Joe Haldeman

The Forever War, Joe Haldeman

St. Martin, 1975 (2009 reprint), 288 pages, ISBN 978-0312536633

I have spent a good chunk of my reading time this year rereading a few Science-Fiction classics (Card, Heinlein, etc.), usually to disappointing results: Finding out that old favourites haven’t aged well since one’s teenage years is common enough that SF fans often use the expression “visited by the suck fairy” to describe how books seem to curdle on their own once reread with a contemporary (and often, more personally mature) perspective.

So it is that I’m overjoyed to report that Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War has not been perceptively visited by the suck fairy. It remains just as interesting now as when it was published forty years ago, and it has lost little of its qualities since then. (This being said, keep in mind that I was reading the 1997 “definitive” edition, notable chiefly for including a middle section that wasn’t in the version I read twenty years ago, along with a number of small fixes here and there.)

The story is familiar enough: An unwilling man is drafted in the war effort against an alien race, and (thanks to the wonders of time dilatation) ends up living through the ensuing multi-millennium war. Through his relatively contemporary perspective, readers find themselves pushed farther and farther in an equally alien future. There’s military action, romance, savvy SF devices deployed well and hard-hitting enough narration to make the novel instantly gripping, even from its classic first line (“Tonight we’re going to show you eight silent ways to kill a man.”) It’s not an accident if it’s from a Vietnam veteran who was wounded in combat.

The lineage that The Forever War owes to an entire tradition of military Science Fiction (most notably Heinlein’s Starship Troopers) is obvious, as are its intentions to subvert some of the inherent heroism in the genre. It’s notable, for instance, that the protagonist of the book isn’t a particularly good warrior, and that his only notable feat of military prowess comes very late in the novel—until then, he accidentally survives through luck and caution.

Interestingly enough, it’s that grounded view of military service that has allowed The Forever War to survive through the decades. War, Haldeman seems to be saying, is not noble or glorious when you’re the grunt on the frontlines: it’s a scramble for survival, it’s something that separates you from your loved ones, it’s in service of other people who may not care all that much about you. The profound sense of alienation that carries through the novel was partially meant to reflect the aftermath of Vietnam for its veterans, but it still carries a potent charge today when measured against other more triumphant military-SF novels. In many ways, The Forever War is both a veteran’s novel, but one that can be readily understood, and championed, by readers without a minute of military service.

The Accidental Time Machine, Joe Haldeman

The Accidental Time Machine, Joe Haldeman

Ace, 2007, 275 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-441-01616-7

Joe Haldeman may be an acknowledged master of Science Fiction, but his work has been quite uneven over the past decade an a half. This, of course, is a polite way of saying that he’s capable of the worst (Forever Free), the dull (Forever Peace), the competent (Camouflage) and the intriguing (The Coming) without warning. One never quite knows what to expect from a Haldeman novel, largely because he rarely attempts sequels or series, but also because his track record so far spans the entire range of critical opinions.

So to say that The Accidental Time Machine is a surprise isn’t entirely surprising. The title is accurate, given how it describes the adventures of a young disaffected MIT student stuck with a sophisticated custom-made lab device that surprisingly ends up sending itself forward in time. As Matt Fuller discovers, this machines works according to precise rules: Every time he activates it, the machine sends itself in the future for a duration twelve times that of the last jump. From micro-second jumps, Matt activates the machine to jumps days, weeks, months and then years in the future. Then things get interesting.

The most obvious attraction of The Accidental Time Machine is the time travel element itself. As Matt jumps from era to era, the world changes, slightly at first, then more radically as the jumps span decades and centuries. Many readers loved it when the protagonists of Haldeman’s The Forever War came back home from decade-long missions only to find utterly transformed societies, and this novel occasionally offers the same kind of conceptual kick. Matt goes through theocracies, post-scarcity economies and strange far-future adventures, and the result is a satisfying grab-bag of speculations, none of them radically new, but all intriguing to some degree or another.

But the real star of the book, for once, aren’t the ideas as much as the characters experiencing it. Matt is our anchor through the novel: recently single, generally apathetic, troubled by job problems, Matt is the ideal character to send through progressively farther futures. He’s both smart enough and isolated enough to look forward to the next jump. He learns much during his trip, including how to woo a comely young woman he accidentally picks up during his jumps. The conclusion, which would have been a nightmare from certain perspectives, ends up being a true charmer in great part because our characters are so happy through it all.

It’s no accident if “charm” ends up being The Accidental Time Machine‘s single most distinctive trait. It’s a short book in an age of bloated monstrosities, and it flows without a hitch. Haldeman’s prose is classic stripped-down elegance, and there’s no reason to stop reading. This is partly a throwback to an earlier kind of SF, but not necessarily a less-successful piece of work. Even with a subject so familiar as time travel, Haldeman finds a few clever wrinkles and wisely doesn’t neglect his characters. While The Accidental Time Machine may not create the kind of gob-smacked admiration as more ambitious contemporary works of SF, it’s got most other contenders beaten down in sheer likability. This is mid-list SF as it should be: Accessible, interesting, short and warm. Readers who have been let down by some of Haldeman’s latest few books ought to be pleased by this one.

Camouflage, Joe Haldeman

Ace, 2004, 296 pages, C$36.00 hc, ISBN 0-441-01161-6

That the 2006 “Best Novel” Nebula Award went to a relatively unknown novel rather than any of the deserving ones isn’t really a surprise. The SFWA’s Nebulas, after all, have long ceased to have any relationship to actual literary worth, instead boldly embracing a growing reputation as the leading industry back-scratching contest. Any relationship to what readers love to read, or what informed critics think is among the best SF/fantasy of the year, is purely coincidental.

So if you haven’t read Joe Haldeman’s Camouflage, don’t feel as if you missed anything spectacular: At best, it’s a competent SF novel that doesn’t insult the intelligence of savvy readers. At worst, it’s just another brick in the Great Wall of the SF mid-list and perhaps a further proof of Haldeman’s hypnotizing powers over the rest of SFWA. It doesn’t really deserve any top award, but what are you going to do? The Nebulas, after all, can’t even be bothered to focus on any single calendar year, nor have a sensible nomination process.

But if you do find a copy of Camouflage, perhaps at a remainder sale, have a look. You can do worse.

It begins decently enough, with some guy telling another about a mysterious artifact buried underneath the Pacific Ocean. Raising it to the surface is no problem, but dealing with it once it’s over the ocean gets to be an issue since the object it many more time denser than even the outer reaches of the periodic table of elements. Various exotic engineering tricks are required to actually put it somewhere it can be studied, and once it’s in place, no one can figure out how to get any information about its composition. Diamond bits and industrial lasers don’t even leave a scratch, leaving the scientists curiously flustered even as media attention is focused on their efforts. Set in a relatively near future (2019), this section of Camouflage makes good use of Haldeman’s travels in Samoa and ends up being a very enjoyable hard-SF tale tending toward old-school hard engineering fiction. It’s told in a crisp no-nonsense fashion that side-steps the feeling of déjà-vu by not wasting our time.

But as it turns out, it’s not even half of the novel’s story. No, Camouflage is really about one alien shape-shifter who, after spending various umpteenth years swimming around, finally comes aground in the early twentieth century to study those human creatures. Somewhat ignorant of social graces, it makes a number of mistakes (some of them fairly serious) before learning to cope with the rest of humanity. Its apprenticeship is long, fascinating and takes us forward ninety years as we figure out how the alien and the ship are linked. This section of the novel distinguishes itself by the way it snakes through nearly a century of history, and by the various details of a shape-shifter’s methods. There is a limpid logic to Haldeman’s writing in Camouflage that makes a lot more interesting that it ought to be, even when it side-steps into irrelevancy.

Such as when it tips the scale even more by introducing a second shape-shifter, a creature of almost comical evil that has also managed to survive throughout all of human history. It, too, is very interested in the alien ship… and you can bet that it’s the sworn enemy of our first shape shifter. We follow this second shape-shifter’s progress through history is such condensed fashion that it’s easy to see Haldeman pull the wool over our eyes. Gee, do you possibly think that it could become someone who figures in the first plot thread of the novel?

All three subplots eventually merge in the last few chapters, with a sudden and improbable romance that leads straight to a final confrontation and a conclusion that seems to say “that’s it, show’s over!” more than anything attempting a satisfying conclusion. At least it’s a relatively short book.

Camouflage certainly doesn’t do anything to heighten my opinion of Haldeman’s recent production. It’s middle-list fodder, exactly the type of novel we think about when we gesture in the direction of “all of those SF books out there”. In some ways, its primary purpose in the field may be as a yardstick, to make the really good stuff look good and the really bad stuff look bad..

And yet it’s written with a sure-footed assurance, plenty of crunchy details and interesting twists on the old shape-shifting idea. Looking at more information about Camouflage, I found that it actually won another award, walking away with half of the 2005 Tiptree Award. Given the treatment of shape-shifting romance in the novel, I can actually understand that. So amend that whole “doesn’t deserve any top award” crack with “(except the Tiptree)” and give me some time as I reflect upon the fact that I read and generally enjoyed a Tiptree-winning novel. Now that wasn’t something I expected.

The Coming, Joe Haldeman

Ace, 2000, 218 pages, C$??.?? hc, ISBN 0-441-00769-4

(Read in French as Le Message, translated by Michel Pagel)

Is it just me, or have Joe Haldeman’s latest few books been uniformly disappointing? Forever Peace unexplainably won the Hugo award despite reading like a first novel from a none-too-gifted neophyte. Forever Free was one of the worst SF novels of the past few years. If you want to be generous, you can say that lately, Haldeman has been churning books whose first half may seem promising, but whose ultimate effect is disappointing.

He doesn’t break out of this rut with The Coming, a short novel that nominally deals with that most familiar SF situation; first contact.

Oh, it’s not your usual average SF novel; from the first few pages, it’s easy to be fascinated by the narration, which flows almost seamlessly from one character to another in a manner reminiscent of the first few minutes of Brian de Palma’s film SNAKE EYES. As characters intersect on the First of October 2054, our viewpoint shifts, efficiently establishing a series of back-stories in a small academic Florida town.

Haldeman’s usual brand of cynicism soon takes over, and we’re once more thrown in a mildly dystopian future: Corruption is everywhere, politicians are stupid (and dangerous), the environment is screwed, homosexuality has been outlawed (even though the market for VR pornography seems to be almost mainstream; hmmm?), Europe is on its way to another major war and, generally speaking, you wouldn’t want to live there.

In the middle of all that comes a message from a source obviously not of this Earth. The message? “WE’RE COMING”. Earth has until January first to get ready. So, what is it? Aliens, a hoax or something else?

The “something else” proves to be easily guessable and rather underwhelming. But that’s not the single biggest failing of The Coming, which is too often undistinguishable from the most ordinary crime thriller. Haldeman pads a novella with subplots that are scarcely relevant to the main theme or the Science-Fiction genre and the overall effect feels dull and disconnected.

As the first day ends and a short summary of the rest of October 2054 is fed to us, the cycle repeats itself for the second third of the book (November first) and then the third (December first, with some space left over for January first). Haldeman’s viewpoint-changing conceit, however, is less rigorous in the latter parts of the book, with a jarring effect on the unity of the book. The sense of rolling urgency created by the switching viewpoint is also lessened by the discontinuities. It’s so much fun to see an author try an original stylistic device that’s it’s a let-down to see him stop whenever he feels like it.

The other fascinating thing about the style of the book is how we eventually witness catastrophic events through media screens and the viewpoint of people scarcely connected to the action. Overall, I’m rather satisfied by Haldeman’s stylistic experiment in The Coming, if rather less impressed by what he does with it and how much potential he squanders on useless trivia, or completely gratuitous (and unpleasant) scenes. It doesn’t help that some plotlines are simply abandoned in the latter third of the book without much of an explanation. Coupled with the stupid rushed ending of Forever Free, it suggests that Haldeman’s writing is becoming seriously affected by his need to pay the mortgage.

On the other hand, well, it’s a quick read and a short book, most probably available from your local library. If ever you’re in need of something quick to read, it might just be what you’re looking for. Like many of Haldeman’s latest few books, it might not be good or satisfying or pleasant, but it’s certainly interesting and fascinating to dissect afterward.

Forever Free, Joe Haldeman

Ace, 1999, 277 pages, C$30.99 hc, ISBN 0-441-00697-3

WARNING: Contains necessary spoilers in discussing the book’s failures.

Fame can do strange things to both performer and audience. An artist whose reputation comes chiefly from hard work and constant professionalism can suddenly find himself able to turn out mediocre work with impunity, as the audience uses earlier works as an excuse to be lenient on newer material. Both sides lose out, because the the artist doesn’t perfect the work, and the audience gets results of inferior quality. In the book industry, best-selling authors can become “editor-proof”, when no one will take take them to task for overwritten books, weak prose or ordinary execution.

For instance, Haldeman’s thematically-linked Forever Peace won raves and a Hugo despite being a novel that read more like a moderately-competent first-time author’s work than a novel by a veteran of the genre.

Similarly, It’s easy to pinpoint Forever Free‘s problems, but it gets difficult to ponder why Joe Haldeman wrote the book that way. Especially when it’s the sequel to one of the most famous SF novels ever.

You may remember The Forever War: Published in 1974 as a Vietnam veteran’s answer to Robert A. Heinlein’s militaristic Starship Troopers (itself a classic), it went on to sell thousands of copies, win both the Hugo and the Nebula awards as well as gain a central position in the genre’s collective memory. The Forever War described the military experience of William Mandella, a physicist-cum-soldier in a war waged during millennia, thanks to light-speed delays. At the end of the first volume, Mandella found himself home with his girlfriend, ready to settle down as Humanity allied itself mentally with the once-enemy alien race.

As Forever Free begins, Mandella is restless: His two children are grown-up and he’s trying to find a way to prove that his type of human is better than Man, the collective entity now representing most of humanity. His best plan? Hijack a starship and make a one-way trip far in the future to see how it all turns out. Stuff happens and things don’t go as planned.

More specifically; they limp home twenty-five years later to find out that everyone has disappeared. They investigate and get weird results.

“How weird” is exactly the problem with Forever Free. While The Forever War (and the first half of Forever Free) is strictly enjoyable hard-SF of the most rigid order (the whole premise of both depends on the absence of Faster-than-light travel), the last pages of Forever Free lazily throw up a completely useless race of shapeshifters (“We’ve been around on Earth for hundred of thousands of your years,” they say offhandedly) and an apparition by God that would be more at home in a Monty Python sketch than in here. (“Oh, you were an experiment, and it’s now time to put away my stuff. Since you insist, I won’t delete you. Oh, I’ve changed to laws of physics while I was at it. Toodles. “) The central mystery of the book isn’t as much solved as it is basically declared irrelevant.

Needless to say, the result is so outlandish that some readers are likely to give up in disgust a novel that that been perfectly good up to that point.

Which naturally raises the question; why was it written this way? I offer a few explanations, none of them really satisfying:

  • “Ha! I’ll write you a sequel, you bastard readers! You keep pestering me for a sequel to a twenty-five year-old classic that stands on its own? I’ll give you a frickin’ sequel.” (Also suspected to be the Thomas Harris Hannibal syndrome)
  • “Oh, no! Five days to go on my deadline, or I lose my fat advance! Gotta wrap this up quick!”
  • “It’s like, man, I’ll put my stuff about Goddd and the universe and stuff. It’ll be sooo deeep and stuff. Man, pass the joint again.”
  • “The metaphorical encounters the literal in an effort to make the reader experience the same sense of alienation as the principal characters, which nicely fits into the post-modernist ethos of nihilism-”
  • “Oh gee, I screwed up this one.”

Pick one… but don’t pick this book in bookstores, and wait for your library copy if you really insist to see what the fuss is about.

Forever Peace, Joe Haldeman

Ace, 1997, 351 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-00566-7

Most experienced SF readers faced with the occasion to read Joe Haldeman’s Forever Peace will inevitably draw parallels and comparisons with the author’s biggest success to date, the 1975 Hugo-and-Nebula winning Vietnam allegory The Forever War. Not only are the titles similar, but both stories star soldiers as protagonists and touch upon the theme of war.

But most differences end there. If The Forever War‘s protagonist Mandella was a true infantryman in the classical sense, Forever Peace‘s Julian Class is a soldierboy operator. Plunged in a full-VR suit, he controls sophisticated “robots” (soldierboys) hundreds of kilometers away. War by proxy, except that like Vietnam, Americans are still faced with a steadily worsening guerilla campaign. Not even the home front is safe, as Class will discover.

Class isn’t a full-time soldier, though: once his nine days of continuous duty are done, he disconnects from the machine and resumes his job as physics teacher at an American university. What is at first a subplot -Class’ relationship with a older woman and her stunning discoveries- soon becomes central to the plot, and the main thrust of Forever Peace begins.

It’s not a bad novel. Among other things, Forever Peace has been selected as a Publisher’s Weekly Best Book of the Year and has also won the 1998 Hugo Award for best novel. For the most part, Haldeman succeeds in producing a very good true Science-Fiction novel. Mixing good characterization with plausible science and readable style, Forever Peace is a better choice than many of the other nominees.

But, even despite the risk of sounding needlessly bitter, it might be time to reconsider Forever Peace. For all its qualities, it often has the feeling of a good first novel by a promising author, not the work of a seasoned pro.

Take the worldbuilding, for instance. Nanotech is there and some reasonably valid consequences are explained (like the essential remodeling of the economic system), but on the other hand these consequences still seem a bit irrelevant. The world of Forever Peace looks a lot like ours even though it seems like if a true leisure society has emerged.

Haldeman being a Vietnam veteran himself, it’s a bit surprising to find out that the motivation for the war (and opponents, and tactics, and goals, and…) are so shallow. (“under-examined” might be a better expression.) Of course, Haldeman’s attitude toward war, politics and government is as bitter as could be expected from him. It still doesn’t create a good impression.

(No, but really; nanotech is there… why fight a war?)

Then the second half of the book is plagued with exactly the same problem that almost destroyed Spider Robinson’s Lady Slings the Booze: Strange characters are assembled and shakily establish a doomsday scenario on a foundation of half-deductions, incredible speculation and doubtful assumptions. Then they make up a plan to save the world and the second half of the book is just an implementation of the plan. Booo-

Fortunately, Haldeman maintains a certain level of tension throughout and doesn’t attempt to play it for half-laughs-half-tears like Robinson. Expert commandoes are sent, a few unexpected things happen but the hero still save the day/world/universe on schedule. At least, it’s entertaining.

Yet, Forever Peace is a worthwhile read. Far from being as good as the classic The Forever War, it nevertheless remains a pretty good SF book in its own right. And somewhere near the end, maybe you’ll glimpse the true nature of its relation with The Forever War. The first volume’s resolution is precipitated by an event alien and frightening to the protagonist. The solution this time around is exactly the same and remains alien to the protagonist. But this time, we’re supposed to feel grateful. We have become the alien. There is nothing to fear this time.

Nice trick, Mr. Haldeman.