Review: Forever Free (The Forever War #3), by Joe Haldeman

February 1, 2015
Snumpus

Forever FreeYears have passed since the Forever War reached its conclusion, and William Mandella is settled on an icy backwater of a planet, a haven for the minority of remaining humans who aren’t part of the hivemind known as Man. He and his long-lost love are finally married, and together they have raised a son and daughter. But they aren’t content. They know what they are: Fallbacks for Man in case their genetic material is ever needed, kept like pets in a zoo, otherwise obsolete. So they engineer a conspiracy: To commandeer the spaceship which used to serve as a temporal waystation for those who wanted to delay aging until their lost loved ones returned from the collapsars, which now languishes in planetary orbit, and take it as far out as they can. So far that when they return, thousands of years will have passed, and they can only hope that Man will have become extinct and they will have the freedom to establish the human race anew.

I’m beginning to think that the best way to read these novels (with the exception of the brilliant first book) is to get to the middle, then stop and make up the rest yourself, because the story you thought you were signing on for is inevitably going to get abandoned in favour of something else entirely. Except unlike Forever Peace, this wasn’t merely muddled, this was actively ridiculous.

The plot trundles along quite happily to begin with, even if the characterisation doesn’t. William Mandella was a bit of a blank everyman in The Forever War, but that was okay, because it enhanced the reader’s ability to put themselves in his shoes, and he was still allowed emotional reactions to things. In this novel, he’s more of an automaton, lacking even that much emotional veracity — I have stronger feelings for the squirrels that live in the trees near my house than he appears to have for his children. But that would’ve been okay too, because I could’ve gone along with this as a plot-driven novel. I was intrigued, excited even, to see what the far, far future that Mandella and his crew would return to would be like, and what their rebuilding efforts would look like if they managed to escape Man.

Yeah, don’t get your hopes up. This whole idea gets first derailed by strange things occurring aboard ship during the journey which should’ve been a mere footnote before the return, and then its utter abandonment is forced when the plot swerves in a completely unheralded direction. Nothing that was interesting about the book is allowed any real depth past the midway point. It’s transformed into a trite mystery, trite because the ultimate answer to whodunnit is a literal deus ex machina, with all the philosophical depth, in its heavy-handed delivery, of a door to door proselytiser’s leaflet.

Merely thinking of this book and all the wasted potential in its setup annoys me. If you are a fan of The Forever War — and for all the criticism I level at this book, I am a great fan of its predecessor — I heartily recommend that you pretend the story ends there, and that this sequel is bad fanfic. It certainly reads like it.

1 star

Review: Forever Peace (The Forever War #2), by Joe Haldeman

February 1, 2015
Snumpus

Forever PeaceIn the year 2043, our world is embroiled in a large-scale war between the Alliance, composed of industrialised Western nations, and the Ngumi, a loose coalition of developing nations without access to the nano-forging technology that contributes to much of the Alliance’s wealth. Our viewpoint into this war comes from Julian Class, a draftee who controls one of the remotely-operated mechanised units called soldierboys, a job that requires an intimate mind-link and cooperative effort with the rest of the platoon.

It’s such a promising setup for a story. You have a conflict in which neither side is unambiguously the white hat, and which could serve as a lens through which today’s racial and regional tensions could be reflected and examined. The Ngumi are largely made up of oppressed peoples who can’t hope to climb out of the well that a lack of equitable wealth distribution has left them in without resorting to violent measures (a situation that has its parallels in our societies), but their tactics are sometimes reprehensible and the casualties vast. The Alliance draws the scorn that is directed at many regimes and individuals who soak up wealth and hoard it beyond all reasonable measure when others are suffering for want of it, but as corrupt as the governments may be, the individual on the street isn’t necessarily enjoying any great life for living under them — access to the nano-forging technology is beyond rigidly controlled, and we see glimpses into areas of poverty and urban and moral decay worse than the ostensibly wealthy societies of real world 2015 already harbour. Our protagonist’s life mirrors the conflict in a microcosmic way, as he starts the story in an interracial relationship which has to be hidden even from friends and acquaintances lest it face a level of censure one would hope we would have long moved past by 2043.

Lots of promise. So why the low rating? Because absolutely none of it is realised, and the book is completely muddled about what it’s trying to be. The interesting setting we start with never gets fleshed out beyond a skeletal background. The middle of the book meanders through Julian’s relationship angst based on his girlfriend’s inability to jack with him — to experience the mind-link that allows the soldierboy mechanics to experience each other’s thoughts, fantasies, memories, physical sensations — something which could make an interesting basis for a story itself, but doesn’t have any link to the established story arc so far or to the more compelling drama that could’ve been wrung out of the war’s direct effects on their relationship and its lack of social acceptance. Finally, from there we shuffle into a conspiracy to use the jacking technology to effectively brainwash humanity into widescale pacifism to prevent the utilisation of a doomsday device, which again, would be a great — if thoroughly implausible in its execution — concept for a novel that has nothing to do with the one I started off reading. It seems Haldeman gets bored even with this, considering how abruptly, almost dismissively, it’s wound up.

Incidentally, if you’re waiting to hear what any of this has to do with The Forever War, the answer is nothing. This is the second book in the trilogy but the relationship between the books is only conceptual, and that only really applies to the first third of it, in which it still appears the author is going to turn a cynical eye on the realities of war, just on a more intimate scale than the millennia-spanning intergalactic war of the first book. I think that would’ve been a good novel, especially as Haldeman’s writing seems to have reached a more polished level from a technical standpoint and Julian is a more compelling protagonist than the relative blank slate that was William Mandella. I think the other two books that could’ve been spun out of the ideas smushed into this one could’ve been pretty enjoyable too, but as it is, Forever Peace is much less than the sum of its parts.

2 stars

Review: The Forever War (The Forever War #1), by Joe Haldeman

January 11, 2015
Snumpus

The Forever WarI fell in love with fantasy at a young age, and I’ve read widely in the genre over the years, but I came to science fiction a bit later in life, when I discovered the Culture novels by Iain M. Banks. There are a lot of science fiction classics I’ve never touched on, and I’m finally trying to get around to rectifying that oversight. I decided to start that project with The Forever War, which has apparently been a formative influence for a number of authors whose works I enjoy. Since I’m drawn to anyone who writes with a healthy dose of cynicism, I can see why.

William Mandella begins the story as a private in the United Nations Exploratory Force, sent to Charon for a harsh regime of training — learning to use their spacesuits in deadly environments and combat conditions kills many of the trainees in and of itself — before being deployed against the mysterious alien Taurans, whose first contact with humanity erupted into violence. Mandella’s military career will last less than a decade, yet take over a thousand years, thanks to the effects of time dilation. Humanity can use so-called ‘collapsars’ to travel vast distances at faster than light speed, but the journey between collapsars has to be done at near light speed. The soldiers return between deployments to an Earth that has vastly changed and socially decayed, and loved ones who have aged decades or passed on altogether.

For the first three-quarters of the book, the use of time dilation is its greatest strength. I’ve never served in the military but I’ve known enough ex-military folk and read enough war memoirs to have an idea of how big a hurdle reintegration can be. The increasing social and temporal consequences of losing years or decades make the perfect vehicle through which to amplify, and to render relatable for those of us without a military background, the experience of displacement that returning veterans in our real world suffer. It’s interesting that for a book with so much hard science fiction in it, collapsars aside, it works best when the science and the combat are shunted to the side and the focus is on Earth. Mandella and his girlfriend’s return to a violent mid-21st century society and their aged parents contains some brilliant perspective on the profitability of war and the chipping away of values a society at war uses its conflicts to excuse.

Mandella is a bit of a bland personality, though one with enough wry (and very true to most of the military folk I’ve ever known) humour to be an agreeable narrator, but it’s the kind of story that is perhaps best served by a protagonist that forms an empty vessel into which the reader can pour their own identity and vicariously experience his future-shock. Sort of a gruff, well-armed Bella Swan, if you will. (I’m sorry.)

It’s a book about war, and so you’re in for an unsurprisingly large amount of combat. While I found the examination of the psychological consequences a bit more compelling than the technical details of hitting aliens with lasers, it’s really well-written combat. It’s detailed and elaborate without getting buried in the kind of hard SF jargon that will leave the layman’s brain dribbling out of his ears, and my biggest takeaway was that it takes some real talent to convey, as Haldeman does, the feeling of how tedious it must be to constantly juggle high-adrenaline situations with waiting around to live or die, without also making it tedious to read about.

It’s the last quarter where it all falls apart a bit. The time jumps that have been getting longer and longer reach a level which I suppose serves as the best way to fully illustrate the scale and futility of the war, but when you’ve got a novel where the best thing going for it is its superb analogy for the difficulties of veterans’ reintegration with non-military society, it weakens the overall point when you take your character beyond the reach of anything that tied him to that society.

The book also has a very strange take on sexuality and gender relations, some of which is less successful than the rest. In a portion of Earth’s future there’s a don’t ask don’t tell parallel in which homosexuality has been engineered as the human norm to prevent biological procreation — humanity’s growth rate is machine-controlled and new foetuses that are required are artificially gestated — and Mandella’s ‘deviant’ heterosexuality is met with mixed levels of tolerance, and it works in a sort of heavy-handed way which I think would have come across as both bolder and less awkward in its slightly limited understanding of gay persons in its year of publication. I understand and appreciate what the author was trying to do there, anyway. But the earlier part of the timeline makes a lot of mentions of sleeping rosters and mandated free sexuality between the enlisted men and women which goes bafflingly unexplained. It comes across as a little juvenile in its attention to the detail of who is sleeping with whom (answer: the hero, with everyone) but not why anyone is mandated to be sleeping with anyone.

None of the faults are damning. I set out to read a science fiction classic, but what I got was more than that. It deserves attention outside of the field of science fiction for its germaneness as a war classic, as well. I know that the author is a veteran of Vietnam, and that there’s a great deal of relevance here for that generation, but I think it’s also highly applicable to today’s culture with our wave of veterans from conflicts in the Middle East, and the many who live with, love, or would like to understand them.

4 stars

Review: Falling Sky (Ben Gold #1), by Rajan Khanna

November 1, 2014
Snumpus

Falling SkyA couple of generations ago, our world suffered the outbreak of a plague that renders the infected zombie-like and feral, reduced to an animalistic existence of eating, fighting, breeding, and dying. The survivors have mostly taken to the skies, living in airships or elevated settlements the Ferals can’t reach, and exercising an extreme caution against infection that has resulted in a society where trust and bodily contact are minimised. Ben Gold, captain of the airship the Cherub, takes on a contract guarding the scientists of a settlement seeking a cure — something few still believe in — but when they want to bring one of the deadly contagious Ferals aboard ship to investigate an anomaly in its blood, he balks… until the ruthless tactics of an expansionist old enemy threaten to wipe out the scientists and their settlement, drawing Ben back into the fight.

Yes, it’s the zombie apocalypse, sort of, but it really doesn’t feel like it. Zombies are pretty played out at the moment, but the author uses a light touch with the Ferals, and instead plays to a far more topical and far more likely fear — infection. Awareness that a single drop of blood, a single spatter of saliva, a moment of unnoticed contact with any number of bodily fluids unsavoury or otherwise, and you have in your very veins a silent passenger that will soon rob you of your humanity. It’s a society where people are afraid to expose skin, to touch, to have sex, to have children, because to allow closeness with anyone is an act of ultimate trust in their honesty, their competence and their vigilance. One kiss and you could have two days left to know your own name.

It’s an awareness that dogs the characters’ steps every moment, and both the ramifications for Ben’s psyche and the broader strokes of the impact it’s had on the surviving societies he encounters are well-drawn. The organic and evocative worldbuilding is easily my favourite part of the novel, and straight off the bat I think the author’s got a good knack for providing a sense of place and of history without info-dumping.

The story moves along at a nice clip, packing a lot into a pretty slender book without leaving the reader feeling short-changed, and so making me inclined to forgive a few minor contrivances and gaps in logic. I did feel the ending was rushed, and was actually surprised it didn’t just leave off at a cliffhanger; as frustrating as the wait for another book can be, I might have preferred that it did, because the resolution is too pat for my tastes. It felt like Khanna planned on either a larger page count or another book, and threw together this ending when he realised he might not be able to write it.

Ben is a likeable enough character, sometimes hypocritical and sometimes weak in ways that are believeable for the surroundings in which he’s grown and the history he’s lived through, without making him unsympathetic. Most of the others are lightly drawn but not lacking in personality, aside from Miranda, who seems to disappear and reappear as needed to bait Ben into the right place for the plot to move forward, and for someone who so provokes his desire, it would be nice if we had a better glimpse into what it is about her as a person that’s desirable. If there’s a sequel I think I’d appreciate a change of narrator, perhaps to Miranda herself, as she seems to be a prime candidate for being at the heart of the story and could use the fleshing out. I do feel like this story was a complete arc for Ben, and the loose threads could be tied up while seeing him through someone else’s eyes.

I have some real problems with the writing from a technical standpoint, and it brought me out of the book several times. Look, I know it’s fine to start a sentence with a conjunction, but you should really reconsider doing it six times in a row. Otherwise you end up with abominations like this:

And it is. And I’m happy. But we’re going to have to go get the Ferrari. And it might not work with the fuel he’s got. And it will put us out in the middle of Feral territory. But it’s a place to live.

I’d accept it as a way of conveying panicked thought on the narrator’s part were it not so damn frequent. The book is absolutely littered with examples of such, though, so it comes off as either bad writing or a great deal of simple-mindedness on Ben’s part. Mostly just bad writing. I also appreciate the idea of transitioning from longer sentences to shorter, choppier ones as a means of ramping up the tension during action-packed moments, and can think of a number of authors who do it very well, but there’s a painful number of sentences in Falling Sky that aren’t choppy so much as horribly fragmented. For example:

As tense as I am right now, as strongly as I want to yell at her to get out. Now. So we don’t get captured and killed. In spite of all that, I can’t help but be captivated by her, standing here, now, doing what she does best. Think. Process. Calculate. Solve.

Argh.

I don’t need either of these devices to be eliminated, just toned way the fuck down so that I am not constantly taken out of the story by them. Used sparingly, they might be effective, but here they are just too frequent to be anything but irritating and repetitious.

I’d enjoy a sequel, and I hope there’s plans for one. If not, I look forward to seeing what the author turns his worldbuilding talents to next. But if the editing isn’t a little tighter, I might need a drink before I review it. And another drink. And another. Drink. Now. Really.

3.5 stars

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