Book Review: The War against the Chtorr

Bug Rating:fly.jpg

Synopsis: Long-winded Libertarians lead the fight against an extra-terrestrial insectish species in this 1983 sci-fi novel.

I had such high hopes for this book. Its cover promised all sorts of awesome. And then, I discovered the author wrote the Star Trek “Trouble with Tribbles” episode.

Cheezy cover! History of Tribbles! Silly rhyming title!  (War/Chtorr)

Alas, it was not to be.

Like most sci-fi/fantasy books I’ve reviewed here, the biology is a bit muddled.  Although, really. When you have a post-apocalyptic world invaded by aliens, who’s going to quibble about a little bad biology?
(Well, besides me, anyway?)

The Chtorr are described as insects in several places, but also as having “purple skin and varicolored fur.”  Or as “giant, pink, fur-covered caterpillars.”  Or “a large, purple and red, man-eating caterpillar.”  An eye-witness account:

“It was huge! Nearly twice the length of a man, bright red and more than a meter thick at the head! Its eyes were black and lidless. It reared up into the air and waved its arms and made that chirruping sound again; its mouth was a flashing maw. “Chtorr!” it cried. “Chtorrrrrr!”

Perhaps the Chtorr are foreshadowing Lady Gaga’s wardrobe and career?

But I digress.

In 1998 the world is destroyed by a series of plagues, and only a few Americans are left. They are gathered into “re-education” locations and given mandatory civics classes on the duties of citizens in this new world.  Apparently, those classes make an impression, because fully one third of this 397 page book is the main character flashing back to high school discussions of wealth redistribution and federal abuse of power.

It is just about as fascinating as you would expect.

That’s a shame, because the fundamental concept of the book (which you figure out when you FINALLY arrive at page 213) is centered around invasive species displacing the native inhabitants of Earth’s ecosystems. Aliens are terraforming the Earth by ecological invasion.

That is a brilliant thing to build a novel around!  The invaders are more competitive ecologically. Alien plants change the light transmittance and oxygen level in water.  Alien insecty-things become the top predators in their new ecosystem.

Add to that the invaders can only be killed by fire or explosives, and you’ve got a firecracker of a book.
Um, unless you bog it down with tedious discussions of what money is, and how the state and individual power balance is maintained.

The portrayal of women in this book just adds to the Dismal.  All but one of the female characters in the book are “comfort women.” In fact, a topic covered in that high school civics class is the duty of all hotties under 18 to put out for the betterment of humankind.  Not the most enlightened future society, but if you’re going to kill everyone, I guess stockpiling nubile young women as well as weapons is to be expected.

Sigh.

So there you have it. Disappointing.

(As a final aside, one of the main characters is named Dr. Obama!)

10 thoughts on “Book Review: The War against the Chtorr

  1. Of course, placing any alien lifeform in a terrestrial taxonomic order is madness. There may be lifeforms with an exoskeleton and a triple-segmented body on other planets but we should not call them insects.

  2. I first read this book when I was about 14, and went on to read the 3 subsequent sequels (A Day for Damnation, A Rage for Revenge, and A Season for Slaughter). The author certainly hits a stride later in the series, and builds on some of the cool alien terraforming concepts (which are referred to occasionally as “Chtorraforming”).
    Throughout the subsequent books it becomes clear that the Chtorran worms are not insects in any real sense; rather they are voracious alien creatures resembling insects. The concept of their fur is particularly intelligent and fun to read. Gerrold does continue to follow tangents occasionally; this seems to be second-nature for sci-fi authors of his age (very much like Robert Heinlien).

    Book 2 (A Day for Damnation) provides a fantastic look into this ecology that I’d like to hear an entomologist’s take on. After becoming caught in a bizarre storm caused by the alien terraforming, the main character is able to observe the spawning of an entire ecology from the cramped confines of his downed chopper. The concept provided by this scene makes the book a triumph, and I imagine an enjoyable read for any scientist. Book 4 (A Season for Slaughter) provides a tremendous amount of detail regarding the Chtorran ecosystem. These books took decades for Gerrold to write; it seems that he spent that time working out the most detailed concept for an ecosystem ever to exist in science fiction.

    The reprinting of the series in the 80’s resulted much better cover art. The Wikipedia page has a great example of the cover art for A Matter For Men: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_War_Against_the_Chtorr

    Take the time to read the other books in this series. I predict that you will be thoroughly entertained, and I’d like to hear your thoughts on real Chtorran bugs.

  3. A couple of comments on things you didn’t pick up on:

    The High School civics class occurs entirely before the plagues. The United States has lost a war in Pakistan, and thense subcombed to nuclear blackmail by an alliance of 3rd world countries (we later learn these to include Pakistan, Iran, Brazil, and Mexico). The post-defeat America is subject to the same sort of restrictions as post-WWI Germany, and the civics class is actually part of a widespread cover for evading the restrictions that prevent the US from having a substantial standing army.

    I think you do the description of the discussion of prostitution a disservice. The actual theme of the discussion is that a woman who plans to marry for wealth is worse than a prostitute because she is neither honest with herself or her spouse, and the indictement is brought against a young woman who says in essence that she doesn’t have to learn because she’s only a girl. Not that that may make it more palatable, but at no point is it said in the civics class that it’s the duty of young woman to put out.

    I find the portrayal of women in the book to be primarily maternal in nature. While there is alot of ‘comforting’ going on, the main character remains locked in my mind to something close to perpetual childhood and continually needs a parent – male or female – to knock some sense into him. The women in the book can be largely divided into ‘good mothers’, who generally sleep with the main character, and ‘bad mothers’ who don’t. Since the main character is in many ways I think a surrogate self for the author, this strikes me as a far more dismal self-portrayal than a dismal portrayal of women.

    The sexual politics are much much more messed up than that even, which becomes one of the major distractions/interests of the book (take your pick), especially in book 3.

    Yes, fundamentally, the biology/ecology of the book is unsound, starting unsurprisingly with its basic energy economy (which is where most sci-fi breaks down). Even I know that plants are green for a reason, and you can’t just arbitrarily change the color of them to red or something and expect them to work better.

    However, the basic idea to build the book around is indeed brilliant and this works as a wonderful companion peice to ‘The War of the Worlds’ in that the two stories are inverse of each other – in one mankind is helpless and must be rescued by Earth’s biology, and in the other Earth’s biology is helpless and must be rescued by mankind. It’s the surprising ideas that occasionally crop up, the scientific curiousity evidenced by the hero, and the occassionally heart pounding action that make the story worth reading, although, I admit that it helps to encounter the story as a teenager when the the politics/philosophy/economic theories are less familiar.

  4. MATERNAL?? Wow.

    I think that the way an adult woman reacts to this book and the way a teenage boy reacts to this book is profoundly different.

    Which probably explains why we reached different conclusions.

    I’ll say it again–it was a brilliant idea for a novel. But it did not deliver. And the treatment of women is just dismal.

  5. I’ve used the graphic with no idea where it was from in a bed bug awareness power point as an intro in the control section “None Like It Hot” the uses of heat in bed bug management.

Comments are closed.