Joe Haldeman: The Forever War

Private William Mandella is a reluctant hero in an interstellar war against an unknowable and unconquerable alien enemy, but his greatest test will come when he returns home. Relativity means that for every few months’ tour of duty centuries have passed on Earth, isolating the combatants ever more from the world for whose future they are fighting.

I also thought I would include the blurb comment by British author Peter F. Hamilton as I cannot improve on his apt summary.

Only a writer as skilful as Haldeman could use war’s dark glamour to lure the reader in and then deploy that same fascination to show the effect of this orchestrated barbarism on the human soul. A book about corruption, atrocity, hope, stupidity, and triumph. Throw in faultless advanced military technology, fascinating aliens, and a dangerously believable future Earth, and you have a book that’s near perfect.

First off, an apology. Whilst trying to write about this book I had drawn a complete blank whenever it came to facing my Evernote screen. It could be due to the technical knowledge escaping me a little but this has not been an issue before. My knowledge behind the military background of the plot was and still is distinctly lacking but despite this it somehow did not stop the inexorable pull to read the book cover to cover in the space of a weekend. It is a wonderfully paced book. I am finding the space and time element of this book fascinating. To the point where I am collecting scientific journals from anywhere and everywhere to try and wrap my non-scientifically-apt brain around the concepts, theories and hypotheses. To read it is one thing; to apply what you read is completely another.

In the beginning, I did think “Easy, I’ll write about a series of 73 books I have not read yet” and didn’t anticipate that I am no longer a happy-go-lucky student with acres of time to spare anymore. There goes the days of extensive research you could always find me doing. For this reason I will not be uploading the SF Masterworks books exactly in order, as the book I had planned to read for my next update – Cities In Flight by James Blish – was far chunkier than I was anticipating, so that will be more of an ongoing read. I also want to include some chatter about other books too. As well as keeping up to speed with my ever growing list of review requests; after all, how can you say “no” to reading predominantly brilliant books for free in exchange for a review?

Also, just a note to potential readers of The Forever War; despite my lack of comprehensive knowledge of the subject, I really enjoyed this book. It did not mar the experience in any way. I still very much recommend reading it even if it’s not exactly your usual cup of tea.

I digress.

Where to start with The Forever War? I hadn’t done much background research into the plot of this book before reading (in fact, very little) so I was unknowingly thrown headlong into the life of Private William Mandella, caught in the throes of a complex war-torn interstellar world. The plot starts by following Private William Mandella in the year 1997 during his training with other men and women with IQs over 150 and a certain aptitude for survival. Mandella is a cynical character, making it particularly entertaining to follow his life. I think The Forever War and Andy Weir’s The Martian (a book I am currently in the middle of, I recommend) have the protagonist’s character in common. This character formula in a fantasy based book works so well for me. Sometimes in an unbelievable scenario, a little bit of cynicism and humour can make it more believable in my opinion. It lends the topic stability and honesty, making me as a reader feel like the protagonist is on my side.

Mandella’s particular outlook on life is our guideline for the tone of The Forever War. A cynical attitude to the war by the partakers seems only appropriate as the reasonings for initiating the war seem entirely dictatorial and devoid of sensible reason to me. Do not fear, sense is found later on in the progression of the war, thousands of years later. In exact words, the war is seen as an example of “human stupidity. And shame.” Despite the storyline being rather tragic – it is war after all – the regular snippets of gallows humour more than make up for it.

By following Mandella through the time and space oddity that is the setting of this book, we get to see the span of the entire war despite it taking…hmm…a long time. If somebody would like to supply me with the mathematics of it then you are welcome to do so. My overview will be woefully lacking in the technical. To explain simply, as I understand it, the war is spread through the duration of generations but because of the combination of time, space and speed of travel, Mandella has in fact only aged through one lifetime. It also means that because of a time warp so to speak – those people who have experienced their fair share of live shows, don’t start dancing – when the enemy, the Taurans, pops out of one of these jumps, known as collapsars, they could be from any time period of the war; from highly evolved weapons and tactics of the war’s future, or tragically under-equipped as they were when they first began fighting in the past. Still with me? I had to do a lot of rereading through this time warp explanation section.

Mary-gay Potter is part of this group of elite soldiers we meet in 1997. Incidentally, she is the soldier pictured on the cover of the Gollancz SF Masterworks edition. As the plot develops she becomes Mandella’s hope, the only link he has with any kind of familiarity. The space and time realities in The Forever War result in Mandella returning from missions after generations have gone by on Earth, even though it has only been months for him. When he returns his world is not a familiar one. Mandella arrives to a new world system, with opposing values and laws each time he completes a mission. Mary-gay provides the only stability in his life. Although this book has a strong affiliation with war and conflict and it seems that much of the plot is set in some sort of war zone, the book’s focus is in fact more about the limbo in between duties and the relationship Mandella has with this every changing society. Personal values, laws, sexual orientation, family planning and lifestyle all take a beating with every tour of duty. The small nuances of daily life that cause these lifestyle changes to make sense for the common man are lost on the soldiers as they are left wondering what was wrong with the original system of living. I think for me the strangest changes throughout the book was the change of perception towards sexual orientation. Not for the reason of what they believed but because of the changeable nature of their decisions.

I wouldn’t call this a romantic novel by any stretch of the imagination but there is enough humanity in there among this world of clones, war and aliens to make the plot relate to the reader – the secret of great SF in my opinion. I also won’t give away the ending…but it did make me burn my toast in my focused concentration of scrabbling to turn the next page.

Happy reading…

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Hugh Howey: Silo Series | Wool Trilogy

I am indeed in the process of finishing a post of The Forever War by Joe Haldeman which was meant to be scheduled next on the list. If you have read it, you will know it is an interesting topic to wrap the brain around let alone write about responsively if – like me – you’re relatively new to true classic sci fi and you have very little military knowledge. So here is another brief post while you wait. The lift music, if you will.
I don’t give away major plot lines but don’t read this if you want to be completely surprised when reading the series. But just a note to take away; the only description of a book you will find that doesn’t give away at even a little something will be the painstakingly selected blurbs on the back of a book.
Three novels: Wool. Shift. Dust.
Although originally nine novellas: [Wool. Proper Gauge. Casting Off. The Unravelling. The Stranded.] [Legacy. Order. Pact.] [Dust.]
I discovered this series by chance as I was trawling through some suggested reading. They spent a couple of months pushed to the back of my mind, gathering dust. I originally didn’t want to commit to a series whilst at the time my concentration was meant to be focused elsewhere. Especially when I saw how satisfactorily chunky the books were.
Eventually, as always, I caved.
To start with, if I was to give a brief description of how these three books worked together for me, I would say this: Wool – at the risk of stating the obvious – is the introduction to Silo life and characters, triggering so many questions that it leaves you scrambling to pick up Shift for answers; Shift is the context and the history for the series, taking its place as a prequel to Wool and Dust; finally Dust, back in the present time, is the action taken from the revelations of Wool and Shift. Not action in the sense of punch ups and wars (although yes these are involved, plus guns, love, blood, betrayal and more) but action meaning the forward progression they make. For living and of how they counter the totalitarian, stifling life that they have been living to create their own future with their own horizons. From the perspective of the men and women being kept in the dark – metaphorically and literally – having a life outside is the ultimate fear and the unrealised dream, stemming from a fear of the unknown and a dream of whispered stories long gone. The outside is poisoned air and dead earth with the only people seeing it for ‘real’ (let’s not get into that can of worms) being so called cleaners who are prisoners locked away for crimes (we won’t open that can either) and are sent out into the dead wilderness outside the Silo in sealed suits (another can), that the poisoned air slowly eats away, to clean the lenses of the video cameras stationed outside. The view from these cameras can be seen from the top floor of the Silo where everyone gathers to watch the cleanings. This is a death sentence for the person sent out there. The ultimate question pondered constantly in the Silo is, “Why do they always clean the lenses?” Even those who swear and scream that they won’t always do in the end, instead of trying to make it away and find any shelter they can to save themselves. These stories and questions are voiced at one’s peril. These whispered stories of the past passed on carefully by word of mouth (words on paper or electronic cost a lot of money for reasons you will find out) are all that remain of their previous lives and society; a previous life that is unveiled throughout the series and eventually answers why they are there.
WOOL:
I recently found out that Wool was first designed be read as a stand-alone story. I can see how the structure reflects a stand-alone more so than the others but I know that if I’d have bought Wool without a follow up being at least in the pipeline, I would have been knocking on Hugh Howey’s door with something to say about that. Wool wastes no time in letting you get attached to the characters and then finding ways to uproot their place in the novel. I must admit, it took me a while to figure out who the main character was finally going to be because there were so many changes happening in a short space of time. It didn’t deter me though. It was interesting to get so many points of view. Which actually worked, I wouldn’t have previously thought that swapping between so many characters so early would work for a reader connection. Turns out it did and well, too. The setting of the novel is an enclosed Silo (admittedly a huge Silo) but with no access to the outside which for obvious reasons doesn’t give much freedom to work with setting-wise, but this also succeeded. It made the idea of ‘outside’ all the more fearful and then once the story progressed, more arcane.
SHIFT:
I think out of the three novels I found Shift the hardest to get into and this is in no way a slight of the novel to discourage others. I am an impatient reader-for-pleasure. I dislike not having the whole plot to read at my fingertips, so if I know it is going to be a series I usually wait until all the books are out before I begin reading. When I finished Wool I didn’t pause for a cup of tea even before picking up Shift. So when I was confronted with no immediate explanation of the loose ends in Wool, I (at first) was impatient with it. But the series has more finesse to it than just neatly giving the reader all the answers. Once you adapt from the fast-paced, who-is-going-to-be-attacked-next? style of plot in the dark Silo of Wool to Shift‘s more subtle beginning in the familiar ‘real world’, it is easy to see that the information you get from Shift truly makes the series what it is. Once I had finished the series I realised just how important the content was; it took the story deeper.
DUST:
Dust is the moment when the many characters’ stories from the different Silos are brought together, their pasts having had influence over each other without realising. Rise of the masses style. This is the culmination of all the conspiracies that have been spoken of in the series, where the answers are given. There is some mystery throughout the series as to whether the outside is poison or not, living or not, even if it is real or not. Perhaps that was just me but I was definitely swinging one way then the other in terms of what I believed from one book to the next.
I haven’t talked about specific characters or events in the books and I might decide to upload something more concise later on. I just want to encourage people to read this series; it’s a little bit special.

Richard Matheson: I Am Legend

An SF novel about vampires…

Robert Neville is the last living man on Earth…but he is not alone. Every other man, woman and child on the planet has become a vampire, and they are hungry for Neville’s blood.

By day he is the hunter, stalking the undead through the ruins of civilisation. By night, he barricades himself in his home and prays for the dawn. How long can one man survive like this?

A quick note to the reader: if you have not yet read I Am Legend and you are hoping to in the future, I would give this post a wide berth. I have not been particularly coy about plot giveaways and such. I warn you here because there is nothing worse than finding a spoiler whilst trying to use others’ experiences to gauge whether to buy the book or not.

I will try to keep this brief as I am writing this on a train with no mains connection for charging my laptop.

With this first book, Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, I had one of my very rare occurrences of seeing the film version before I read the book. To be honest, when I first saw the film in 2007 I was not aware that it was a book to begin with, let alone a 1950’s novel. As I mentioned in the previous post, I am a big J. G. Ballard fan and I was surprised that reading-by-association hadn’t led me to I Am Legend sooner. A friend introduced me to the book, years later, after he had read it. He recommended it and I, I am sad to say, promptly forgot about it; mainly because I had seen the film and was not particularly enthralled.

To use a new twist on an old standard, never judge a book by its film! I found the protagonist Robert Neville much more realistically flawed and human in the book, more in keeping with the ‘average guy wins out’ theme (or doesn’t ultimately, as is ironically the case) that Matheson seemed to have been going for. I am going to try and not keep referring to the film because the book and the film are in completely different territories. Their medium, aims, audiences and eras were completely different, among many other things, so there would be little point doing so in my eyes.

Addressing the ‘vampire’ description of the story, recent popularity of the vampire character in popular fiction has rendered this once classic gothic horror character into a romanticised ideal. I am not saying I am not guilty of reading the romanticised novels myself. I also at the time of reading enjoyed them. Nevertheless, I am happy to say that this novel conforms to the traditional perception of a vampire, meaning that they are a gothic horror genre character, not a heartthrob.

I know I did say I wouldn’t be comparing the book to the film and vice versa, I just want to point out that during the film I was not aware that the infected creatures were intended to be vampires. I can only assume it was an active choice to disassociate the film creatures from being characterised the same as the creatures were in the book.

For this reason, when I was confronted with the blurb beginning “An SF novel about vampires…” I was a little taken aback to say the least. I must admit I rolled my eyes at the idea of combining vampires and apocalypse, thinking, “how could this possibly work in classic sci fi”? But then again I was still labouring under the illusion that the topical heartthrob character would be used. More fool me!

Matheson puts this gothic character in a new setting for my experience; post-apocalypse. It somehow works as a fitting new setting, bringing the character crashing out of gothic castles and Whitby and into 20th century fiction set in the post-apocalyptic 1970s. Matheson seems to be able to pretty much get away with using the vampire character without too much of a stretch of the imagination by associating them with the apocalyptic classic method of a mass pandemic infection.

By following the day-to-day life of Neville, the reader can find a relatable anchor in amongst the vampire-infection-apocalyptic world. I mostly find that the best sci fi and fantasy novels have something to keep the reader grounded, something that the reader can associate with. It just helps the author connect with their readers; making the least believable (and usually the more creatively imagined) features of the novel more believable by association.

We always wonder how we would react in an apocalyptic situation and I think we would all hope we would have at least half the success that Neville has. He is a typical human being, not some almost super human that we would have envied in the pre-apocalyptic life, just happening to have a mastery of combat, inbuilt knowledge of medicine and, naturally, is a survival genius. I think my favourite part of his character is his ability to learn what he needs to know as and when he needs it, not just have the knowledge conveniently previously ingrained as many characters handily do in any genre of novel. This maybe my librarian side coming out but I particularly loved his aptitude for using the library to learn how to firstly do DIY around his house and then to do the some might say more in depth task of curing the world of the infection.

So concludes my chat. My laptop battery is low, I am near my destination and so I must leave.

I am next chatting (I am not calling it reviewing as I am more just letting out my thoughts onto paper at the moment) about The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, which I would particularly welcome thoughts on as my knowledge on war is not extensive, a personal problem I found whilst reading the novel!

Until then…

Happy reading!

The SF Masterworks Collection: Introduction

sfmw

For those fellow book lovers out there…

I recently decided to read the complete SF Masterworks collection, published by Millennium, a division of the Orion Publishing Group. This decision was spurred on by a fellow book lover lending me the SF Masterworks edition of I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. After reading this I knew that I wanted to read more of the mid-to-late-20th century science fiction, in keeping with the style of Matheson, so I followed the Google trail to the SF Masterworks collection listing. With there being quite a number of books in the collection (73 to be exact, although more included in different editions to be pedantic) I thought it would be an interesting pastime to not just read them mindlessly but share what I thought, get a little science fiction discussion ball rolling. I know from experience that this genre, chiefly this period of science fiction, has a bit of a love-or-hate reaction and I am not quite sure why.

My typical reading genres are apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic, dystopian and totalitarian fiction, stemming from an enthusiasm for general geography (closet volcanologist wannabe) but particularly for the power of natural hazards and their place in our past, present and future. You won’t find me stereotypically hiding out in a campervan in crazy isolation, making my own radio station just yet, but let’s never say never. Many of the books I read in my usual genres include science fiction in some form or other, they often come hand in hand, so it was inevitable that I would be eventually drawn into the world of science fiction.

When I was reading I Am Legend, this 1954 novel drew me back nostalgically to that time period of science fiction, back to a certain style (that mysterious love-or-hate style) that was also included in J. G. Ballard’s work; I am already a huge Ballard fan – I included his work in my dissertation – and this is where I discovered the mass divided reaction to that style. I also enjoy H. G. Wells’ work. More recently I had been encouraged to read work by Philip K. Dick. When I took a look at the listing of the SF Masterworks and saw all three of these authors already included plus George R. Stewart, John Wyndham, Kurt Vonnegut and Mary Shelley I knew I was on to a winner.

Some will be probably thinking that John Wyndham and Mary Shelley are not included in the classic numbered paperback title listing that I am working from and that is correct. However, they are included in later editions of the collection and I thought I would prefer to read more than less, it’s just the way I am. With myself and books I am go hard or go home.

I will be attempting to follow the numbered structure in which they were published but there may be a few discrepancies due to which ones I can get hold of for when and also I have already read I Am Legend so it makes sense to write the review whilst it is still in my mind. The next book The Forever War by Joe Haldeman is currently on its way to me and will be written up just as soon as I have read it.

So concludes the overview and the purpose of this blog. I will be firstly writing up Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, which will follow in the next few days.

 

Until then…

Happy reading!