Friday, December 27, 2013

The Forever War: Come for the psychic alien teddy bears, stay for the deft social commentary

The Forever War is everything everyone says it is. It’s a stellar (ha!) sci-fi novel. It’s a perfect specimen of a war novel. But it is also one other thing I’ve not often heard it called: FUN. Not light, mind you. Never that. But fun.

The plot is essentially this: We follow Private William Mandella, drafted into fighting an interstellar war between humans and an alien race, as he does futuristic soldierly things. There’s some timey-wimey stuff that goes on because getting to bases and battles in various parts of the universe involves traveling at ludicrous speeds.

This may at one point happen to someone.

As a result, the soldiers are barely aging, while the Earth they left behind is moving through centuries in an orderly fashion. As you can imagine, this puts a bit of a damper on the homecoming celebrations—for the few that live to see Earth again, that is.

Haldeman based this story on his experiences as a U.S. soldier in the Vietnam War, and while he says in the introduction that “it’s mainly about war, about soldiers, and about the reasons we think we need them” (p. xv), you can spot specific nods to Vietnam. For example:
Wars in the past often accelerated social reform, provided technological benefits, even sparked artistic activity. This one, however, seemed tailor-made to provide none of these positive by-products. (p. 138)

Damned if WE know.

Where this book just nails the hell out of being awesome is that it has all the trademarks of an excellent sci-fi novel and a great war novel without being heavy-handed. It has a message, certainly, but it’s not delivered through a bullhorn, which is hard to pull off when writing about a fruitless war, in the voice of a lowly soldier being shuffled from one position to the next like an expendable chess piece with laser-weapon capabilities.

Mandella (and I’m assuming Haldeman) has a dry sense of humor that frequently verges on sarcasm. But you get the sense that this is how he deals with the absurdity of his situation.
One man above guarding eighty inside. The army’s good at that kind of arithmetic. (p. 41)
Surely "cowardice" had nothing to do with his decision [to forfeit the battle]. Surely he had nothing so primitive and unmilitary as a will to live. (p. 107)
The collapsar Stargate was a perfect sphere about three kilometers in radius. It was suspended forever in a state of gravitational collapse that should have meant its surface was dropping toward its center at nearly the speed of light. Relativity propped it up, at least gave it the illusion of being there . . . the way all reality becomes illusory and observer-oriented when you study general relativity. Or Buddhism. Or get drafted. (p. 46)

Depends on where you're sitting, really.

My gateway to Haldeman was his first contribution to the Star Trek series, an adorably pocket-sized book called World Without End. (I never got around to reviewing that one, but I started and finished it sitting at a bar while a very loud band played. People jostled me and bellowed their drink orders over my head. I READ ON.) And before I was even finished with The Forever War, I acquired two others from Haldeman’s extensive backlist.

So there's my endorsement. Can you hear it ringing? It rings for you.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Lexicon: Don’t ruin my fun, Chomsky

So I kind of liked Lexicon. *bounces involuntarily*


The book opens in an airport bathroom, where two men have wrestled poor unsuspecting Wil Parke to the floor and slid a needle into his eyeball, all the while muttering about a secret war and an outlier and poets and IMMINENT DOOM. In a separate narrative, young runaway-turned-hustler Emily Ruff is recruited to a prestigious school where students are taught how to use words to persuade . . . but not just to persuade, to control. And—surprise!—these two plotlines turn out to have something or other to do with each other.

I’ve heard this story compared to X-Men, which I can definitely see, with the private school for “special youths” and the division between those who wield a mystical power (poets) and those who don’t even know it exists as an option (the rest of us). One big difference is that mutants don’t come into it. No one is born with the ready-made ability to use language as a weapon; you may have a natural proclivity toward persuading or resisting persuasion, but you still have to learn the skills and perfect them the hard way, hence the fancy school.

And not everyone uses this training responsibly.

As fantastical as the premise seems, the methods poets use to tiptoe past the human mind’s natural filters and issue commands that the recipient will unquestioningly follow kind of hold up. I’m sure Noam Chomsky could poke all kinds of holes in the scientific logic here, but to us plebes, it seems feasible enough. And that faint ring of real-life truth is the key ingredient in all the best sci-fi premises, I think.

In what is otherwise fairly straightforward prose, Max pops in a lot of snappy descriptions.
“There were silver plates with bite-size constructions of meat and bread and paste and whatever. She picked one up only because it got her out of this conversation. It was actually not bad. Weird, but not bad-weird. This was her whole day, on a cracker.” (p. 56)
“It was early but the sun was peeking above the buildings and seemed excited to be there.” (p. 65)
“[He] began to pull her machine apart. She felt a little sad. She was learning that people were just machines and it was working the other way a little, too.” (p. 99)
Were you about to ask if there's romance? Of course there's romance. Although it's fairly no-nonsense and grounded, and interspersed between thrilling action sequences. Hear that, boys?