Earthbound (Marsbound III) – Joe Haldeman

Marsbound3EarthboundAfter the massive cliffhanger at the end of Starbound, our heroes are stuck on Earth. The Others have stopped all electrics and electronics from functioning. Civilization is collapsing and things are generally looking grim.

Compared to the previous two volumes, the concluding book is nowhere near as good. The premise is clever and intriguing, but it devolves quickly into a story about how to survive the end of civilization. The epic storyline dealing with the Others and what place humanity will have in relation to them, which has been the main thrust of the plot in the first two books, is almost completely ignored. Spy makes a couple of appearances, but what they mean is never explained. Much of the story seems rather random. The monumental deux ex machina at the end is simply adding insult to injury. If you’ve read the first two books, by all means read on to find out what happens with Carmen in the end, but also be thankful the book is short.

2½Rosbochs

 

Starbound (Marsbound II) – Joe Haldeman

Marsbound2StarboundIn the sequel to Marsbound, Carmen and Paul, along with a few other human and Martian crew members, are tasked with an interstellar exploratory mission to the presumed home planet of the Others. Despite the “free energy” discovered in the previous book, the trip will take years, skimming the speed of light. But do the Others appreciate the intrusion? And what do they really want?

Most of the book is about the trip itself, and the psychological challenges of living for years in a confined space while hurtling towards what the crew thinks is probably doom. The last part sees humanity confronted once again with the judgment of the mysterious Others. These aliens seem to see humanity as somewhere between clumsy child and dangerous but manageable pest. The fact that humanity is hopelessly outclassed, and can only use its action to prove intent, gives an interesting perspective, as does the fact that the human emissaries feel that those who sent them out really don’t understand the problem. The ending is a massive cliffhanger, leading directly to the third and final book.

Haldeman does not disappoint, with his trademark unexpected but internally consistent logical plot twists. His characters, this time described from three different first person viewpoints, are flawed and realistic, down to little marital niggles that most would rather keep hidden even from themselves.

4Rosbochs

The Accidental Time Machine – Joe Haldeman

TheAccidentalTimeMachineIn the not-too-distant future, MIT graduate student Matt Fuller has just completed a graviton generator for his professor. He tests it and it disappears, only to reappear a second later. Further experimentation shows that the generator has, quite by accident and unexplainably, acquired the ability to jump forward in time. Matt figures out a way to go with it. There’s a catch, though. Every jump is longer than the previous one in a geometric progression, and Matt calculates that the jumps will very soon be hundreds of thousands of years long, then millions, and ever growing. Wanting to escape his personal circumstances at the time, Matt starts jumping forward.

As usual with Mr. Haldeman, the tale takes an unexpected turn somewhere down the line, in a good way. Matt travels to future societies both regressed and far progressed from our current one. This is not uniquely a touristic exploration of possible futures, however. At the core there lies a logically carved out path, interestingly ambiguous in its treatment of predestination and free will. The personal story and growth of Matt, a down-on-his-luck and rather lazy graduate student, adds a charming and personal dimension to the tale, and ensures that despite the subject matter, the novel is softer than the rock-hard science fiction of classics like The
Time Machine
or A World Out of Time.

4½Rosbochs

 

The Hemingway Hoax – Joe Haldeman

A cTheHemingwayHoaxollege professor and Hemingway enthusiast becomes embroiled in a scheme to forge Hemingway’s lost early manuscripts. So far, a fairly ordinary story. But then things turn unexpectedly into a journey across parallel universes.

Solid work from Mr. Haldeman, but nothing of particular note. The first two thirds are rather enjoyable, but the ending left me somewhat disappointed.

3Rosbochs

Marsbound (Marsbound I) – Joe Haldeman

Marsbound1MarsboundCarmen Dula is nineteen years old when she moves to the Mars base with her family on a five-year assignment. She is an intelligent, level-headed (remote) college student who falls in love with the pilot. The journey and stay present challenges large and small, both regarding survival itself and getting along with the other residents. Then one day she wants to spend some time alone and unwisely takes a walk outside without a buddy. She falls into a hole and is rescued by a Martian.

Wait, what? I did not see that twist coming. I thought this was going to be about colonizing Mars. I suppose I should have read the blurb which blatantly alludes to it. As so often happens with Haldeman, the familial way in which his first-person protagonist speaks to the reader lulls us into a sense of false security about where the story is going to go. What starts out small and almost ordinary balloons out or proportion in unexpected directions as suddenly this everyman (or in this case everywoman) has to make decisions that affect the entire human race.

4Rosbochs

Camouflage – Joe Haldeman

CamouflageAn alien winds up on Earth and spends millions of years roaming it as a shark until one day in the 1930s it decides to take the form of a human. It spends the following decades learning about humanity and growing as a person. In an interleaved plot line, in 2019 an ancient alien artifact is found in the Pacific Ocean and a marine salvage company investigates.

The growth of the alien as a human is very well written, from tentative and often disastrous beginnings to a finding of true purpose and even love. The descriptions of humanity from the alien’s often uncomprehending viewpoint are fascinating, in particular the part during the Bataan Death March, where the worst of humanity is on display.

3½Rosbochs

 

 

Work Done for Hire – Joe Haldeman

WorkDoneforHireA veteran and struggling writer receives a dream contract for a movie novelization. Soon after, a sniper rifle is delivered to his doorstep and he is blackmailed into accepting a contract to murder a still unnamed victim. He goes on the run with his girlfriend.

I was sorely disappointed by this book. While it is competently written, the story is just a bland chase. The ending is anticlimactic and the “twist”, well, isn’t. The interleaved chapters with the novel the protagonist is writing are vaguely interesting but mostly seem like filler without ulterior purpose.

1½Rosbochs

Forever Peace – Joe Haldeman

In the bleak future depicted in this novel, the USA and nations allied to it fight a seemingly endless low grade war against a loose coalition of other countries and organizations. Sound familiar? Terror and lies are the norm on both sides. The US uses “Soldierboys”, robots under remote control by soldiers that are “jacked in” (neurally connected) to them from a remote location. The concept of neural jacking is central to the novel, with its effects and side effects explored at length. The USA controls “nanoforge” technology, which allows very cheap manufacture of goods and food. This has created an economic divide not only towards non-allies, but towards the people of the USA. A quasi-socialist system where the populace need not work but then only gets the bare minimum has been instated. On the other hand, the draft is in place, and pretty much everyone has to do five years. The story itself follows one Soldierboy operator, starting with the battlefields of Central America. It quickly moves on from there, to the issues with his girlfriend, who does not have a neural jack. In the second half, however, the protagonist and others attempt to stage a coup in order to end war for good.

This is a follow-up, but not a sequel, to the more famous The Forever War. The Vietnam reaction present in that novel is clear here as well. However, instead of exploring the soldier himself, Forever Peace looks at the social construct of a state that has become an end unto itself. The military-industrial complex is all powerful, and religious and other organizations fight for control of the state, and thus the nanoforges and the people.

Unlike The Forever War and Forever Free, this novel was not nearly as well plotted. The first half is excellent, with a clear direction and a good evolution of the characters. The second half introduces a host of new characters and is too much chase when contrasted to the excellent first half. It is unfortunate, since the degeneration into action thriller does not serve well the excellent and intriguing concepts Haldeman uses to shape his world. A decent read, but I was disappointed with the second half. I was especially annoyed at the whole “saving the Universe” part, which was a cool concept to begin with, but by the end felt contrived and unnecessary.

Forever Free – Joe Haldeman

This is the direct sequel to The Forever War. Twenty years (subjective for our heroes) have passed since the War ended. William and Marygay have settled down on the frigid planet of Middle Finger, which has the largest population of veterans that have not integrated with the “Man” group mind comprising most humans. Like most of the community of veterans, they feel alienated from the rest of humanity, which uses implants to integrate into a mind “Tree”; a group mind where individuals willingly surrender most of their individuality. The Taurans, enemies during the War, have a similar arrangement, and Man (group mind humans) have more in common with them than with the old-style humans. It is a life, but our heroes are not happy with it. They hatch a plan to take a starship forty thousand years into the future by flying a big loop at relativistic velocities. Only ten years subjective will pass on Middle Finger. However soon after departure things start going very wrong for unexplainable reasons and they must get in the lifeboats and return in suspended animation, taking decades to do so. Once back, they discover that everyone is gone, vanished simultaneously and instantaneously.

This is a very different book from the Forever War in some ways. It does not deal with war, for one thing. However the themes of alienation in one’s own society are still there. It grapples with what it means to be human, what it means to be an individual, what it means to be sentient. Without giving away too much of the ending, I will say that it also deals with God, or at least one possible interpretation of God. The ending surprised me but in a good way. It was very thought-provoking. Just as in the Forever War, the characters and plot are finely tuned, flowing nicely. Despite the heavy themes, it is not a heavy read. Recommended but read The Forever War first.

The Forever War – Joe Haldeman

TheForeverWarThis is a classic written in 1975 and I finally got around to reading it. The novel is about William Mandella, a young man drafted into the military when the first interstellar war starts. He is part of the very first group of recruits. The training, under Vietnam War veterans, occurs on a fictional planet so far out from the Sun that the environment is at almost absolute zero. Almost half the recruits die in training. Following that, the men and women are sent towards a distant planet for their first encounter with the Taurans. The important point here, and that which gives the story its name and main plot device, is that since the troops travel at appreciable fractions of the speed of light, much more time passes for those they left behind than for them. They are in transit a few months while decades and more pass on Earth. This is a consequence of general relativity. When Joe returns home, his mother has aged decades. The Earth is dystopian and unrecognizable. Despite his distaste for things military, he dislikes the current Earth more and decides to re-up together with Marygay Potter, the girlfriend whom he met in the service. Next time he returns, wounded, from a mission, centuries have passed, and society has changed even more. Since there are still several years left on his enlistment, he is sent out again, heartbreakingly on a separate assignment from Marygay, both in space and now in time. On this mission, seven hundred years will pass back home.

Mr. Haldeman is himself a Vietnam War veteran, and it shows in the novel. The draftees are disaffected and do not have a personal stake in the war. In fact, they do not understand it. They are just victims. As Mandella’s rank increases with time, he makes good military decisions, but this is not out of some desire to be a hero, or even because he seems particularly interested in the outcome of the war. As he repeatedly explains, he will be lucky to get out of the war alive. It is a matter of probabilities to him, not skill. In the wider perspective, the war itself seems to be an inevitable product of the society in which they live. As the centuries pass, the war gels to permanence, or as the title puts it “forever”. Society and the economy only exist to support the war and the survival of mankind. There are no lofty cultural or artistic goals involved. Mr. Haldeman’s descriptions of battle and military life cooped up in ships for months are gritty, realistic, dark. Death is commonplace both in battle and outside it. People are mourned but the characters are fatalistic about the whole thing. They know that they will die, probably soon and unexpectedly, and their lives are made up of trying to find pleasure and joy even with that knowledge. The military is a faceless machine that grinds on without much more purpose than to exist. The contrast with the caring Mandella and Potter is striking. Mr. Haldeman’s genius, however, is only partly in his setting. The other part, I feel, is that this novel is so readable, so full of (admittedly dark) humor, so “light”, if you will. Even while filled with senseless death, it still makes the reader smile. Perhaps it is because Mandella is so easy to identify with. Despite everything, he has a rather sunny outlook on life. He tries to do his best. He is a nice guy thrust into uncontrollable circumstances and he tries to make the best of things.

This is one of the finest novels that I have ever read.