The War Against the Chtorr
by David Gerrold
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Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted July 9, 2003, with later edits
Book 1: A Matter For Men
Book 2: A Day For Damnation
Book 3: A Rage For Revenge
Book 4: A Season For Slaughter
Book 5: A Method For Madness (pending, ???)
Chtorr (ktôr), n. 1. The planet Chtorr, presumed to exist within 30 light years of Earth. 2. The star system in which the planet occurs, presently unidentified. 3. The Chtorran ecology; the living system comprised of all the processes and particles of the Chtorran ecology. 4. In formal usage, either one or many members of the ruling species of the planet Chtorr. Obsolete. (see Chtor-ran) 5. The glottal chirruping cry of a Chtorran gastropede.
Chtorran (ktôr in), adj. 1. Of or relating to either the planet or the star system, Chtorr. 2. Native to Chtorr. n. 1. Any creature native to Chtorr. 2. In common usage, a member or the primary species of Chtorr, the worm-like gastropede. (pl. Chtor-rans)
The Random House Dictionary
of the English Language
Century 21 Edition, expanded
Please note, none of these books are currently in print, but you should be able to find used copies through amazon (we may still earn a commission), or used bookstores, eBay, or Bookfinder.com. I hope there is a possibility they will be reprinted if and when the fifth book is released, because they do deserve to be available to a wider audience.
The first book in this series, A Matter For Men, was originally published in 1983, with the second, A Day For Damnation coming in 1985. Both of these volumes were revised, expanded and republished in 1989, just prior to the release of the third book, A Rage For Revenge. The fourth, A Season For Slaughter arrived on the scene in 1992. In an interview printed in the back of my copy of the fourth book, Gerrold is asked if it will be another three years before the appearance of the fifth book, and he replies, "God, I hope not." But twenty-seven years later we are still waiting. I don't know as yet how much longer we will have to wait (and it is frustrating), but I have confidence that Gerrold will reward us with another intense, exciting and thought-provoking book. Gerrold announced on Facebook (August, 2015) that the book was finished and in beta-reader phase. I'm sure there will be further edits based on notes he receives, so I'm not holding my breath, and now it's near the end of 2019. I'm hoping I might be lucky enough to get an advance review copy whenever it is ready. Stay tuned.
If you have not read them yet, and if anything I say here piques your interest, I suggest you look for the revised versions of the first two books (which were published by Bantam instead of Timescape Books as the originals were). If you run across an SFBC edition titled The War Against the Chtorr: Invasion, that is an omnibus of the original versions of the first two books. It is possible that the majority of people who will see this article will have already read them long before I did, and in that case I welcome any comments or criticisms of my opinions. It is inevitable that I will include spoilers in this review, although I will attempt to keep them to a minimum. I do want to give a brief synopsis of each book, but will refrain from too many comments, although I am perfectly willing to discuss it in more detail on the forums with anyone else interested.
For anyone who does not care to read further, let me say now that I recommend these books highly. Gerrold is not only an extremely good storyteller, his work also exhibits many keen insights into human emotions and psychology, much like another favorite author (and I know he's one of Gerrold's as well), Robert A. Heinlein. There are several specific things in the books that to me show a definite Heinlein influence, and I will address those later in the review.
One of the things about the first book that I thought was odd is that Gerrold does not take time to set up the situation, but in retrospect it does make sense. The story is being told in first person by the main character, James Edward McCarthy, so we experience the revelations concerning the Chtorr as he discovers them himself. Other background information is filled in with either Jim's flashbacks to earlier periods or in information imparted to him by his military superiors and/or civilian researchers. Even after the fourth book we still have not learned much about how the Chtorr arrived on Earth, mainly just speculations that have no hard evidence to back them up. Jim's theories deduced from his many experiences in the field hold as much weight as any of those by more highly trained scientists or military personnel.
Since this story is being told in first person, the reader will either assume it is being written after the fact as the narrator recalls everything that happened, or else is being written in stages, as in a journal or diary. If after the fact, then it has to be that Jim has survived the war (even if humanity has lost). I am of the opinion it is more the journal approach, written at the same time Jim has to write his field reports which later become parts of the Red Book (more on that later).
Through some of the expository passages and flashbacks we learn of a series of devastating plagues which have swept over the world, killing billions of people in all nations. At first it is assumed that the invading species are attempting to take advantage of humanity's reduced ability to resist their attack, but later it is speculated that the Chtorr (large, omnivorous worms given that name due to the audible cry they emit during attacks) are responsible for the propogation of the plagues. One thing that is still not clear, even at the end of the fourth book, is whether the worms are the dominant species from their planet or just part of the shock troops paving the way for further waves of invasion. Along with the worms, there are over a hundred other unique species of flora and fauna that have been identified as extraterrestrial in origin, leading to the notion that their actions are a process of "Chtorr-a-forming" planet Earth. Jim has previously attended college, his main courses being in biology and related disciplines. Due to the depletion of both scientific and military personnel, Jim is pressed into service as a science advisor attached to a company of soldiers whose duty it is to seek out and destroy worms and their habitats.
There are several elements of A Matter For Men that show the influence of RAH's Starship Troopers; the maturation process of Jim McCarthy is similar (and at the same time different) to that of Johnnie Rico; Jim's high school class in Global Ethics parallels Johnnie's History and Moral Philosophy class; a previous failed war with Pakistan, and the following Moscow Treaties, seems to be setting up a situation similar to the one in Troopers that resulted in the consolidation of power with veterans. Please be aware that this is in no way a criticism of Gerrold's work. I could list hundreds of titles that also owe a debt to Heinlein, in fact a great many books in the genre over the past fifty years or so show a lot of his influence, and rightfully so. Another thing that would remind a lot of people of Heinlein are the quotes from Solomon Short that begin each chapter of all four books, which if they had been presented grouped together would be very similar to the "Notebooks of Lazarus Long" from Time Enough for Love. There is much to these books that is uniquely Gerrold's own however, and I must assume that many thoughts expressed by Jim and several other major characters reflect much of his own ideals. Gerrold is an exceptionally intelligent person, exhibiting keen insights on what it means to be human and all the joys and pitfalls that that entails.
"I do not think that an increase in intelligence represents real progress for humanity. It is much more likely that it will only enable us to make a higher class of mistake."
Along with the quotes from Short that begin each chapter in A Matter for Men, several of them end with a news item relating in some way to the Chtorran infestation. Most of them point to the fact that there is a lot of skepticism about the "supposed" invasion, that is until toward the end of the book, when the Chtorr have been acknowledged by several civilian and police agencies, and evacuations of heavily infested areas have begun. Even though it would have been nice if Gerrold had tightened up his narrative and told it complete in one book (or even a trilogy), it is apparent that he knew the story he wanted to tell was too complicated for that. Jim McCarthy is also a very complex character, and the changes he goes through in the course of these books is accumulative, with his desire to wipe out the worms never overshadowing the deep sorrow he feels for the losses suffered by the Earth and his fellow humans.
Unlike in his more recent Dingilliad trilogy, Gerrold does little to rehash events from preceding books in the series, in fact Jim and other characters make only casual reference to quite a few events that took place outside of the main narration. A Day For Damnation begins several months, or perhaps as much as a year, after the conclusion of A Matter For Men (all four books span a time period of over six years). It is apparent that he and his fellow soldiers have labored through many dangerous encounters with the worms, and the strain of their seemingly hopeless task daunts them at every turn.
Jim has become very proficient with the various weapons used against the aliens, and has also accumulated a vast store of information about their habits. Due to the fact that a bounty has been offered for each destroyed worm, Jim has also accumulated quite a bit of money (actually KCs - Kilo Calorie units) but he fears he may never live to spend any of it. Several new elements of the alien infestation are introduced in this novel, and once again Jim and his immediate superior, Captain Duke Anderson, are involved in one of the first encouters with a strange new creature, which Jim dubs a "bunnydog." These small creatures, too cute and comical to frighten the soldiers overmuch, seem to have a mutually beneficial relationship with the worms. Later in the novel Jim attempts a more direct communication with them, based on observations he has made among a group of people in San Francisco known as "the herd." It is believed this group has been affected in some way by the alien infestation and may harbor clues that could unravel many mysteries. Unfortunately, Jim's speculations turn out to be false, which almost proves to be fatal for him and the other member's of the expedition.
"The universe if full of surprises. Most of them nasty."
The Solomon Short quotes continue to head each chapter of all four books, but in A Day For Damnation the chapters end with one or more Chtorran jokes, which are very repetitive in nature with one theme in common, the voracious appetite of the worms. For example:
Q: What do Chtorrans call San Francisco?
Q: What do Chtorrans call Oregon?
A: Natural food.
Q: What do Chtorrans call Southern California?
A: Granola. (It's all fruits, nuts, and flakes.)
In my opinion, A Rage For Revenge is the best book of the series, with Jim McCarthy going through a wide range of changes, physical, mental, and spiritual. Again, Gerrold jumps right into the action without reference to the previous book. Jim is more experienced now, but also more battle-weary. Even though he is still relatively young by military standards he has inherited a large amount of responsibility, not only because of the depleted ranks, but also because his previous actions have been largely successful. He has accumulated even more information on the worms, deduced other facts later confirmed by tests and experimentation, and most importantly, he has survived, which give many under his command a little more confidence.
Early in the book, Jim is captured by a group of renegades and the young trooper reconnoitering with him is killed. Renegades are various groups who have forsworn the sovereignty of the United States government, and several have even been known to live among the worms. The group that captures Jim is referred to as The Tribe, and they are led by an extremely charismatic man who apparently has discovered a way to tame worms and live in harmony with them. It would be very easy for me to reveal too much about this segment of the story as I think it holds many keys to the motivations behind Jim's actions. Almost every other chapter jumps back and forth between Jim's time with The Tribe with another period (which occurs later) as he attends sessions of the Mode Training, conducted by Dr. Jeffrey Foreman, a character introduced briefly in the first book of the series. In a preface to A Rage For Revenge, Gerrold explains that this training is pure fiction, and that it is not based on any other motivational seminar in existence. The Tribe's leader is a former student of the Mode Training, and there are times that what he says and does seems to make as much sense as Foreman does.
There is another scenario that takes place in between these two periods. After Jim has escaped from The Tribe he lives for a time among members of The Family, a group of about twenty adults who have established a sanctuary for orphans on a man-made island near Santa Cruz, California. In order to gain access to water, power and other utilities, it has been necessary to construct a small spit of land to connect the island to the mainland. Jim is unsuccessful in convincing the others that this connection could provide worms and/or renegades easy access to their town. I cannot justify any further spoilers about this segment, but I will say that the actions forced on Jim after the worm attack on this sanctuary are ones that are not only painful for him to bear but also painful to read. I think I understand all too clearly why it took Gerrold so long to write portions of these books, and I am sure it is the same case with the as yet uncompleted fifth book. The things that Jim and others have to do just to survive are at times shocking, and they may be justified in wondering if humanity can retain any of its values through this conflict.
"No man is an island, but some of us are pretty good peninsulas."
The chapters in A Rage For Revenge end with various limericks that Jim has composed, one of the methods he has developed to keep his mind off more depressing thoughts. All of them are bawdy of course, as are all truly good limericks.
Most of the action in A Season For Slaughter takes place in Central and South America. The alien infestation has spread rapidly, with many more new species being recognized. The Chtorran ecology is discovered to be extremely complex, with every element filling a special niche in the entire structure, however little is known of the hierarchy of each of the elements. On another of his many incursions into Chtorran-held territory, Jim makes another important discovery, one which may hold secrets of how and when the infestation began and how it might progress in the future.
The nation of Brazil reluctantly invites a contingent of U. S. scientists to investigate several Chtorran "cities," which prove to be much larger and more complex than any encountered previously. The expedition utilizes a commandeered civilian airship, which conveniently (or perhaps inconveniently) resembles one of the alien worms. Jim and others think that this resemblance might afford them the opportunity to observe the worms more closely, but it proves to be a detriment as the ship falls prey to one of the smallest of the invading species. The book ends with Jim and a handful of others being rescued from the rain forest by helicopter. I have to assume that the short preview Gerrold gives in the interview that appears at the end of the book is facetious, but if not we are in for one hell of a ride when A Method For Madness is finally released.
"It's impossible to make anything foolproof, because fools are so ingenius."
The passages that conclude the chapters in the fourth book include a transcript from a talk show called the "Hot Seat," (with Dr. Foreman being interviewed by the host John Robison), along with selections from the Red Book, sort of an encyclopedia of all things Chtorran, many of the entries having been written by Jim based on his observations and encounters with the worms and other alien species.
Of course there is a great deal of the plot that I have left out here, along with hardly any mention of characters other than Jim McCarthy. One that I have to mention now, although I still don't want to say too much, is Elizabeth "Lizard" Tirelli, a military pilot whom Jim initially meets when she flies him, a colleague, and some Chtorran specimens to labs in Denver. She reappears in a significant scene in the second book, and later becomes a much more important figure in the developing story. The only other thing I will say about her now is that I am sure she was created with Robert Heinlein's wife Virginia in mind, as were many of the intelligent, strong-willed (and red-haired) women of RAH's novels. Gerrold dedicated the first book to Robert and Ginny.
One of the major frustrations in Jim's life is that even with all his accomplishments against the worms he feels unappreciated. No one seems to acknowledge anything about him unless it is to criticize or condemn him for one of his few mistakes. A lot of people along the way tell him that this is because he is too self-centered and not a team player. If not for the fact that the country is embroiled in a fight for survival and that experienced people are a rare commodity he might possibly have been discharged for some of these occasions, or at least reduced in rank. And yet, even with his mistakes, more and more is learned about the Chtorrans, and the information he has been able to compile amounts to as much as many other researchers combined have been able to determine. I think the main reason Jim is able to cope with this situation is that he had become used to similar treatment from both his parents. At one point he tells another that he cannot recall his father hugging him or ever telling him he was loved. His mother was also prone to ignore him, and that becomes even more evident in a scene in A Day For Damnation when Jim sees her for the first time since he began his military service. She, along with many other civilians, is still blissfully ignorant of the full scope of the alien infestation and nothing Jim says seems to make an impact on her.
Jim goes through a lot of introspective soul-searching in this series, both on his own and through interaction with five other persons specifically. The first is Duke Anderson, his immediate superior in the fight against the worms in the first two books. Duke is like the father he wishes he had, or at least the older brother he never had. The second is a Dr. Davidson, a therapist with whom he consults by phone only, never face to face. Next is Dr. Foreman, both before, during and after Jim participates in the Mode Training. Another is Jason Delandro, the leader of The Tribe. And finally there is Lizard. Their relationship goes through many stages throughout the course of the series, and it is just as puzzling to me when they argue as when they make up. It will be interesting to see how that might develop (or deteriorate) in the next book.
I suppose no one should write about this series without mention of the Mode Training, although I have to admit I'm still not sure what to make of it, mainly because I can't figure out what Gerrold thinks of it. It would be easy to say it is something he thinks positively about since Jim seems to have come to that conclusion after the training, but then again that might be falling into a trap Gerrold has set for us. Jim may be the writer's alter ego in the story, then again it could be Dr. Foreman, or neither. Gerrold states specifically in a preface to A Rage For Revenge that we should not read too much into it, it was just an intriguing idea for him. As I was reading the Mode Training sequences I liked Foreman's character less and less. Regardless of the results he intends or achieves, the methods he uses are suspect. I am sure I would not appreciate such treatment regardless of the lessons I might learn. Maybe that just means I am a prime candidate for the training myself, but I think I will pass at this time. In my opinion, Jim has acted in the proper manner throughout the whole series (regardless of what others say about him), and not just after he has completed the training.
Overall, I have a very postitive opinion of this series, as I do for all the other Gerrold books I have read. Even though there is a lot of dialog and introspection there is also a lot of action. Another good point is that it was difficult to tell in which direction the story was heading. Each book has a different feel and emotion to it, reflecting the continuing struggle of Jim to understand everything that is happening to him. The only negative I can think of now is that it will be very hard to wait for the next book. I could probably point to several scenarios that could have been eliminated to make the narrative tighter and more intense. Then again, Gerrold has used the opportunity those scenarios presented to explore Jim's character, and that of humanity as a whole, more fully than would have been possible in a shorter series. Since there are three more books projected, and Gerrold says he knows exactly how the series will conclude, it is obvious he has many more ideas to impart. I, for one, am anxious to find out what they are.
"Space is not the final frontier. The final frontier is the human soul. Space is merely the place where we are most likely to meet the challenge. The victory will occur in the continual process of challenging and testing our limits - both as individuals and as a species - and not in the amount of territory conquered." — Solomon Short
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