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Orphanage by Robert Buettner
Review by Ernest Lilley
Aspect Feature: P  ISBN/ITEM#: 0446614297
Date: 01 November, 2004 List Price $6.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

Although the cover claims The Forever War and the War Against the Chtorr as the traditional precedents to Orphanage, they avoid making the comparison to Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers which, along with his Puppet Masters this book is really a blow for blow update of. They were probably hoping we wouldn't notice. Ok, that's unfair. Joe Haldeman calls the book a tribute to Troopers, right on the front cover, and a fine tribute it is.

All in all, that's hardly a bad thing, but let's call an entrenching tool a shovel, ok?

Actually, the interesting new ideas in this book come not from Haldeman or Gerrold, but from Stephen Baxter, and maybe even a bit from Arthur C. Clarke.

Orphanage opens after regular alien bombardment of Earth's major cities has already become a fact of life. Alien slugs who have taken up residence on Jupiter's moon of Ganymede are evidently interested in wiping out mankind and creating a non-nuclear nuclear winter in order to slug-form our world and make it comfortable for themselves. So they drop big projectiles on us, not as big as dinosaur killers, but big enough to vaporize cities and throw megatons of dust into the air.

Eighteen year old Jason Wander lost his family in the first projectile to hit, which took out Indianapolis, and now he's a troubled youth heading for jail -- or the army, which looks like a better deal when the crusty ex-trooper judge offers it up. If he'd read the rest of the book he might have reconsidered the relative merits of jail and fighting mankind's first interplanetary war with technology dredged up from old military stockpiles on a frozen moon far from home.

Of course, if they don't win this one, it might well be mankind's only interplanetary war.

If you remember the plot points from Starship Troopers you can pretty well tick them off throughout the book. Once he reaches combat, specialist Jason Wander's rise in rank is nothing less than meteoric, partly because he's got unusually good intuition when it comes to slug war, and partly because the expeditionary force that goes to Ganymede gets radically reduced on a daily basis. Along the way, Jason makes friends and watches them die while he kills slugs and tries to stay alive and not screw up. Things get grim.

The author is a former Military Intelligence officer and a National Science Foundation Fellow in Paleontology who lives in the Rockies and snowboards passably. It says so at the end of the book. He's working on the sequel to Orphanage in which we take the fight to the stars, or so I hope.

I have a personal peeve in the author's no drugs message, in that he lumps something called Prozac II in with all other drugs to show how dangerous doped up soldiers can be. That's certainly a lesson learned from 'Nam, but I think we can expect to continue messing with our inner workings through pharmacology as time goes by, and dismissing them as something for the weak, resulting in the weak folding at critical moments, is a bit more macho than I can buy.

He also tries to make a point about women and their relative size and strength, pointing out simultaneously that they will meet resistance from the the big strong men they will have to work with and that they are as tough as anyone, or tougher. It's a mixed message that misses the reality that the military force of the future won't run on muscle as much as mech and comes off selling the opposite point that he claims to be making. If he really wanted to sell women in combat, he should have mentioned that smaller, lighter humans are easier to transport, and can get more out of powered armor than big hulking heroes, not to mention that while it may be true that any single man may be better coordinated than a group...this may not hold true for women. Whether the last observation speaks to nature or nurture I don't pretend to have the last word on it, but it's something to keep in mind.

An army may fight on its stomach, but a book lives or dies on its characters, and fortunately these are every bit as engaging as Rico, Zim, and their comrades from Heinlein's seminal work, so the book flies by in a maelstrom of duty, death and honor. If you liked any of the books it draws from, you should like this too -- unless you ask more of it than it can give. I enjoyed it, it kept me up till o-dark thirty finishing it, and I'm looking forward to the sequel.

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