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.
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.