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Orphanage    by Robert Buettner order for
by Robert Buettner
Order:  USA  Can
Aspect, 2004 (2004)

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* *   Reviewed by Theresa Ichino

In Orphanage, set in the near future, Earth has managed to solve some of the knotty problems we face today: environmental awareness has banned combustion engines, peace has finally come to the Middle East, and wars in general are a rarity. The space race has slowed to less than a crawl, as humanity concentrates on situations on its own planet.

Thus the arrival of planet-wide warfare comes as a shock. The source is unknown but definitely extra-terrestrial. Without any kind of warning, earth's major cities are targeted by chunks of rock, their kinetic energy enough to pulverize buildings and kill populations, but lacking the dirty nuclear fall-out that would poison the planet for centuries. Even so, the dust-clouds raised by the bombardments have lowered planetary temperatures and are killing plant-life. Earth's inhabitants face extinction within decades at most.

Unsurprisingly, military enlistments have risen sharply. Jason Wander, whose mother was killed when Indianapolis was targeted, ends up in the army. (It was that or prison, when he attacked a teacher who said the deaths were well deserved, given the attitude of Americans to the Third World.) Despite this unpromising beginning, Jason finds that he has an aptitude for army life, and an unswerving determination to help make a difference. Orphanage is as much an account of personal discovery as a rousing tale of courage in the face of a relentless enemy.

Buettner presents a well thought out scenario, with convincing details. The dust-clouds that are choking the life out of earth are also interfering with modern technology. Jet engines, for example, are chewed apart by the dust that enters them. This, plus the long moratorium on military research, means that humanity's defenders go to battle in antiquated equipment. The numbers of volunteers for these desperate missions far outstrip the places available. Thus, only orphans are chosen, volunteers who have lost all family to the enemy's projectiles.

The story is well written, the characters and situation gripping. The author's military experience gives authenticity, but the focus is on people, not on weapons and explosions. In a Foreword, Buettner provides the source for his title, a poignant excerpt from a World War II soldier's letter. There are also touches of humour: Jason's description of his drill sergeant during basic training is howlingly funny. However, above all, Buettner reminds us that war brings with it a terrible price. And apparently he plans a sequel to Orphanage, which is welcome news.

Note: In his Acknowledgements, Buettner mentions Robert Heinlein and Joe Haldeman. If you enjoy Orphanage, you might also want to check out these authors. Heinlein's Puppet Masters, in particular, is a creepy vision of alien invasion. Additionally, Andre Norton's Time Traders stories pit humans against a merciless alien race capable of time travel. Although Norton is often classified as Juvenile, her tales are engrossing for adults too.

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