same sense that no one has to explain to us Han's blaster or Luke's light saber.

But then Wendell meets his first unit of genetic troups: several dozen girls, identical to each other, whose bodies have been genetically engineered to be faster, stronger, and tougher than the best "nonbred," the name the genetics use for humans. They grow to physical maturity, in much less than their apparent age of sixteen, are trained to war by teaching machines wired directly into their brains, and undergo a horrendous and violent training program after they emerge from their tanks. When the training is over a few weeks later they are shipped to wherever the fighting is, and two years after they leave the tanks their bodies are programmed to self destruct.

At that point they are allowed to request discharge, which is, for the genetics, a euphemism for execution.

No one likes the genetics. The soldiers resent them. The brass don't trust them. And civilians have what can only be described as a racist attitude for them. Wendell, drug addled, horrified by the violence of war, doesn't see genetics that way. Where the soldiers around him look at them in disgust, Wendell falls in love with them.

It is in my opinion a master stroke by McCarthy, because my sympathy was with the genetics from the moment they appeared on the scene. Wendell is not a likable character. He's not brave. He's not very smart. His one virtue is that he survives, so we see the story of the first book through his eyes. He reacts to the war with the emotions of a civilian, and, more importantly, a civilian with our moral skills still intact.

So by the end of Germline we're ready for Exogene.

Now that we have met the genetic soldiers and have recognized that they are as human as we are, McCarthy tells the story of Catherine, a genetic who, long before reaching her discharge age, decides she doesn't want to die. Together with a sister genetic Catherine escapes from the fighting. There are a number of flashback scenes where we learn Catherine is not just any genetic, and then Catherine realizes that there is a reason why the human military is hunting them. She is special.

Genetic soldiers are programmed with a religious faith that is supposed to make them fearless of death, but Catherine has started to doubt the truth of that faith. As she flees the pursuing American assassins, into the arms of Russian genetic forces, male eunuchs who live in a work camp in a remote part of Siberia, Catherine rebuilds her faith. Together with Margaret, another captured genetic, she escapes the work camp, and eventually makes her way to Thailand. We know already, from the earlier book, that Thailand welcomes escaping genetics.

If there was any doubt that Wendell recognized the essential humanity of genetic soldiers, we now know that their humanity is a fact. Catherine struggles with the same doubts we all have about our purpose in life. Hobbled as she is with no ordinary life experience to speak of, she finds her place in the scheme of things as she sees them, the same as we all do. The difference is that, for her, the scheme of things is about killing. Yes, she resents that humans made her that way, but she accepts her place, knowing she has no other place.

So who are these assassins who chase down escaping genetics? Meet "Bug" Resnick. He lives to kill. He has a family in the States, but he spends as little time there as possible. When his wife tells him she is bearing another man's child, it doesn't bother him. He lives for his missions.

And the missions are always killing genetics.

Bug is sent to find out what the Koreans are up to. In a round about fashion he ends up in Thailand to hunt Margaret, who leads genetic forces there. Then he's told that Margaret is not to die, because America needs her to help defend Thailand against the Chinese.

Where cybernetic soldiers were hinted at in Exogene, in Chimera we meet them face to face - except a machine doesn't need a face. It needs cameras and other sensors and weapons for close up fighting. If genetics are clearly human, Bug realizes the creature China is building are too different for him. He can fight side by side with genetics, even if he hates them, but he recognizes genetic suicide when he sees it.

It is a conflicted finale to the series. Bug wants humanity to inherit the future, but he will fight with the barely human against those he believes are not human at all. We know by then that the Chinese cyber soldiers have human emotions. They suffer pain and fear, even if we experience their suffering only insulated by the armor that the cyber soldiers wear. They are, like the genetics, slaves for war, created by humans who want to beat the slaves for war other humans have created.

I finished the series, and I thought McCarthy is a god of war stories. He doesn't make this horror seem heroic or exciting or adventurous. It's merely something people try to survive. McCarthy seems to believe it, from the way he made me believe it. In the three books there are no heroes that I cheered on, but there are human beings that I hoped would survive.

I'm frankly surprised that I hadn't heard of these books before - apparently people did talk about them. For what it's worth, these are well written and interesting stories. You'll put them down only because you will need to sleep every 48 hours or so...