Back in 2011, T.C. McCarthy introduced us to the Subterrene War, a brutal conflict in the near future between the United States and Russia over precious minerals. Involved in the conflict were genetically engineered soldiers – sought after for their fighting capabilities and scorned by even their allies.
That first novel, Germline (review) ranked as one of my favorites of 2011 – a dark and powerful story of war and what it can do to men. McCarthy has proven that he hasn’t broken stride with the sequel, Exogene.
Exogene is told from the view point of Catherine, a first generation Germline, one of America’s genetically engineered soldiers. Every American Germline is female, pulled from the tank at the age of 16 and given two years to fight before they ‘spoil’ and are discharged, i.e. – executed. Germlines are built for war. Through a mixture of training and a somewhat twisted religious philosophy, the girls are taught to believe they are performing God’s will. Dying is an honor. Catherine doesn’t care why she is at war or what caused it in the first place, only that she kills and serves the glory of God.
It isn’t long before we discover that Catherine is beginning to spoil – the first signs being that she feels fear and doesn’t want to die. She wants to live. Rather than report for the mandated, and supposed glory of, discharge, Catherine flees. While she runs through the wilderness of Russia and into Korea, Catherine begins to make discoveries about herself and the beliefs she’s been taught.
When one is designed for war, it’s a given that living as a ‘normal’ person will be a strange thing. McCarthy paints this brilliantly, never failing to remind us that Catherine is nothing like one of us. She was bred for a purpose and she becomes a zealot who begins to doubt the very purpose for which she was designed. We see this as Catherine flees through Russian and into Korea. We are shown glimpses of what being genetically engineered means to other countries and what the future may hold for the genetically engineered. All the while, Catherine is pursued by her American creators.
Exogene is a war story. There are battle scenes, which serve to show us how the Germlines fight and how the rest of the world reacts to them. Their allies are not their friends, considering them little more than freaks. But the war itself plays a background role. The most vivid and visceral scenes are those within Catherine’s past, scenes from her training and indoctrination, which are revisited throughout the novel as Catherine’s spoiling grows worse.
I will confess, Exogene is not a happy book. No hero rides in to save the day; the world doesn’t change overnight and people don’t come to an understanding and hug one another to live happily ever after. McCarthy has written a book about war which is none of that. In the end, Exogene is satisfying and that’s more than enough.
Exogene is technically a standalone novel. Oscar (the protagonist from Germline) doesn’t make an appearance and aside from a setting, there is very little to tie the two together. At least on the surface. Underneath, however, it is apparent that McCarthy is building a series about self-discovery and the cost of war to the human being in each of us. One can read either book in any order and I do recommend reading both, if only to get a fuller glimpse at the world McCarthy has built.
If anything, I enjoyed Exogene more than Germline. Gone was the Hunter S. Thompson vibe which shook me, gone was the self-destructive behavior of the protagonist. Here in Exogene, we truly learn and care about Catherine as someone striving to become human. I wait eagerly to see how McCarthy brings the Subterrene War to a close in Chimera, out later this year.
Author: T.C. McCarthy