The second novel in McCarthy’s Subterrene War series (Germline, 2011, etc.) is a standalone tale that encompasses theology and existentialism in its story of a genetically engineered warrior discovering her own path.
Each Subterrene novel follows a different character involved in a brutal future war between the United States and Russia over natural resources in Kazakhstan. This time, McCarthy focuses on Catherine, one of the artificially grown super-soldiers used by the United States as frontline combatants against the Russians and their allies. Unlike the journalist protagonist of the previous installment, Catherine knows little to nothing about the motivations behind the war, and has been conditioned to focus her entire existence on killing enemy soldiers. Writing from Catherine’s perspective, McCarthy captures a fascinating mix of naïveté and ruthlessness, as Catherine, grown in a tank to the equivalent of 15 years old, is unfamiliar with everyday human life but knows everything about battlefield tactics and killing efficiently. The novel starts as Catherine is beginning to experience “the spoiling,” a degradation process that affects all genetics after they’ve been in the field for two years. Rather than submit to the mandated “discharge,” or suicide, Catherine escapes from her unit and begins a journey through battle-scarred Russia and the nuclear wasteland of North Korea, in the process questioning the principles that have so far defined her existence. A big part of that involves teasing out her own concept of God, and McCarthy portrays Catherine as a complex mixture of zealotry and skepticism, depicting a mindset that is effectively outside human experience while also very much identifiable. Although the novel takes place in the midst of a war and involves a number of battles, it’s less a war story than a rumination on identity and faith, anchored by a protagonist who brings surprising and moving depths to familiar science-fiction concepts.
This exciting and thoughtful story marks McCarthy as one of sci-fi’s most promising new talents, and bodes well for the series’ forthcoming third installment.