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Book Review: Orphanage by Robert Buettner

* Genre: Military SF, Near Future SF, Science Fiction
* ISBN: 0316019127
* ISBN-13: 9780316019125
* Format: Mass Market Paperback, 336pp
* Publisher: Orbit
* Pub. Date: April 2008
* Series: Jason Wander Series
* Author Website

Orphanage, according to author Robert Buettner, is a cross between Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War. But unlike either of those novels, this 2004 Quill nominee sees the military in light of post 9/ll sensibilities. In it, we see how a soldier can fight a just war, while still disliking many of the aspects of the army. Buettner’s story sees the motivations for soldiering not in God or Country, but in the man or woman next to you, guarding your back.

An alien race of unknown origin has landed on Ganymede, one of Jupiter’s moons, and is lobbing projectiles the size of cities at Earth. Major cities across the world are being destroyed, and humanity still only has the spaceflight technology of the 1970s. In time, the story takes place at about 2040, but by this time relative peace has been attained throughout the world. This may be wishful thinking on Buettner’s part, but as background to the story it works well. Mankind has had no reason to seek to conquer the stars, and technological innovation has slowed due to lack of war or drive to explore.

When the aliens attack, humanity is galvanized to respond with their own deadly force. Buettner’s protagonist, Jason Wander, is forced by circumstance and judge’s order to join a military at war. Using outdated and inefficient Vietnam-era equipment, Jason and his friends learn to be soldiers. Jason, perennial screw-up, finds himself being the reason for his troop’s punishment, and his Drill Sergeant gives him the dirtiest and meanest jobs. But this sort of treatment sparks a change in Jason, and the teen boy becomes a man under the pressures of war. His story is that or a hero, and when his heroism finally finds its chance to shine, it does so brilliantly in an all out assault on Ganymede.

Buettner has been derided for killing off popular characters. But in doing so, he shows the grit and grimness of war. Readers who become easily attached to characters, and get upset when they die, should not read this book. Wander himself suffers a significant loss that he must put aside from his mind for the good of the troops. Buettner emphasizes the desire of each soldier to fight for his buddy, to see himself and that partner through the orphanage called war. Unlike Haldeman, Buettner’s Orphanage sees war as a necessary evil, even a useful situation that spurs innovation. But it doesn’t have the God and Country idealism of Heinlein either. Rather, Orphanage finds the delicate balance between the two, seeing war as neither wholly evil, nor wholly good.

The themes of war, self-sacrifice, and honor pervade the novel. Although there is adult content, this book would be an excellent opportunity to discuss with a teen or young adult war and its attendant questions. Although the later books have Jason being much older, in the beginning of Orphanage he is but seventeen years old, only in his twenties by its end. His character will resonate with those readers searching for themselves.

Buettner tells of how some of the young soldiers who read his book will send him pictures of their drill sergeant, describing how the characters in the story so deeply resemble their real life drill sergeants. To me, this is the most powerful support for the realism of Buettner’s military. Buettner, who has military experience but was never called to war, is of the Vietnam era. Orphanage ends up exploring many of the same issues raised by that war, questions we even now struggle to answer. I found his conclusions to be different from the expected.

Buettner writes a book that moves quickly. There is lots of action, and Jason finds himself on several dangerous missions on the moon and Ganymede. Buettner also manages to create emotional ties between the characters with few words, yet they are of such depth we can feel each loss much as Jason does. The sentences have a sort of military crispness to them, never wasting nor wanting words or description. I was easily able to read the entirety of this novel in a day.

Readers looking for Hard SF will be disappointed. The science plays little part in the story. Like writers of the Golden Age, Buettner has simply chosen to create believable but not wholly scientific equipment in order to provide a vehicle for the story. Some suspension of disbelief will be required for those who like their science fiction to be based wholly in reality. But if you can let that go, you will end up with a deeply emotional and adventure filled novel of particularly high quality.

Some readers may dislike Buettner’s themes or conclusions, may even dislike the character of Jason Wander, but they will find little to complain about in terms of writing. There is no choppiness (although at times I had some troubles with the timeline). The plot is simple and straightforward, and does not become a complex political novel, though its themes touch on politics. It’s military SF with a sword and space feel. Fans of John Ringo will likely enjoy this book, as will fans of Heinlein’s Starship Troopers or David Weber’s Honor Harrington series. As for me, I am looking forward to the further adventures of Jason Wander as he climbs the military ranks.

Special thanks to Robert Buettner for his recent reading at Dragon Con 2008, where we discussed his themes in detail, and for the copies of his first three books in the five part Jason Wander series.