Orbit, 2008 reprint of 2004 original, 302 pages, C8.50 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-316-01912-5
I read a lot of science-fiction, but the field is so large that a lot of worthwhile stuff still passes by unnoticed. For some reason, I completely missed Robert Buettner’s Orphanage and its first sequel when they were first published by Warner Aspect in 2004 and 2005. It took then-Warner-now-Orbit’s re-edition for the series (now up to five volumes) to register, and I do regret having missed it when it was first published. It’s more of a familiar comfort SF read than a top-notch example of the form, but it’s not as if we can get too many of those, right?
Orphanage is familiar from its premise on. “Aliens attack! Young troubled man enlists and grows up in a hurry.” has been a staple of military Science Fiction for decades, and every example of the form gets compared to Starship Troopers first, and The Forever War second. The parallels get even harder to ignore as Buettner uses a chatty first-person narration and follows the usual structural arc from boot camp to first engagement with the enemy. It’s not a case of imitation as much as it’s one of archetypical storytelling –there are only so many ways one can tell that story, after all, and it’s not as if we’re reading to see if the humans manage to win. We already know how it ends; now we just want to see how it happens.
Since the details usually make or break this kind of story, it’s fortunate that Buettner knows what he’s doing. Our narrator/protagonist Jason Wander is not the most admirable young man as the book begins, but those flaws only gives him opportunities to get better. Perhaps the best thing about Orphanage is that it proves how the good-old-grunt story can still be adapted to a contemporary setting without turning too ridiculous: Wander is a modern teenager, and the world around him is recognizably ours a few years in the future. While Buettner isn’t particularly adventurous in his future technology (hand-waving it not-so-convincingly with “the army is always a step backward, you nerds.”), this does add to the conventional, familiar charm of the novel where nearly every plot incident finds a resonance or two in earlier military SF books.
I suspect that this familiarity will work in one of two ways, depending on the reader: Those with vivid memories of Starship Troopers and The Forever War won’t find anything but an update here, while those who have yet to discover Heinlein and Haldeman will just enjoy the story. Additionally, I suspect that the novel will find a loyal audience among men that are or have been involved in the military: Buettner’s direct prose and knowledgeable description of military life seems custom-made to reach infrequent readers who aren’t as susceptible to comment about originality or lack thereof. The flip-side of this argument is that jaded readers who think they can’t enjoy military SF should be warned that there isn’t much more than a prototypical example of the form here.
There have been far more interesting updates of Starship Troopers since the fifties. In the early eighties, Card’s Ender’s Game played manipulative ethical games with this premise. More recently, Scalzi’s Old Man’s War twisted at least part of the formula and did well in presenting a going-of-age war novel written from a non-insider’s perspective. Orphanage is far too conventional to take any such storytelling risks, but what it does have over Starship Troopers are sequels: four of them, taking Wander through an entire multi-decade career. SF learns and adapts to its operating conditions, and if Haldeman was able to fit an entire interstellar war in a single thin novel in the seventies, current market conditions suggest otherwise.
I’m likely to give a chance to at least the first two sequels of the series in part because I’m hoping that the overwhelming familiarity of this first volume will go away (Wander can only attend boot camp once, one hopes) and be replaced by more original material. That’s where the pacing and prose of Orphanage proves more promising than its plot or world-building: The plot can evolve, the imagined future can become more challenging, but the writing style and rhythm are tougher to upgrade. Fortunately, if Buettner’s Orphanage may not be all that original, it does announce an engaging writer able to work with well-worn stories. Now let’s see the ones he gets to invent by himself.
[January 2010: As expected, sequel Orphan’s Destiny is a great deal less derivative than its prequel: In fact, most of the novel takes place in peacetime, while our narrator returns to Earth and gets to see the world react to its skirmish with alien attackers. But then they come back, and there is desperate damn-the-system combat. It’s both more original and yet not as interesting. Go figure.]
[May 2010: My interest in the series has flatlined with Orphan’s Journey, a third volume that takes the action outside the Solar System. Alas, I can’t be bothered to care, and chances are that I won’t seek out the rest of the series.]