Robert Buettner,
(Aspect, 2004)

It's not every day that a writer's first novel draws praise from Joe Haldeman (author of The Forever War) and comparisons with Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers. Robert Buettner's Orphanage, though, certainly deserves many of the accolades it has garnered. The novel doesn't have the complex socio-political subtext of a Starship Troopers, but it does serve up one heck of a good military science fiction adventure. There isn't time for political rumination or sociological analysis in Buettner's Earth of 2040. The Earth is under attack from an unknown extraterrestrial enemy, and it needs people to go out there and kill some aliens -- and that's where Jason Wander fits in.

Wander's life changed the day his mother visited Indianapolis, only to be killed by an alien projectile. He becomes something of a juvenile delinquent, popping Prozacs to keep himself from thinking about his loss. After getting into trouble, he is given a choice between jail time and the life of a soldier. In boot camp, he continues to screw up -- until nearby Pittsburgh is destroyed instantaneously by another projectile. Even then, he makes another huge mistake and should really have been booted out of the infantry for good -- but he wasn't. Thus it is that this most unlikeliest of soldiers becomes the first human to ever see a live alien and plays a crucial role in mankind's first offensive mission of the intergalactic war.

If you like to see normal human beings in your science fiction, Jason Wander is your man. He's as real as they come -- funny, sarcastic, temperamental and as cowardly as he is brave -- in other words, he has the makings of a true hero.

These aliens, I should mention, are Slugs, an alien life form that intelligence specialists struggle to understand and defend against. Their attack on the Earth comes in the form of unarmed projectiles that decimate city after city across the globe. A few decades of peace have made the world woefully unprepared for such a military crisis, and the good guys go to war with a lot of equipment dating as far back as the First Gulf War or even World War II. After discovering that the Slugs have established a firing base on Ganymede, one of Jupiter's moons, UN forces prepare a daring counter-offensive, secretly launching it years before it is officially supposed to be ready. Despite a series of court-martial offenses, Wander is there. The attack does not go as planned, not by a long shot, and that only makes Wander's story all the more intense.

If you're wondering about the title of the novel, it comes from the idea that war makes orphans of all soldiers. When you're there in the heat of battle, your only family consists of the men and women fighting alongside you -- and, when it comes right down to it, you fight like hell for them -- not for yourself, not for your family, not even for your country (or, in this case, planet). Wander fights primarily for three of his compatriots -- his old buddy Metzger, a rocket jockey who got famous by shooting projectiles out of the sky; his fellow gunner "Munchkin," an Egyptian lass he treasures for more than one reason; and a pilot named Pooh, the new love of Wander's life (a life that promises to be a very short one indeed).

The war as we see it in Orphanage is a personal war -- Wander's war. As a former military intelligence officer, Buettner proves himself more than capable of presenting battle at is most visceral level, as seen through the eyes of a grunt. There are some interesting science fiction elements involved in the storyline, and yes, there are certainly similarities with the science fiction of Heinlein and Haldeman to be found here, but Orphanage really tells its own story -- and a thrilling story it is.

by Daniel Jolley
29 October 2005

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