Very Hungry Caterpillar
A Matter for Men (War Against the Chtorr, volume 1)
By David Gerrold
David Gerrold’s 1983 A Matter for Men is the first volume in his as yet unfinished War Against the Chtorr series.
Supine beneath the treaty terms inflicted on America by the Soviets, Chinese, and the rest of an overpopulated world — or just possibly, victorious in a game of fourth dimensional geopolitical chess — America was still recovering from the economic side-effects of surrender when disease made the situation unimaginably worse.
Plague after plague swept the planet, killing four and a half of Earth’s six billion. Young Jim McCarthy’s family tried to wait out the disaster in their mountain cabin, but misjudged the end of the crisis. With half his siblings dead and his family broken by trauma, Jim is drafted into the nation’s Teamwork Army. He soon discovers that the challenge facing America and other, lesser nations, isn’t just disease. It’s an alien invasion.
The most obvious symptom of the invasion are car-sized predators nicknamed “chtorr” after the sound of their cries as they descend on prey. Aggressive, voracious, and nearly impossible to kill with any weapon Americans are permitted to own, the great beasts are only one of the disasters buffeting the world. Hundreds of other novel species have appeared on the planet, each one harmful to native ecosystems in their own way. The Earth is being transformed and not in a manner that seems likely to leave a niche for humans.
Jim finds himself on the front lines against the aliens. He is enthusiastic and hard-working. He is also naïve, poorly informed, and expendable. He has the primary skill every survivor needs, remarkable good luck, so errors that would have got most people killed only leave him beaten up and deeply traumatized.
Clearly, having aliens Chtorraform the Earth from under us is undesirable from a human point of view. Unfortunately, humans are a perverse lot, and so a crisis that should be met by all humanity joining together to resist the invader is derailed by general skepticism that the invasion is happening at all. There’s a concern amongst the nations who have suffered American intervention in the past that the US, which is the principle industrial nation left standing, will use the situation as a pretext to re-arm. A summit to hammer out global defense underlines the issues dividing the planet, issues exacerbated when Jim decides to be excessively frank about the illegal weapons already being used to kill Chtorr.
The US has a plan to deal with global skepticism and paranoia. Jim’s survival is not part of it.
It is my impression later editions updated now dated references to nations that no longer exist. I reread the version I own.
Remember when reviewers could argue that counter-productive, willful blindness to deadly crises was too absurd to be plausible? Heady days, although I suppose it should have been clear that this supposition was untenable as long ago as the golden era of smoking advocacy. Or climate change denial. Or any other crisis where people permit personal inconvenience to convince them that the facts are other than they are.
In general, I would not recommend this book to non-Americans, as the function of non-Americans in this tale is to serve as impediments and hazards to the heroes. The Fourth World, for example, crippled the US economy in the setting’s backstory in a vain attempt to keep the Fourth World’s surplus populations alive:
data simulations or no, they still had to try to save their starving populations.
As I recall, the tendency of foreigners to be incompetent, useless, or actively harmful to the defense of the planet becomes even more pronounced later in the series. Admittedly, Jim is himself not entirely competent, not always useful, and sometimes takes actions that make life more difficult for his superiors. He and Jim Holden from the Expanse have much in common,
Science fiction is not a uniquely American genre. Two of the Big Three Names popular a million years ago in the 1970s were, after all, a Russian-born émigré and a British author, also an émigré. There is, however, definitely an American strain of science fiction or more exactly, there are a number of American SF genres. Matter belongs to that strain that looks to Robert Heinlein as its model. As is so often true when Heinlein is the inspiration, this is not necessarily to its benefit.
The particular Heinlein to which the book looks is later, chatty Heinlein — possibly very specifically Starship Troopers—in which naïve young men like Heinlein’s Johnny Rico and Gerrold’s Jim McCarthy exist in large part to have older, wiser people explain at enormous length how the world works1, often in astoundingly condescending ways. (I can’t imagine that any such perorations ever persuaded someone2.) A fair fraction of the book consists of lengthy exposition about the world and morality. Readers who fan past those sections will find this a quick read. This is mitigated slightly by Jim’s later realization that confidence is not the same as being correct, and that at least some of the adults are making it up as they go.
A science note: from the front of the book:
Chtorr (ktor) n. 1. The planet Chtorr, presumed to exist within 30 light years of Earth. 2. The star system in which the planet occurs; a red giant star, presently unidentified.
There are not a lot of red giant stars within 30 light years of Sol. As far as I know, there are none. Perhaps the author meant red dwarf, of which the Milky Way is horrendously oversupplied. As well, humans speculate that the invasion is motivated by the (presumably older) alien homeworld wearing out or “or its sun may be going cold”. One can imagine planetary processes grinding to a halt, but stars whose demise could be a factor in this epoch (red dwarfs last on the main sequence for trillions of years) do not go cold, at least not without prior events that will warm garden worlds up nicely. Brown dwarfs do cool off with age but they aren’t stars and they are never mentioned. The issue may be that the person speculating about motives is a biologist and not an astronomer.
The best part of the book is the invasion itself, which is of a fairly unusual sort. Rather than descending on the Earth in CGI-friendly starships, whatever or whoever set the process in motion instead is seeding the Earth with lifeforms that easily consume and displace native lifeforms. One is reminded of the spread of invasive species across the New World following 1492, except in this case there is nothing analogous to the Europeans. The speculation is that the Chtorr homeworld is older than Earth3 and its lifeforms therefore more advanced than terrestrial. It’s my impression this is a somewhat obsolete way of looking at biology, but whatever the reason — maybe we’re dealing with a purpose-built terraforming package — what’s happening to Earth has parallels in what happens when previously isolated islands come into contact with continental lifeforms.
There is no proof given in this volume that there is actually an intelligence behind the sudden appearance of the Chtorran lifeforms on Earth. With no enemy in sight, there is nobody we could ask to stop. As it happens, this may not matter since the Earth-Chtorran conflict is a one-sided curb-stomp in favour of the invaders4. Even if we could talk to the aliens, why would they listen?
There are currently four books in the series, the most recent being 1993’s A Season for Slaughter. These provide further details on the situation faced by humanity without providing closure. The precise date by which the series will be concluded is as yet unclear.
A Matter for Men is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), but I could not find it at Barnes & Noble, Book Depository, or Chapters-Indigo.
1: Not to harp on a point, but a lot of how the world works seems to revolve around figuring out excuses not to help people into lifeboats.
[L]et me put that another way: you can spend the rest of your life raising and teaching the next generation of human beings, or you can spend it nursing a few dozen of the walking wounded, catatonics, autistics and retards who will never be able to contribute, who will only continue to use up resources-not the least of which is your valuable time.”
In retrospect it is obvious the book will head in this direction, since the novel begins with our heroes not rescuing an adorable little girl.
2: Re utility of perorations: “Do I have the self-awareness to apply this to my own rhetorical habits?” What are you, some kind of idiot? Here, let me launch a forty-tweet reply.
3: The novel speculates that older, more advanced ecologies will by their nature be immune to anything more primitive ecologies can throw at them. This model seems unlikely to be correct, if only because advanced and primitive are value judgments. Evolutionary biologists use those terms to describe divergence between earlier and later forms of a particular species. Not for ecosystems.
One possibility that might explain why the Chtorran invaders are immune to terrestrial viruses and biological counter-measures is if they were purpose-built. Another (and the explanation I liked in the 1980s) is that we’re being invaded from our own distant future.
4: There is evidence that humans do survive: Gerrold’s 1977 Moonstar, set in a future when humans have spread across the Milky Way, has this passing comment:
Many of the purple plants, and there were a great variety of them, were called Chtorr-plants; they didn’t use chlorophyll for their photosynthesis, but either of two other molecules instead, one less complex, the other a more sophisticated relative of the first. They were named for the legendary place of child-eating demons from which they were supposed to have come.
If this isn’t just Gerrold reusing a word he liked the sound of, it may not be coincidental that the human world in Moonstar is a terraformed world. We might not be able to survive conditions on most planets with native life.