The Big Idea: Myke Cole

War changes you, and in the case of the protagonist of Gemini Cell, the new novel by Myke Cole, the changes are more drastic than they are for others. But as drastic as they are, they have their root in a common affliction for those who have gone into combat. Cole explains below.


When you sign up for a hitch in the military, you understand that you might get hurt. Warfighters exist to kill people and destroy property, that’s what they do. You’re ready for privation, for injury.

But it’s one thing to suffer. It’s another thing to change.

You tell yourself that won’t happen. Sure, you may experience horror, but you know who you are. After months in the suck, you take pride in maintaining your sense of self. War is hell, but you haven’t let it make you into a demon.

Then you come home, and something’s off.

It’s in the little ripples you make in the world, the complex web of interactions that extends from the store clerk who bags your groceries to your own spouse and children. You’ve had this experience, and even though you lived through it, it broke something lose inside you, something that can never be put back. The isolation grows and you realize with dawning horror that you have changed in a way that those who’ve never gone to war haven’t, that the change is permanent, that it separates you from everyone else, even those you love the most, forever.

This chasm, this permanent isolation is what we call PTSD, and it’s the big idea behind Gemini Cell.

Warfighters don’t have a monopoly on PTSD. It affects everyone who experiences trauma, from victims of abuse to those raised in poverty, but Gemini Cell is a book about a warfighter, and it’s that brand of PTSD I’m focusing on here.

The protagonist, James Schweitzer, is killed on an op. The story would normally end there, but Schweitzer is summoned back from the dead and put back on the line serving his country. Death has given Schweitzer a lot of advantages: near-immortality, super strength and speed, heightened senses, but it’s also permanently cut him off from the people he once loved and lived alongside. Schweitzer is still a man in every sense save one: he lacks a beating heart.

That’s enough.

Schweitzer left a wife and son behind, and his efforts to reunite with them throw his permanent change into stark relief. The dead can be reanimated, but they can’t be brought back to life. Schweitzer may be able to rejoin his family, but he can never be a husband and father again, not like he was.

Schweitzer’s unlife is a pretty bald stand-in for life with PTSD, the permanent shift that sets you apart from those you love. The challenge of first accepting the change, then charting a new course, a way forward now that the goal posts have all moved, is enormous. For many, it’s insurmountable. It is as if, dead, you walk among the living, who must force a smile and pretend that nothing is wrong.

Many return from war superpowered, able to complete challenging tasks under immense pressure. They are stronger and fitter, undaunted by the fear of death that they have faced so many times. They are disciplined and focused. They get up early. They notice things others might have missed. But these benefits only serve to set them further apart. The loved ones they left behind still want to sleep in, still want to spend their Saturday nights at the loud rock concerts with drumrolls that sound far too much like gunfire.

Those returning from war find themselves swimming upstream, having to navigate job markets that have no use for those whose primary occupation is killing people and destroying property. They are forced to grapple with a world that suddenly has too many choices, a world that looks and smells and sounds familiar, but no longer makes any sense.

It may seem as impossible as a dead man rejoining the living, but military service members do impossible things all the time. The skills that set the warfighter apart in the first place are the same skills they must leverage to cope with being set apart. You can never return life to how it was, but a new life can be built, and it may not be until many years down the road that you realize that it is better than the one you left behind.

Raised from the dead, Schweitzer has plenty of work to do. He must serve on his nation’s front line against a resurgence of magic that threatens to bring destruction to all. But his toughest challenge is in finding a way to exist in a world where he shouldn’t, where his every step is a violation of natural law.

It won’t be easy, but it’s not surprising. This is war, and war is hell.


Gemini Cell: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.

20 Comments on “The Big Idea: Myke Cole”

  1. I’m pretty sure Myke read from this at last year’s Balticon and I’m glad I’ll be able to read the whole thing now. I am enjoying the “Shadow Ops” universe.

  2. Didn’t know Mike had a new book, love the idea. Reminds me of Universal Soldier. Bought it immediately.

  3. I think this is one of the most powerful Big Idea postings ever. The Shadow Ops series has been on my TBR pile for way too long. (Darn all you authors who keep writing new books! I will NEVER catch up!) This has pushed them up closer to the top of the pile, and this book goes close to the very top!

  4. It’s not clear from this Big Idea post, but Gemini Cell is in fact a Shadow Ops novel & thus goes on my TBR read list for sure. I don’t read a lot of mil-SF, but this series is really excellent!

  5. Thank you Mr. Scalzi. I never thought of PTSD as the military world cast upon the old world. Not having had to fight, I am often curious. Your description helps me. I am sure it is also all the injuries, if one has them too that makes up the difference between a regular bloke and someone who took bullets. This article really caught my eye. As a couch patriot, I’ve always felt that I could help by questioning the motivations for our entering wars. Is it too much for a soldier to be thinking about justification? He is told to shut up and listen.

  6. My father went to and came back from the Korean War ten years before I was born. He didn’t talk about it much, though he glorified military service and he was proud when I was commissioned. He’d earned a Silver Star for taking out a tank. He was a survivor of the Chosin Reservoir. He was Marine Force Recon.

    For a long time I idolized what he had been and what he was. But he was not easy to get along with. He was stand-offish, chilly, kind of demanding to my older brother and when I came along Dad seemed less demanding but more stand-offish and very impatient with emotional expression. Being told that he wished I’d turned out differently didn’t help. And over time I just let myself get more apart from him, have less emotional investment in him. If he was going to be distant to me, well, the least I could do was return the favor.

    When my mother, his wife, began to die from cancer, he fell apart. He had relied on her so much for all the years they’d been married — classic 1950s family, for the most part — that he died long before she did. It was then that my resentment built — the nuclear family was supposed to be able to support itself when times got tough, but he fell apart just when my brother and I were also falling apart. It was a mess, and it was a wonder we got anything done in those years. When he passed away a month and a half after she did, it was, I feel, a mercy for him.

    I’ve wrestled with who he was for a long time. My family loves keeping secrets, and some of the ones I managed to glimpse continued to paint an unflattering picture of him. I’d been writing a novel; some of me fell into it. And when I wrote an ‘interview’ between me and one of the characters I lost it and (for not the first time, but certainly the first time it was that emphatic) had an argument with my father’s expy. And at the end of it, I realized: War changes a person. PTSD, emotional trauma, certain experiences really change people in ways we can never really quantify unless we make a study of it. You think you put away the ‘war face’ but you really don’t: It becomes your new face, and you just start to wear a mask that looks like what you think you should be. And I realized a lot about my father that night, flailing away at the keyboard.

    I never really knew *him*. I knew the man who had come back from Korea ten years before. He was most certainly not the man who had gone there. And while this is sad, it’s also means he wasn’t the monster he once feared he was. I think he referred to himself that way once because he had looked in the mirror and seen that his war face had replaced the face he had once known, and he didn’t like it, as much as it was a part of him. War changes a person — always, irrevocably.

    I think I need to read this book. Not just ‘want’ to read it — but need to. Thank you, Mr. Scalzi and Mr. Cole.

  7. Not a military SF fan here, but Myke’s posting makes me want to check out his book.

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