|Joe Haldeman (1943- )
Haldeman's vision of the universe was profoundly shaped
by the Vietnam War. Vietnam surfaces as a theme, a
backdrop, or a reference point in many of his stories.
Born in Oklahoma and raised in Puerto Rico, New Orleans,
Washington D.C. and Alaska, Haldeman was drafted in 1967.
He fought in the Central Highlands of Vietnam as a combat
engineer with the 4th Division. He received a Purple
Heart for severe wounds he suffered during the war.
Haldeman's wrenching personal experiences enable him to write about war with a rare, brutal honesty. What's intriguing is that while many of his obsessions are with the past, his favorite way of exploring those issues is through representations of the future.
His first novel, War Year (1972) was a realistic account of the war. His second, The Forever War (1975) read the conflict through the filter of "space opera," and in turn, radically rewrote the conventions of that subgenre. Bran Aldiss has described the core Space Opera formula:
This formula shaped science fiction's representation of war -- from the lusty pulp sagas of E.E. "Doc" Smith to Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers and George Lucas's Star Wars trilogy. The "Space Opera" subgenre depended upon a peculiarly American conception of war, grounded in idealism, optimism, technological power and a simple black-and-white morality. But, the Vietnam experience changed how Americans understood the nature of war, and Haldeman's Forever War demonstrates how absurd many of the old cliches look to someone who had seen real combat duty.
writing is blunt, earthy, and anti-heroic. His battle
sequences are as technically detailed and vivid as any in
science fiction. But, his war is anything but a glorious
adventure. Haldeman depicts war as the pathetic slaughter
of an enemy incapable of defending itself. More of his
characters die in accidents training for battle (or of
shock when they must confront the horror of their own
actions) than in their initial military action against
the Taurans. Much of their time is spent waiting and only
a fraction is spent ducking and covering, trying to stay
alive in the face of enemy attack.
The causes of the "forever war" are murky; his protagonists are fighting against an enemy they can not comprehend. No one really knows what started the war or why the stakes are so high.
The book's anti-hero never has any real sense of what he is fighting to protect. Private William Mandella is a draftee, chosen because of his superior intellect and education. (Of course, during the Vietnam era, college boys were exempted from the draft!) He feels himself to be fundamentally unsuited for military life, yet the military gives him few options except to re-enlist, blacklisting him from all other employment.
Using ships that travel faster than light, the fighting takes him light years from earth. The campaigns take a subjective time of months, but span centuries in human history back home.
is one of the few who survives nearly 1,200 years of war.
He has no family, few friends and those few can be killed
or transferred at any moment. As the war progresses, he
has little or no chance to understand the men placed
under his command, since they are products of Earth
cultures about which he knows nothing. Late in the book,
Mandella poignantly calculates whom he might save in an
emergency: "The thought did dip into my conscience
that I could gather up eleven people and board the
fighter we had hidden safe behind the stasis field....I
even went to the extreme of making a mental list of the
eleven, trying to think of eleven people who meant more
to me than the rest. Turned out I'd be picking six at
Under such circumstances, war becomes meaningless, a situation no one controls, as the protagonist learns as he moves from raw recruit to commanding officer without ever getting a firm grasp on the events around him.
Truth is, of course, the first casualty of war. In The Forever War, Haldeman gives us several intriguing glimpses of how public opinion is artificially shaped to build and maintain support for the prolonged fighting. In the war's early years, soldiers are pumped with hypnotic suggestions to insure that they conceptualize the war and the enemy in propagandistic terms, images which are triggered by a centralized command just as the troops move into combat:
These images mirror common themes in wartime propaganda, including those promulgated by publications like Reader's Digest throughout the Vietnam War.
back home receive no more reliable information. When he
returns home after his first hitch, Mandella tries to
correct misperceptions about the war, but finds his words
re-edited or fabricated by the news media: "He had
kept me talking and talking in order to get a wide
spectrum of sounds, from which he could synthesize any
kind of nonsense." If Mandella is not exactly the
hero we anticipate from a space opera, the news media
transforms him into one for the purposes of shaping
Worlds, the first of a major trilogy, offers Haldeman's take on the student "revolutions" of the 1960s. His protagonist, Marianne O'Hara, comes to NYU from an off-world colony to major in American Studies and finds herself pulled deeper and deeper into political conspiracies. What begins as a "research project" in comparative political and economic cultures ends up being a matter of life and death. She is never sure whether she is working for or against the overthrow of the government, struggling to find the truth despite constant manipulations of information from all parties. Haldeman places no more faith in revolutions than he does in war.
The problem of communication between alien cultures runs through his work, often with good intentions ending badly for all involved, as in the slaughter that ensues as a result of an ill-considered and ill-informed ethnographic expedition in "Seasons." As a Xeologist in "Seasons" explains:
Tangled Web" offers a more comic (and somewhat more
optimistic) take on what happens when businessmen confuse
mastery over a language with understanding of an alien
culture. The message seems to be that if we could so
badly misunderstood our enemy in Vietnam, we are
ill-equipped to deal with even more alien cultures who
come to us from other worlds.
"Ghosts," memories of the war, haunt Haldeman's writing. A recurring theme in his fiction is the image of characters circling through the same traumatic event, again and again, trying either to achieve some moment of clarity or to avert fate. In "The Cure," the protagonist restages the same disturbing dream many times, trying to find an ending free of bloodshed. Images of brutal violence -- a rotting body in the jungle, the smell of burning flesh, the gurgle of blood -- surface in many Haldeman stories, appearing, often with startling intensity, when we least expect them. The war's impact on Haldeman's fiction can be seen in his titles, such as Planet of Judgement, All My Sins Remembered, Study War No More, Vietnam and Other Alien Worlds, and 1968.
Haldeman writes across many different genres, ranging from supernatural horror to hard science fiction, from psychodrama to broad satire, from spy thrillers to Star Trek novelizations. Yet underlying most of his stories is a sense of discomfort and dread. "The Cure" opens with a virtuoso passage, evoking almost all of the major genres of popular fiction, yet in each the protagonist seems doomed to an all-but-certain death.
His protagonists must often struggle with wounds (both psychological and physical) frequently linked to their wartime experiences. In "The Hemingway Hoax," a series of time paradoxes allows the protagonists to shift consciousness from body to body across a string of parallel universes. Each of his bodies was wounded in a different place during the same wartime incident. An inch higher or lower marks the dramatic difference between sexual potency and life-long pain. "Images" describes a healing erotic encounter between a man and a woman, each badly scarred, each so self-conscious about their bodies that they have cut themselves off from all sexual outlets except voyeurism.
of these shattering experiences result in profound
alienation from the body. The protagonists in The
Forever War become estranged from their own flesh,
when new limbs are grown to replace amputated parts; no
one else can tell that their bodies have been altered,
yet they still have difficulty bonding with their
"prosthesis." A doctor warns two lovers, both
amputee patients, that "you're going to constantly
trigger memories of pain and loss for each other."
"More Than the Sum of the Parts" pushes this
theme further, showing how the cybernetic replacement of
human flesh results in a gradual loss of all ties to the
Haldeman's stories recognize the psychic costs of mutilation more fully than most contemporary writers who have envisioned a culture of casual body modifications. He also writes stories in which humans coldly calculate the value of their body parts and sacrifice them for other ends. "None So Blind" imagines a time when humans will intentionally blind themselves to achieve "second sight." Cybernetic replacements allowed humans to expand their access to the "unused parts" of their brains. Human competitiveness insures that most people in intellectual fields are willing to put their eyes out rather than to fall behind: "If your department chair is secondsighted and you are not, do you think you'll get tenure?"
His protagonists find release from the "wounds" and "traumas" that torment them only through the intimacy of sex or the exhilaration of artistic creation. Haldeman's writing is full of vivid and detailed descriptions of the process of researching and writing fiction ("The Hemingway Hoax," "Seven and the Stars"), the creation of a painting ("Feedback,") the staging of a play ("Images,") the performance of classical music ("None So Blind") or the improvisation of jazz (Worlds). In "None So Blind," a blind woman's violin functions as a prosthesis:
offers an intriguing metaphor for artistic collaboration.
A gifted artist melds his mind and consciousness with his
clients, allowing his technical skills to guide their
hands so that they can achieve their own visions on
canvas: "All an art facilitator does is loan his or
her mechanical skills and esthetic sensibilities to the
customer. If the customer is a nutcase, the collaboration
may be truly disturbing -- and perhaps revealing."
As he explains in the introductions to his collections of short fiction, Haldeman's stories often grow from the exercises he assigns the students in his science fiction writing classes at MIT. These works suggest a constant desire to explore the creative process and to experiment with the storytelling craft. Although Haldeman is no "nutcase," the results are often "truly disturbing -- and perhaps revealing."
This combination of writerly skill, esthetic sensibility, and self-exploration has made him one of the most widely acclaimed of contemporary American science fiction writers. Haldeman has won four Hugo Awards (for The Forever War, "Tricentennial," "The Hemingway Hoax" and "None So Blind") and three Nebula Awards (for The Forever War, "Graves," "The Hemingway Hoax"). He served as President of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America from 1992-1994.
Stephen King has written, "If there was a Fort Knox for science fiction writers who really matter, we'd have to lock Haldeman up there." Luckily, Haldeman still roams free, sometimes at MIT, sometimes in Florida, sometimes on one of his cross- country bike trips, but always creating poignant, disturbing, and original stories, set in the future, but designed to help America deal with a troubled past.
|1972 War Year
1974 Cosmic Laughter
1975 The Forever War
1977 Planet of Judgement
1977 All My Sins Remembered
1977 Study War No More
1978 Infinite Dreams
1979 World Without End
1983 Worlds Apart
1985 Dealing in Futures
1987 Tool of the Trade
1989 Buying Time
1990 The Hemingway Hoax
1992 Worlds Enough and Time
1993 Vietnam and Other Alien Worlds
1996 None So Blind
1997 The Forever Peace
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