T.C. McCarthy appeared without warning on the genre scene with a thought-provoking and extremely well-written debut in the form of Germline. This military SF set in a somewhat-far future delivered unto readers a bold, emotionally insightful, and dark narrative more reminiscent of a real-life veteran’s memoirs than a science fiction book. But it was more than that, because it grounded you in the immediacy of war, in characters’ desperation. So, it was really good. Exogene is the sequel which had to fill those big shoes and, without a doubt, it did. Approaching the same conflict from a different perspective, McCarthy demonstrates once more a talent for writing the kind of gritty, unrelenting narratives we long for.
Catherine is a soldier. Fast, strong, lethal, she is the ultimate in military technology. Bred by scientists, indoctrinated by the government, she and her sisters will win this war, no matter the cost. And the costs are high. The life span of these genetic soldiers is short, and they become unstable as they age. Then on their eighteenth birthday, when their duty is fulfilled, they are discharged - lined up and shot. But the truth is, Catherine and her sisters may not be strictly human, but they aren't animals either. Catherine may have only known death, but she dreams of life - and is prepared to pay any price to get it.
McCarthy wastes no time with introductions. From the first page to the very last, he immerses the reader in the experience of war and it’s consequence on the human (or not-so human?) psyche. Exogene follows the same narrative style as Germline, only substituting one of the genetically engineered female soldiers reaching the end of her shelf life in as a main character, and victim of war - Catherine. This particular perspective lends itself well to the exploration of certain themes McCarthy wasn’t quite able to touch upon in Germline. Drugs, narcotics, and dependency featured heavily in that book, but since the Genetics have been bred to have unwavering faith in God and the promise of heaven once their service is over, Catherine’s point of view lends itself well to discussions of religion, faith, and loyalty.
For a character making her way through war-torn landscapes, pursued by those that her supposed to be ‘on her side,’ these types of doubt come up a lot. Even if she’s been programmed not to. This is where the science fiction elements makes things more exciting for what would otherwise be a purely military piece of fiction. On top of the cutting-edge, futuristic military technology which makes the battlefield all the more thrilling (and deadly), the science fictional nature of the main character adds just that little twist to the story. Rather than a soldier just questioning his loyalty, we have a super-soldier who’s questioning her programming, her reason of being, since if she’s not doing what she was bred to do, then what is she supposed to be?
Moving away from its more philosophical nature, Exogene remains an engaging war thriller. Chase scenes, skirmishes, and pulpy fights abound. And the beauty of the first-person narration is that it really brings the reader into atmosphere of the text. Much like the common soldier (or loyal Genetic), we're never quite aware of what the next step is, where McCarthy will take the story next. We are engrained in the present, stuck in the harsh reality of the futuristic war he describes, with tortured combatants as our sole companions. In essence, we see everything through Catherine’s eyes, allowing us to get a greater understanding of the hardships she goes through.
Exogene, like its predecessor, is a true success. McCarthy writing feels a lot like the literary science fiction of old, that which accorded more attention to the human condition, and liked to tests its limits in fictional futuristic setting. It’s this sort of experiment which he attempts in Exogene, a detailed study of the emotional consequences of war on humans Surprisingly, McCarthy shows the reader that a being built to possess the merest facsimile of human emotion can be as revealing as the real deal. Undoubtedly, the themes broached in this novel transcend the genre, with existentialist musings aplenty. I couldn’t recommend this book more highly, whether you’ve read Germline or not. If you haven’t though, check that one out too.
T.C. McCarthy's Website: http://tcmccarthy.com/
Buy Exogene: Amazon.com