The Forever War

This is another Hugo and Nebula award winner, a story of interstellar war by Vietnam veteran Joe Haldeman.

It’s no secret that The Forever War is a spiritual retelling of Haldeman’s experiences in Vietnam, although I have apparently been living under a rock and hadn’t known this when I picked the book up. Its connection to Vietnam is palpable for anyone even somewhat familiar with the history of that war, or even just the experiences of American veterans.

The protagonist William Mandella skips across time on relativistic interstellar deployments as the ages fly by back home. Before I realized what context the author was writing from, I found myself thinking about how Mandella’s experience was an exaggerated version of how those who fought in Vietnam must have felt. They came back to a home that had marked cultural changes, whose people often did not comprehend the sacrifices they made, or even know why they made them.

But the book is more than a parable about a particular war. It showcases the insanity of war in general, as viewed by those in the trenches. The book gives a front-row view of what it’s like fighting and dying for commanders who are far removed both from the grim realities of the fight, and from the civilization you’re fighting for. Haldeman’s world-building and storytelling style places you right in the action, with a visceral and inescapable sense of realism.

Military friends tell me there is much about Mandella’s life that a modern soldier can relate to. If Joe Haldeman’s goal was to make me hope no soldier ever again has to experience the alienation and waste of life that unnecessary wars cause, he was successful.

Life, Death and Fear in Frederik Pohl’s Heechee Saga

I recently finished reading Gateway by Frederik Pohl, and its sequels. I was immediately swept into the sequels, because Pohl uses a tactic Ben Bova would later articulate in Writing Science Fiction that Sells. Pohl set up a grand question that the story gradually answers. I’m a sucker for this formula. Every Asimov book I’ve read has done it, and Clarke was a master at it.

In Gateway, human explorers had stumbled upon an asteroid filled with abandoned, ancient starships. The long-gone aliens are dubbed Heechee and the asteroid earns the name Gateway. Humans start using the ships to explore the cosmos, but their ignorance about how the ships work make these sojourns deadly just as often as they are profitable.

The grand question was simply this: Why did a hyper-advanced spacefaring civilization totally vanish, leaving behind no artifacts whatsoever except their starships? The journey we take in the course of finding out follows the life of Robinette Broadhead, a prospector who plans to pilot one of these ships in search of riches.

But it wasn’t merely this cosmic, scientific question that drove the story in Gateway. There were other, much more intimate mysteries, which carried through in different forms through the whole series. In Gateway the primary theme was fear, and how the terror of death or failure can prevent you from living.

The story is told in a first-person, extended flashback form, and the scenes occurring in the “present” are in the office of Robinette “Bob” Broadhead’s robotic psychiatrist. Broadhead makes regular visits to this psychiatrist but persistently refuses to tell him anything about his experiences at Gateway. Fortunately, he does tell the story to the reader. At first it is a complete mystery what has put Broadhead into the shrink’s office, and his evasiveness with Sigfrid is obvious. The question here is, “What’s eating Bob?” The answer to that question in Gateway provides a moment of pathos at the climax of the book, and drives the plot of its sequels, Beyond the Blue Event Horizon and Heechee Rendezvous.

The third, and for me the most excruciating, question throughout Gateway had to do with Robin Broadhead’s indecisiveness. Broadhead comes from a very poor background, working in shale mines in North America for subsistence wages. Much of the earth is on the brink of starvation. He wins the lottery and uses his winnings, in an uncharacteristically bold entrepreneurial move, to buy a ticket to Gateway. As a Gateway prospector, he would have at least a remote chance at riches. Of course, life as a prospector could just as easily kill him.

Once he arrives on Gateway, Broadhead spends almost all his time procrastinating. He delays. He languishes. He even lingers indecisively in his romantic relationships. Like anyone afraid of failure, he keeps waiting for a perfect opportunity that never comes. When will he finally commit?!

His ultimate decision and its consequences have a lot to do with why he’s visiting Sigfrid in the first place.

Gateway dealt a great deal with fear, living in spite of your fears and getting on with life in spite of guilt. Sometimes, mistakes cannot be undone, and hopefully we can all learn — as Robin eventually does — to carry on anyway.

 

The Sequels

The sequels to Gateway deal with similar themes, but Broadhead is a very different person after his adventure on Gateway. Robin has to deal with mortality, the question of his own life’s purpose, and of course with the grand question set up in the first installment. Who were the Heechee and where did they go? The books are exploring the Fermi Paradox from an angle you don’t often see. The hard-science pieces of the puzzle rely on some outdated physics (like a contracting universe) but overall the answer to the grand question was worth the journey.

The Martian by Andy Weir

Prose changes over time. Popular fiction has always been influenced by other popular forms. Early novels borrowed structure from the epics and plays that came before, and some of those techniques still persist in the books and movies of today.

For better or worse, as attention spans for the written word have gradually shortened, it only makes sense to see fiction fitting itself into the abbreviated forms we’ve grown accustomed to in the age of the tweet.

The Martian is written mostly in the form of protagonist Mark Watney’s personal log, beginning on the day his team was forced to leave him for dead on Mars due to catastrophically bad luck.

With the main character in such complete isolation, his log entries are centered on himself, his thoughts, and the record of his own activities, written down without knowing whether anyone out there will ever read his words. So in effect you’re reading his blog. Some entries are rich with technical information, others are short, informal observations. Some are jokes that would fit into a tweet. All of it drips with a dark sense of humor that would be completely at home in social media.

If you’re the type who insists on traditional literary forms, where the tale is told in objective third-person and has a definite first, second, and third act, this style might feel un-literary. If you expect an almost allegorical level of metaphor — as we’ve seen in popular young adult fiction lately — the story may feel pointless.

But I assure you on both counts: it isn’t. The story comes at you in small, rapidly-digestible chunks, each one ending at the cusp of yet another one of Mark Watney’s life-and-death conundrums. There are larger conclusions about life and humanity one could draw from the story, but except for a one-paragraph homily toward the end, the author isn’t trying to thrust any of them on you.

You should read this book for the adventure, and for the utterly convincing realism. You will be transported to Mars, under some of the worst conditions, and you’ll love it.