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Orphanage
Robert Buettner
Warner Aspect, 302 pages

Orphanage
Robert Buettner
Robert Buettner earned a B.A. from the College of Wooster, with Honors in Geology, then studied as a National Science Foundation Fellow in Paleontology at the University of Cincinnati. Later, he worked in mining as a rig hand and prospector in the Sonoran desert of Southwest Texas and the mountains of Alaska and worked his way through law school as a petroleum geologist. He practiced law for international energy companies internationally and in the American West while serving out his Army-Reserve Intelligence Commission. He resides in Colorado.

Robert Buettner Website
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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Michael M Jones

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I suppose I should begin with a tiny bit of personal background. There are two books which I consider to be the pinnacle of military science fiction, two books by which I always have, and likely always will, judge that particular subgenre. The first is Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers, and the second is Joe Haldeman's The Forever War. They were some of the earliest adult SF books I recall reading, and barely a year goes by without me rereading one or both, or listening to the audiobook versions. I'm not a huge military SF fan; I enjoy it but it's not something I automatically gravitate towards. However, I do know what I like when I see it. In recent years, a few books or series have come close to my standards, such as John Ringo's Legacy of the Aldenata series (A Hymn Before Battle, Gust Front, When the Devil Dances, and Hell's Faire), John Hemry's Stark's War trilogy (Stark's War, Stark's Command, and Stark's Crusade), and William Forstchen's Star Voyager Academy. However, while I've greatly enjoyed all of the above, Hemry's books came the closest to invoking the same sense of excitement and wonder I first felt upon reading Starship Troopers and The Forever War. So imagine my surprise (and some small outrage at the sheer audacity) to see a new book on the shelves, one that had Joe Haldeman himself compare it to Starship Troopers. A book billing itself as "In the tradition of The Forever War..."

This, you can imagine, was a challenge I couldn't resist. No book can compare itself to my two favorite SF military novels and hope to escape unscathed. I grabbed Orphanage, found a quiet corner, and began to read. And that was that for me. Robert Buettner not only lived up to expectations, he exceeded them with flying colors.

Orphanage is the first-person account of Jason Wander, an eighteen-year-old citizen of Indianapolis, orphaned when the first Projectile destroyed his hometown and the vast majority of its residents. At first, everyone thought it was the work of a terrorist. But then more Projectiles fell to Earth, devastating more cities, and the truth was painfully evident: we were under attack from outer space. From a base on Ganymede, one of Jupiter's moons, aliens of unknown origin and motives were systematically wiping out the human race, bringing objects the size of skyscrapers down in controlled crashes. Humanity was under attack, and fighting back was nigh-impossible.

Lost and adrift in the middle of an escalating crisis, Jason ends up enlisting in the army, where his attitude is slowly but surely beaten out of him, replaced by a growing determination to succeed, filled with a new esprit de corps, replacing his lost family with his comrades-at-arms. It's not an easy path to follow, but bit by bit, he discovers inner strengths and new friends, both of which serve him well as he fulfills his destiny. For humanity has a way to strike back at the so-called "Slugs," a desperate gamble which will take ten thousand of Earth's finest, all orphans with nothing left to lose but each other, to Ganymede in a fight to the finish. Out there, millions of miles from home, Jason and his adopted family will avenge their lost loved ones, and each other. But very few will survive this suicide mission, and their efforts may not be enough, unless they're prepared to make a massive sacrifice.

Orphanage is a military coming-of-age story, a deliberate homage to Starship Troopers that might very well be this generation's answer to said novel. Jason Wander is the dashing young hero-figure who has to go through numerous trials, physical and mental, before he can shed the last trappings of civilian life and his youth, to become the ideal soldier. His trial by fire is as harrowing as anything Juan Rico endures, and his battlefield promotions are as much a test of his ultimate suitability for the military. It's easy to see Buettner's inspirations in Orphanage, but at the same time, it's most definitely its own work, written in a much different era. While Orphanage and Starship Troopers are both futuristic works, Orphanage seems to come out of a much closer, much more plausible future, one where society and technology have progressed without leaving us completely behind. In fact, the "backsliding" of technology, whereupon a suddenly-overcrowded Army is forced to reopen long-closed bases and break obsolete equipment and materiels out of mothballs in order to train their influx of recruits, is a great twist, grounding the story in the familiar while looking ahead to the technological advances created due to the war's urgency.

Not only is Jason a likeable (if somewhat abrasive and brash) narrator, but his companions are also memorable. From the overachieving female Egyptian sharpshooter nicknamed "Munchkin" to the cocky pilot Priscilla "Pooh" Hart, from Jason's best friend-turned war hero, Metzger, to his roommate Ari Klein (mentally bonded to a robotic recon drone), they flesh out the landscape. Buettner manages to instill each character with enough personality that they take on a life of their own, and when some fall victim to the sudden violence of war, their loss is truly felt. Toss in Drill Sergeant Ord (who, like Heinlein's Zim, and every drill sergeant ever, is the textbook definition of semi-sympathetic badass), and you have everything you need. Again, the Heinlein influences are clearly visible.

I've spent a while trying to think of weak points, if any, but in all honesty, none immediately come to mind. Orphanage combines visceral action, first-rate characterization, and solid science to offer up a fast-paced, thoroughly enjoyable read. Ultimately, Orphanage stands a very good chance of being one of the best military SF novels of the year, if not the decade. And I still stand by my suspicion that it could stake a claim towards being this generation's high point, much like Starship Troopers and The Forever War both represent their respective generations. I eagerly look forward to Buettner's next book, especially since it's a sequel to Orphanage. I just hope he can keep it up. If you're a fan of John Ringo, David Weber, William Forstchen, or any of the other excellent military SF writers out there, you won't want to pass this book up. And that's about as blunt as I can get.

Copyright © 2004 Michael M Jones

Michael M Jones enjoys an addiction to books, for which he's glad there is no cure. He lives with his very patient wife (who doesn't complain about books taking over the house... much), eight cats, and a large plaster penguin that once tasted blood and enjoyed it. A prophecy states that when Michael finishes reading everything on his list, he'll finally die. He aims to be immortal.


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