Nebula Project: Forever War, part 2

In this part, we’ll look at a revised version published more recently, as well as the short story/novella “A Separate War” which tells the last portion of the book from the perspective of a different character.

What follows is a spoiler laden discussion of the book Forever War by Joe Haldeman. Beware if you’re worried about such things.

This is part two of our discussion on the Nebula Award winner Forever War, by Joe Haldeman. In the first part, we took a look at the version of the book which was published in the 70s and went on to win the Nebula Award. In this part, we’ll look at a revised version published more recently, as well as the short story/novella “A Separate War” which tells the last portion of the book from the perspective of a different character.

K: So let’s go back to Forever War. As we mentioned in our first discussion, there are several versions of this book around, and initially we sought out the version which had actually been presented to the Nebula voters. More recent editions have included a significantly different ‘middle’ section, which was apparently the original (or a revision of the original) intention, but were altered before it was first published as a novel.

K: The ‘middle’ section in question is the portion of the novel taking place just after the first battle with the Taurans, up to and including the time when our main character, William Mandella, returns to Earth after being released from the military.

J: At first I noticed just little changes. Like suddenly he wasn’t getting ‘soya’ from the machine, but ‘coffee’. And I also thought his birthdate had changed, but no, it was always March 1975. Which was not the year I was born, like I said in our last discussion. I think I must’ve done the math from another date in the book and come up with 1974. But once they get to the orientation before going back to Earth, and then Earth, it’s all a lot different.

K: Yes, it is. Since it’s a bit confusing which was ‘original’, I’m going to refer to the first version we read as the Nebula version and the other one as the modern version. The Nebula version was more vague, definitely. William and Marygay arrive back on Earth, William meets his mom and his brother, he and Marygay go on a vacation, and then — spoilers — William’s mom randomly dies because she was not considered important enough to be guaranteed healthcare past the age of 70. Somehow all of this is so awful they leave the planet in disgust and re-enlist. Compared to the modern version, which I’ll let you describe, I have to say I liked this dystopic Earth better. It was more reasonable. The lack of detail and the seeming smallness of the changes made it far more believable to me. If I squint hard enough I could maybe see how we could end up like that. The modern version, on the other hand, had too many details; too many huge changes. It was over the top and didn’t work for me. But it was certainly worse which made their decision to quit Earth a lot less confusing.

J: I agree on the details front. I don’t know if I’d say it was too many, but it was definitely better thought-out. There is, for instance, a thriving black market, which you in particular bemoaned the lack of in the Nebula version. So in this modern version, they go back to Earth and it really sucks. Everyone goes outside armed or with a bodyguard. Money is in kilocalories, which are kinda sorta confusingly tied with food rationing. Marygay’s parents fled prison to work on a farm commune. His mother has a subcontracted black market job. He visits her, then he and Marygay go on a tour of the world, starting with London, via dirigible. They have a violent encounter when he breaks up a gangrape and they cut the trip short. He goes home, his Mom is apparently a lesbian now. Which freaks him out enough to go live with Marygay’s family on the commune. Which goes well for a few days, until they’re killed in a big gunfight or something. Then back to his Mom dying because she’s sick and old and so they re-enlist.

K: So which version did you like better? Since you say it’s ‘better thought-out’, I’m going to guess the modern? As I said, for me, it was just too much. There were lots of details, but since we didn’t really get to see much more than this bullet list of facts (oh hai we changed all world currency to one currency and named it kilocalories because that wasn’t at all confusing and I don’t quite understand it myself but yeah.) I think I needed either more background on the Earth changes, or less revolution to try and get my head around. And– yes, I was very pleased to see some sort of black market. But it still didn’t go far enough. It seems strictly confined to jobs? I was pretty confused about that. There was no medical black market mentioned, was there? We did see a grey-ish market for food.

J: There was blackmarket antibiotics mentioned. But that was actually in both versions, now that I look. I think I prefer the Nebula version, for two reasons. One, I think the modern version felt grafted in. We were rather abruptly jolted back to the part that was identical in the Nebula version. That he has a brother shows up out of nowhere. His mother was mentioned as being 60 (Rhonda said so) and then is 84 the next time he’s home. And they did not go farm for 20 years. And currency is suddenly in dollars again. And my second reason is the modern version has more drugs, more violence, more sex, and more rape! It was just too much. I can see how an editor told him it was all a downer. It definitely was that. Oh, and I guess I had a third reason. All 3 parents dying in the short span of time the two of them are home? When they managed to survive quite fine for 20+ years before that? Fft.

K: The timeline issues were something I caught, too. Perhaps you knew I would, because those are one of my pet peeves. (Not to venture off too far, but later in the book someone mentions the last time he was on earth was ‘2007’ and he agrees! Except it totally was not 2007. I could almost buy it as him just brushing off an error in his records if Marygay hadn’t said exactly the same thing in the short story that was written from her perspective.) But I think you’ve put your finger on something else that was bugging me, even though I couldn’t quite figure it out — the parents all dying in such short succession was silly. Especially since we spent so much relative time building up to and foreshadowing the death of the Potters, Ma Mandella’s death was way too abrupt.

J: The short story is “A Separate War”. I caught it too! It’s like he looked back at the novel, saw the date on the section, and.. forgot he should’ve been looking at the second date. I didn’t catch it in the book itself. Oh, and where did Rhonda go?! Her roommate and sometime lover is dying, and then is dead, and she’s not in that chapter at all. She disappeared, the brother showed up. Very bad graft, I have to say.

K: Yes, it could have used some better editing. Rhonda is mentioned as being visiting her kids, but surely someone ought to have called her! Instead all they call is his brother, which is exactly the same as the Nebula version, except that in the modern version his brother has not been mentioned at all prior to his abrupt appearance on the phone.

J: Actually, I think the reference is that Rhonda is the disease vector, having picked up the bug from a previous visit to her kids and passed it to Mandella’s mom. *checks* Yea, no mention of where she actually is now. And yes, exactly. So all in all, I have to say I’m glad we read the Nebula version. This one would’ve confused me too much! And also annoyed the heck out of me with all the violence and random deaths. Oh, yea, one thing I noted down. Well, two things. This guy comes to brief them all on the changes before they go to Earth. He’s wearing makeup and fancy nails and everything, and he uses weird pronouns instead of ‘he’. I say weird, because they’re not third gender or gender neutral pronouns I’m used to — tha, ther, thim. Haldeman uses it exactly once. It never appears again. In fact there’s a glaring case in the phone call to the hospital where it would’ve been appropriate, but instead it’s ‘he’. And it’s a ‘he’ that stands out to modern readers because it should’ve been ‘they’ or ‘he or she’. “[…] how important a person is and what level of treatment he’s allowed”. And the other thing is the makeup. I didn’t see one other reference to anyone wearing makeup. It was supposed to be in fashion, so.. where did it go?

K: Very good points, all, and I have no answers for you. So not only was the flow interrupted by the herky jerky plot, there were a whole bunch of points raised and then randomly discarded (apparently) with no further exploration. I confess I’m pretty baffled as to why this section was (re)inserted with no better effort made to better integrate it and also make sure it was at least internally consistent to itself, let alone the rest of the story.

J: Beta readers! Beta readers! If we caught these things, a couple beta readers would’ve! I understand maybe the author and his editor(s) were too close to the story to look at it with fresh eyes (maybe?). But still.. So I had another question. Which is just to wonder how a third of the population is now gay after only 20-25 years. Because I believe this is before they had the technology to switch people’s orientations around. Just.. one generation? Most of the population that was straight when he left should’ve been just older and straight when he came back. Which means the younger people are like 3/4ths gay or something so the average of the entire population evens out to 1/3rd? (The book erases bisexuality by never mentioning it.) So did his Mom discover she was a lesbian? Take it up because that’s just what you do now? I just.. I don’t know.

K: Well… both this book and “A Separate War” treat women (assuming we can have Marygay and apparently Ma Mandella stand in for all women) as more open to experimentation and/or more fluid in who they’re sexually attracted to. This may be a stereotype, it may be a result of socialization, or it may be something inherent, but I’m sort of inclined to give the idea a pass. I do wonder at the idea that everyone becoming homosexual would solve the population problem, because clearly that is ridiculous, as we mentioned before. I guess I kind of feel like — if you were going to go all George Lucas on the book and restore your ‘original vision’, it might have been wise to also clean it up a bit. But maybe that would have been too hard, since the homosexual thing was such a big thread through the second half of the book.

J: He could’ve at least made part of it in 3D.

K: Hahahaha.

K: This new section did mention slightly more about the ‘Elite Conscription Act’ which is the draft law which basically requires all smart people to enter the service. I still don’t quite understand the logic of the law, especially since I felt like the modern version was hinting that it was a deliberate conspiracy to remove all these clever people from the world. To what end? To hold back the human race?

J: Yea, I don’t get it. First of all, all the smart people aren’t going to be physically and psychologically fit for the job of soldier. Was the military using them for desk jobs, R&D, stuff like that? And with the technological advances to fight the war, some of that is going to bleed into advances at home. Like how NASA has helped everyone in all sorts of ways, not the least of which is a pen that writes upside down. And if you can breed for gay-ness, you can breed for smartness. They should have all the brains they want.

K: I certainly don’t think Forever War is alone in that it starts to look like a flimsy premise if you pick at it enough. Lord knows almost every book has that sort of flaw(s). But I do think the modern version almost… highlights them, by drawing our attention too sharply by half to the mess on Earth.

J: I agree. It drew attention away from the main point of the story, which is that things changed while the war was going on. Say that, show that, and get out. Before you start listing all these details that don’t hold up to scrutiny.

K: Exactly. I did, however, find it interesting that the revolution on Earth appears to have been fomented by a feeling of severe economic inequality. (In this case shown by people appearing well-fed versus not.) Look out, one-percenters!

J: Heh. I read it as look out, fat people. But fair enough!

K: Yeah, it could definitely be read that way too.

J: So the short story takes place after this section, and after they’ve had limbs severed and regrown, etc. It’s from Marygay’s POV and she tells what happened to her while her and Mandella were separated. And, to me, if I were reading that by itself, I’d be like.. why does she love this guy, because he doesn’t even get a line, I don’t think. He’s very much at a distance and just a prop. But probably the reader is supposed to have read FW and already know him as a character. Anyway, she gets into one of those acceleration shell things again, and I find it odd that there was no mention at all of her previous experience in one. You ask me she should’ve had some PTSD or at least been a little squeamish about getting into this thing that very nearly killed her once.

K: I was about to say he’s not even in the story as a character, but it does briefly cover their R&R time on Heaven so that’s not true. So yeah — this story is definitely not meant to stand on its own in the least, but it does make an interesting counterpoint.

K: I’d assume she had some kind of therapy, though we’re never told about it. But maybe she doesn’t have PTSD because you can’t remember really being in the shell? At least, she can’t remember being injured in it beyond having been told that it happened?

J: I dunno.. she was conscious while they were working on her. Kept asking for water. But even if it didn’t bother her, I think it still deserved a mention. If for no other reason than why it didn’t bother her. The other thing about the short story was, it named the uh.. prototype for Man, all those cloned gestalt whatever. Was he named before? Because the name really struck me this time! Khan! Or rather, Khaaaaaaan!

K: Yeah, he was named before. Because he specifically mentions he had a relative in Mandella’s strike force and I had to go back and look at the list and make sure he really was there. (He was.)

J: Well, I have to say after reading this revised, or unrevised, section that I feel less good about this book as a whole. And not looking forward to reading any more Forever X by Haldeman. But the short story made me feel a little better about it. So I’ll probably be ready for Forever Peace when we get to it.

K: It clearly demonstrates how valuable a practiced editorial eye can be to a story! The Nebula version is much more coherent in spite of the possible weaknesses of the toned-down Earth section.

J: So, yay, done with this book finally! Next up is Man Plus by Frederik Pohl, I believe. A book which I know nothing about.


Nebula Project: Forever War

It’s the dawn of a new century and the human race has begun exploring space in earnest after the discovery of ‘collapsars’ which permit instantaneous travel between two distant points in space. Unfortunately, humanity has also discovered it’s not alone in the universe and is now embroiled in a war with a race they call the Taurans.

What follows is a spoiler laden discussion of the book Forever War by Joe Haldeman. Beware if you’re worried about such things.

It’s the dawn of a new century and the human race has begun exploring space in earnest after the discovery of ‘collapsars’ which permit instantaneous travel between two distant points in space. Unfortunately, humanity has also discovered it’s not alone in the universe and is now embroiled in a war with a race they call the Taurans. William Mandella has been drafted to serve in this war, and as a result of travel at relativistic speeds, his service will span hundreds of years. Or maybe forever.

For the purposes of this discussion, we acquired Forever War as published in book form in 1974, the version which won the Nebula. More recent publications of the novel have been updated by the author to include a different version of the middle episode of the book, which had originally been rewritten at the time of initial publication. Though this new version is better reflective of the author’s original vision, it isn’t actually the version that won. We’ll be discussing our thoughts on the changes in a followup.

J: So we’re up to 1975 and Joe Haldeman’s Forever War. I didn’t know much about it going into it, except that there were some sequels and the series still seems moderately successful. And it was, presumably, a military sf novel. And I actually like quite a bit of military sf, so if I had any feelings about the book going into it, they were probably.. optimistic of an enjoyable experience.

K: That’s a fair description of my feelings going into it as well, though I perhaps knew even less than you did — even though our spreadsheet indicates the sequels, somehow I didn’t even notice it. In any case, I had no reason to be pre-disposed in either direction except that I generally do enjoy military sf as long as the military so described is interesting.

J: What I like about military sf tends to be the military school or the training, the tension in relationships between ranks, the moral and ethical questions of when to disobey orders, and then cool sneaky tricks, like Kirk or Hornblower as just two examples. So when I started this book, it started out interesting for me, because it started out in training. And there were female soldiers!

K: Yes. I was pleased to see them, especially in a book written in the early or mid-70s. I can’t say my like of military sf is quite as quantifiable as yours (and Hornblower isn’t really sf at all — Napoleanic military fiction is pretty large enough to be a genre all on its own), I do like all of those things. And I like ships, water ships or air ships or space ships, it’s all good. But I also like the technology and all of the interesting bits that need to be taken into account to survive and handle restricted environments. And there was a good amount of that here, well-thought out.

J: Oh, no, I wasn’t saying Hornblower was sf. He’s just.. the archetype. In some ways I feel like I want to discuss this book chronologically, as my feelings changed as I read it. But maybe we should mention before we get too far that we read the “original” published version. The version that actually won the Nebula. This book’s publication history is complicated.

K: Right. Now, the book begins right around the turn of the century/millenium. A war is on with an alien race, the only alien race the humans have yet encountered. And for some reason that’s not really adequately explained, the military has specifically drafted a bunch of over-educated college kids to be footsoldiers.

J: The main character was actually born the same year as me. That’s a little trippy. So yea, they’ve recruited these smart college kids, I think the IQ limit was over 140 or something like that? Basically MENSA material college kids, and they’re training them to fight an enemy they know nothing about. Like, hey, we’ve trained you how to kill humans a billion different ways, but none of them may actually work against the aliens. Even the whole idea of having foot soldiers in a fight against aliens is kind of crazy. I’d spend my money on building better ships, but whatever.

K: That did puzzle me quite a bit, actually. The book was very progressive in many ways — spaceflight, the issues with that, the various changes in society and so forth. And yet the -war- was waged — for a thousand years no less — in an manner almost identical to Vietnam. Which was just bizarre, especially since they did not seem to need any of these planets and planetoids they were claiming? It wasn’t clear to me why drones and airstrikes were not being used. Except, of course, it wouldn’t have been the same book.

J: And I couldn’t understand why they thought it was worth the cost of heavy casualties. Heavy casualties /in training/. What a waste of money and resources to have all these people die before ever doing anything useful in the war.

K: Yeah. It all did seem dreadfully inefficient. To send out such a small number of people that even minimal casualties (which were expected!) would totally undermine their ability to actually accomplish the goals of the mission? It’s possible the ludicrous (ludocrisy?) was intentional, since he was probably trying to draw parallels with Vietnam. To the point where most of the training officers are gung-ho Vietnam vets.

J: I wouldn’t have thought Vietnam at all, except that he did mention it in his intro, which I read afterwards. You know I did wonder why he thought there hadn’t been any wars after Vietnam until the 90s! Um.. apparently anywhere on the planet. This isn’t an American-only strike force, is it? Certainly he made some attempt with the names to be multi-cultural.

K: No, it’s not an American only strike-force. The history is a bit sketchy to me, but this is what I worked out. Some assumptions may be incorrect. History is normal up until the ‘present day’ ie, when the book was written. After that though, the space program appears to remain better funded than it did. No fuel crisis? In 1985, collapsars, jump points, wormholes, whatever, are discovered, which presumably injects more excitement and urgency and funding into the space program. At some point, Earth’s space programs are taken over or overseen by the United Nations, who creates UNIT UNEF. By 1997, they’ve had very brief alien contact and declared war on the other species. The “Exploratory Force” is converted to a military one and people start getting drafted. That’s the beginning of the story.

K: Histories of the future are always a bit dubious, though this one seems especially so given the rabid xenophobia that dominates the U.S. political landscape today. I can’t imagine the reaction to the United Nations trying to take over anything.

J: The United Nations turning into a world government of some sort is fairly common in sf, at least historically. So that part makes me just roll my eyes and say ‘Whatever’ and move on. Rather like all the pot-smoking in this book. Whatever. And, at some point, I start having to say ‘Whatever’ to all the rampant orgies in 60s and 70s sf. Like, really, this is the future of the human race? Drugs and orgies?

K: But doesn’t that sound like fun? Doesn’t it?! The drugs thing is still a very common trope today. And not entirely far-fetched, I must say. But even as a social super liberal, I cannot see the orgy thing taking hold, at least not in the near term future.

J: Let me mention the line that really ticked me off, just to get it over with. I was reading the book at lunch and just had to stop. And wish I’d brought a second book to lunch with me. Here’s the quote:

The orgy that night was amusing, but it was like trying to sleep in the middle of a raucous beach party. The only area big enough to sleep all of us was the dining hall; they draped a few bedsheets here and there for privacy, then unleashed Stargate’s eighteen sex-starved men on our women, compliant and promiscuous by military custom (and law), but desiring nothing so much as sleep on solid ground.

J: There’s just so many things wrong with that. I just got so mad, because up until that point he’d been treating the male and female soldiers pretty much equally. They had this sex rotation where they’d sleep around, which I didn’t object to too much. Only to wonder why they were all apparently straight and none of them had the desire to be celibate. No partners back home? No religious feeling? No.. just.. low sex drive? Out of, what was it, 100 people? But then this line hit and it was like he’d undone everything he’d set up before it in turns of gender equality.

K: When you mentioned there was a line that made you want to smack him, and I came to that line, I knew it was the one you meant. Because it jarred me in the exact same fashion. He included women. They appeared to be equal to men. There was no griping about women being weak or not allowed in combat or any other nonsense of that nature. And then, suddenly — what?! It made me question everything. Did they include women in these roles out of a realization that women were equal and should be treated as such? Or did they just find a convenient way to include sex workers and oh hey, we can also get extra work out of them! Except it was even worse than the latter, because apparently the women are not only sex workers, they apparently have no legal right to say no, even if they don’t want to. I’m surprised no one in the present day has hit upon this way to solve the issue of military rape. Just declare it legal! Problem solved!

J: I don’t like to say anything about the book while we’re both reading it, but I just had to at least say something! And jeez, don’t let the GOP get hold of this book. ‘Hey, we have this great proposition for you. I know you’re studying to be a nuclear physicist, or whatever, but we’re going to make you join the military. You might die in training, you’ll almost certainly die before your term is up, and oh yea, you have to have sex whenever the male soldiers want. And they’re randy devils who’ll want it ALL THE TIME. Because that’s how college-age guys are. But it’s okay, because they’ve all had vasectomies. Sounds good, right? Now go shoot some aliens!’

K: It did make me wonder, considering it’s also established at the same time that the government has technology that allows them to modify your behavior and the way you think. Did they modify the women to make them okay with this? And if so, why not just modify all the soldiers and make them asexual for the duration? It seems like that would have been better for ‘unit cohesion’ if you get down to it.

J: Yea, you don’t want your soldiers wasting time and energy on something essentially useless, do you? Especially as they’re apparently very closely monitoring their caloric intake and exercise. Less energy spent on sex = less food you need to ship up into space with them. Actually I think they did say they gave the officers, who were required to be celibate, hypnosis or whatever to make that easier. So might as well do that for everyone.

K: Except the officers were boffing people too, so I’m not sure why that particular hypnosis didn’t work even though everything else did.

K: Anyway. Aside from that jarring bit, which lent absolutely nothing to the plot and could easily have been removed without anyone noticing, the book resumed course and we started to get into the ‘forever’ part of the Forever War.

J: Yup. Basically they go fight, then they come back to a base of one sort of another, years have passed, the world has changed. I think the time jumps get greater as we go along, but that’s because the main character is going on further-out missions. And with this time effect, when they encounter the aliens they’re fighting, the aliens might’ve had decades to advance in tech, while they didn’t. And then vice versa. So it’s usually a rout in one direction or the other. Which seems a really bad way to fight a war, but y’know, space, what can you do.

K: It does seem like an increasingly silly situation, especially from the perspective of the soldiers, which I’m sure again is some sort of Vietnam parallel exaggerated hugely – the completely out of touch commanders, planning things far away in space AND time. And, it seems, with the people at home completely removed from the war aside from occasionally being drafted. Because it has no bearing on them one way or another; they don’t seem to be in danger of being invaded, ever. It’s an abstract concept to them, especially given what must be years and months between every individual engagement.

J: Which leads me to a question I had at the end, which was how did they know it was the last ship that needed to come back? Given that earlier it said a bunch were ‘missing’ and possibly taking essentially the long road home. Because these guys aren’t operating with an ansible. Which Le Guin had already invented, so they could’ve been!

K: All right, we can skip to the end, though I thought we were going to go through this chronologically! Anyhow, I was a bit mystified by this declaration as well. It didn’t seem like there was any reason to know for sure that they were ‘last’, unless everyone else had been confirmed dead or returned (and we’re not given that information.) Also, it’s mentioned when they come in that there are lots of ships all around this base. Then it seems like the base is mostly abandoned and will be destroyed when they leave — it was just being maintained until they got back. So what are all those other ships? I was confused.

J: Yea, that confused me too! And if you knew they were last, and you knew their route, why not go and meet them? And presumably be able to fly them back faster or at least more comfortably, with your advanced technology. But yea, we should probably go back, to the first time the main character comes ‘home’ and sees what the future has wrought.

K: Right. But this first visit is after only a few years — 25 or 26 — so he’s still at a period of time when he’d be alive, and his relatives are alive, though greatly aged. We get a little bit of information about recent events and the current political situation on the planet. It’s sort of a dystopian situation, except that we experience it so very briefly that it’s hard to have much of a reaction to it beyond ‘ugh’.

J: Except my reaction wasn’t even ‘ugh’. Most people are unemployed, but the government makes sure they have enough to live on. And they’re free to pursue whatever interests them. I could see how it could lead to depression. If you’re not doing meaningful work, then it’s not good for your well-being or the society’s well-being. But it depends on what they’re allowed to do. It seems like no matter how well-run your economy is, you can always use more art of all kinds. Or people out there tinkering with this and that, inventing things. So I failed to see what was so horrible about not having a job. And of 1/3 of your neighbors being gay.

K: Yeah. That part seemed more or less okay, though it’s unclear how it’s being paid for — and then we basically find out that it’s being paid for by sharply rationing healthcare to the point where many people are not allowed to have any. They’re provided food and shelter, but not much more. This whole section seemed very abbreviated to me, like things were being thrown at us and we were clearly supposed to find them bad, but I’m not sure there was enough information to make that determination in all cases.

K: Even the healthcare thing was weird, because you know as soon as the government limits something like that, a black market appears to fill the vacancy. So where were the back alley doctors? We don’t get a sense of any of that. Everyone’s completely isolated from one another, apparently.

J: I thought everyone got healthcare until they turned 70 and then some people didn’t merit it. It seemed a little extreme in that they didn’t give them any care, when it wouldn’t really cost much to give out a few pills for an acute ailment. And you’re absolutely right. Where are all the unemployed people with enough education to be doctors? Certainly the two main characters at this point don’t seem to give the place much of a chance before they run back to the military and sign up again.

K: Yeah. I’m sure there was some underground rebels or… something. But they spend a week there, throw up their hands and leave again in disgust. Was it really worse than almost certain death in the military?

J: The wild amount of money they’d earned from their decades of service amused me. By how pitiful it actually looked. :)

K: Yeah, it was pretty sad, though after a few hundred years it was a lot better.

K: Which brings me to another bit, as we’re sort of up to the interlude where they ended up on ‘Heaven’, a hospital and recreation planet. Which is, these humans never did invent the ansible, so they have no instantaneous communication. In fact, communication between Earth and distant humans seems practically nil. So what is keeping them in line? Heaven seems like a pretty nice place, so what has prevented them from just declaring independence and going on their merry way as an entity separate from Earth’s political system?

J: Oh, didn’t they say the entire economy was based on rich soldiers spending all their wealth? That didn’t seem like it’d work, somehow. Maybe communications is part of it. Are they really going to get all that money from Earth when they turn in their bills, or whatever? And just how long will it take?

K: It does seem like there’d need to be incredible redundency in bank and personnel and health care records to sustain a multiplanetary nation without the ability to communicate at a reasonable rate of speed.

J: I don’t really remember much about what Heaven was like, except they toured around and climbed mountains or something. And I also forget what came right after that.

K: At the end of it, William and Marygay were assigned to different companies and sent off to different missions. He headed back somewhere. Stargate? and got reoriented in time, because by the time he got there it was about 100+ years later. Then he got his assignment out to the back of beyond.

J: Ah okay. That’s when he got all the brain training in how to fight with all sorts of random weapons and learned tactics and strategy. And then they give him a squad or whatever it was of his own. Full of fresh-faced young kids about 5 years younger than him.

K: Right. And all homosexual.

J: Which was neat, in a way. When gay people started showing up, it sort of went some way to making amends for that egregious line from early on. (Not that including gay people makes it okay to be horrible to the entire female population of your book, but that you could maybe feel he was trying to show a contrast in gender and sexual relations across time periods and had maybe exaggerated the first bit for effect.) The main char’s troops call him Old Queer and see him that way, and that was an interesting take on it. But by the time I finished the book and could look at the role of homosexuality in the book as a whole.. it didn’t work well. It only shows up and is only encouraged to keep down the population. Which is a really stupid reason.

K: Exactly. I do think, for the time, it was probably a pretty progressive book. There were women, the women were fellow soldiers, not nurses. They were competent. There were gay people — in the military! — and homosexuality was shown as an accepted norm. On the other hand, the idea of turning people homosexual for population control is a bit strange. Just because you’re homosexual doesn’t mean you lose your desire to reproduce. Just the ability to do so naturally while still having sex with your preferred gender. Again, here’s a situation where asexuality would work far better if you’re looking to divert people from any sort of sexual reproduction.

J: There was even a female doctor. But yea, asexuality comes to mind. Or any number of methods of birth control. Free vasectomies for all! Or just start breeding for infertility. And this is a major spoiler, oh no, but the only gay character we care anything about at the end of the book… is turned straight. So he can marry and presumably have babies and live happily ever after.

K: Heh. Yeah. I wasn’t too sure about the tone exactly — I mean, why not just be a gay guy on this new planet? What was the harm in that? I do think human sexuality is more of a spectrum than a binary, but exploring that idea was definitely not part of this book’s goal, nor was it really presented that way.

J: I would be interested to know if and how it’s explored more in the sequels. But interested enough to actually read them, I don’t know.

K: I’m not sure either. So what was your opinion of the book overall, now that you’ve actually read it?

J: Well, I dunno. I definitely saw it as a forerunner of some of the ideas in Ender’s Game and the Shadow books. And parts of it reminded me of Old Man’s War. So it was interesting. I just don’t think I really liked it as a cohesive whole of a book.

K: Ha. You should definitely read the intro Scalzi wrote then, before we return the books. And yes, I can see how other books picked up on the ideas here — Ender definitely seems almost like this book from a different perspective, though they clearly have instantaneous communication as well. I ended up enjoying it a lot more than I expected after that gang-bang scene, and had that not been included, I would feel pretty good about the book as a whole. But it makes me very uncomfortable to approve of it.

J: Ender’s Game has an ansible. OSC was stealing more than we realized when we first read it. :) Also the part where some of the militarily-trained people come back to Earth and try to start a revolution. Because they are heroes, and they are trained. (Which I find a little confusing because I thought it was like a 99.somethingcrazy% death rate.) But yes, I certainly can’t heartily endorse the book by any means. There’s also another line that really ticked me off. The main char encounters someone he can’t tell the gender of. He mentally flips a coin and ‘comes up tails’ and decides she’s a woman. I don’t know if that was an intentional play on words, but I was not inclined to be generous with him at that point.

J: Though if that had appeared in any other book, I would’ve brushed it off and forgotten it. It was only because he’d done such a good job mostly of including women equally.

K: I don’t really remember that scene, so I guess it didn’t have much of an impact on me.

J: One other thing, because I think we’re about done and I wanted to mention it. The first encounter with the aliens, there are these animals that like.. brain-kill everyone with a high ESP rating. And then.. the ESP thing is never, ever mentioned again.

K: Yes! I had totally forgotten about it, but yes. It was really a strange encounter. You’d think over the 1000 years, they’d attempt to develop this ESP more, especially once they start straight out breeding people rather than relying on random chance for reproduction.

J: I suppose that clone being thing, they’re all connected telepathically, or.. by something. It’s not clear. I don’t know if the ESP was dropped because this novel started life as a series of stories or just because sometimes you throw in some psi powers just because.. they’re pretty ubiquitous in sf at this point in time.

K: Should we mention the ending? I will say that it was painfully obvious to me that the war was going to turn out the way it did, but I was still sad to be proven correct. Was the ending considered shocking back in the day?

J: No idea. I was actually thinking at one point that maybe it would turn out they were fighting some form of humanity from the future. Alas, not that interesting. Though after I thought it, I would’ve been disappointed to have been proven correct.

K: Any last thoughts? There appears to have been an absolutely enormous nominated field for the Nebula in 1975. Have you read any of the others? Did it deserve to win?

J: Dhalgren and The Female Man get mentioned a lot in feminist circles, but I don’t believe I’ve read either. I have not read Heritage of Hastur, I don’t think, though I do mean to read more MZB. I may have read The Mote in God’s Eye in high school. All of the others, I haven’t heard of. So why Forever War? I was wondering if it wasn’t a reaction to the relative passivity and pacificity of The Dispossed. They needed a good war story with lots of gory dead bodies. Or it could just be that a lot of the votes got split, I dunno.

K: I’m not sure. Probably at the time, the war motif, especially the parallels to Vietnam, were far more at the forefront of everyone’s mind. I can’t say that I’ve read any of the other nominees, though I have heard of several. Based on the influence it obviously had on later books, I’m not going to say its win was undeserved. And it was a very readable book.

J: And Niven and Delany at least had already won before. I’m sure some voters considered that as a factor. Ha. It just occurred to me we do have to read at least one sequel, because Forever Peace occurs later on the list.

K: From what I can tell, Forever Peace is not a sequel. It didn’t look like it even takes place in the same universe.

J: Er… okay. *puzzled*


Tomorrow, When the War Began (John Marsden)

Tomorrow When the War Began CoverThe Plot
It’s the summer holidays, Christmas is over, and Ellie and her friends are looking to have some fun before school starts again. A mixed group of boys and girls set out on a camping trip into the bush and are gone for several days. When they return home, things are not right: homes have been ransacked, parents are missing, and pets and other animals are dead. They soon discover, to their horror, that the country has been invaded and most of the town captured.

My Thoughts
I’ll begin by stating that I’ve never been a huge fan of the dystopian genre. It’s hard for me to explain exactly why: I’ve read many examples of this genre and even enjoyed them. They’re often very important books, which can serve to illustrate the slippery slope society is currently on, or could easily begin rolling down. But on a fundamental level they bother me. It’s not just that the excuse for the dystopian elements being introduced is often flimsy or poorly explained (but that is a big and common problem). It may be that I just don’t really want to think about the world being so disturbingly screwed up. Especially since much of the time these books don’t really provide any hint that conditions will improve for most people even after the heroes have done what they’re going to do.

That said, while Tomorrow, when the War Began shares many traits with books in the currently burgeoning Dystopian YA category, I’m not sure if I would put it there or not. My feeling is that in a typical example of the genre, you begin with the dystopic situation already well-established. Whatever events led to its creation may or may not be within living memory or even remembered at all. In either case it’s usually very entrenched by the time the reader and the hero arrives on the scene. That is not the case here. Ellie and her friends are typical rural Australian teens, living in or near a small town with their families. Their lives are normal (though pre-internet and cellphone, as this was originally written in the early 90s). They decide to have a camping trip into the bush to better enjoy the tail end of summer vacation before school starts up again, so a group of seven boys and girls head off to camp in an area even more remote than some of their family ranches. Author Marsden takes advantage of the camping interlude, which comprises the initial 20% of the book, to try and flesh out the characters as they are before circumstances will force them to change. His success there is only middling, as it’s difficult to establish the personalities of seven individuals in such a small space without resorting to stereotypes to fill in the blanks. Happily, he mostly avoids using such stereotypes as a crutch for most of them, with the exception perhaps of Fiona, who seems to me pretty much straight out of the rich-pretty-girl box.

The action gets started when our group of high schoolers returns from their camping trip to find something strange has happened. The family ranches which they arrive at first are abandoned, animals have been killed, the power is out, and there’s no hint as to where the people have gone. We have another instance of win here where the kids are appropriately creeped out and cautious as a result of these oddities, but not really ready to let themselves imagine what might have happened. (Though I did find it odd that none of them seemed to speculate about alien abduction. Is that just too ridiculous? But the situation was bizarre! If that’s not a time to let your imagination out, I don’t know when it is.) They soon conclude the area has been invaded by some outside aggressor, a conclusion which is confirmed when they find a fax sent by a parent waiting for them at one of the abandoned houses.

What I most enjoyed about the book at this point was that the ambitions of the characters matched their abilities and knowledge. They did not (spoilers!) put together an amazing plan to destroy the invaders; they did not hack into the national defense system and save the world; they did not even come up with an improbable and complicated plan to free all of the hostages being held at the camp in the town. They kept their goals small and attainable, and had a realistic amount of problems in executing them. They were upset, scared and tempted to try and run away from it all — and not at all positive that wouldn’t be the best course of action anyway.

That’s not to say it was perfect. Perhaps its biggest weakness was the treatment of the female versus the male characters. While everyone is portrayed as very competent and there’s no real arguing that the girls are going to be equal and equally effective partners in their resistance efforts, was it really necessary to have the only two characters to have a dramatic mental breakdown be female? I don’t think it would have affected the story at all if, say, Kevin had been the one to see his home destroyed and had gone hysterical as a result. That it was Corrie instead just undercut the generally positive portrayal of girls in the book.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t comment on the truly appalling cover art on the edition of the book which I read. It is hideous. If I had picked this book up off the shelf in the bookstore, intrigued by the title, I would most likely have put it right back down after seeing this bizarro picture on the front. Fortunately, more recent editions have come out with a much more modern, appealing set of covers.

In Short
Tomorrow, when the War Began is a solid entry in the genre of YA speculative fiction with a dystopian bent. It also scores well on gender equality, though there were a few bits here and there along those lines that troubled me. It would work well enough as a standalone book, but it very clearly leaves so many threads unresolved that it’s a good thing the series continued. Even though the topic isn’t exactly my cup of tea, I may find myself tracking down the rest to find out how it all turns out.


Little House: Laura’s Early Years (Laura Ingalls Wilder)

With the exception of Farmer Boy, the original Little House books all have Laura Ingalls as the main character. Though the books themselves follow her as a child all the way to the first years of her marriage, there’s a time jump* between the third Laura book, On the Banks of Plum Creek and the fourth, By the Shores of Silver Lake. The existence of this gap means it makes sense to me to break the series there and have a look at the first three books together.

The Plot
In Little House in the Big Woods we’re introduced to the Ingalls family – Ma, Pa and their daughters Mary, Laura and Carrie. They live in a tiny cabin in the midst of a forest that’s pretty much on the border between Wisconsin and Minnesota. The family isn’t wealthy, but they’re able to live well enough off the land – both theirs and the unclaimed areas of the forest. But soon enough, Pa is beginning to feel the forest is oversettled, and the whole family moves to Indian Territory in Little House on the Prairie. Pa believes the Native American tribes will soon be forced to give up this land (as do quite a number of others) and he and the family set up a farm just inside the disputed border. When he hears a rumor that soldiers will be coming to displace the settlers, he angrily packs the family up and they depart for Minnesota, where they settle during On the Banks of Plum Creek. Relatively close to a town for the first time, Laura and Mary are finally able to attend school, while Pa once again takes a stab at building a farm.

My Thoughts
These first three Laura books cover the period when she was about age 4 until 9 or 10, and follow the Ingalls family as they live at three different locations. We begin in Wisconsin, where the family is living in a small cabin in a forested area near the town of Pepin. The cabin is tiny, and life surely wasn’t quite as rosy as the picture Wilder paints, but even if the depiction of her childhood is romanticized, it’s still engrossing in a way that’s hard to explain.

We’re introduced here to the family: Pa, Ma, older sister Mary, Laura, and baby Carrie. Pa is a bit of a jack of all trades – he farms just enough to provide food for the winter, but obviously much prefers the variety of hunting and trapping with occasional other projects to the steady monotony of farming. Ma supervises the children and the food as well as performing numerous other important tasks around the homestead. Mary and Laura assist Ma with her work and Pa as needed; as with the Wilders in Farmer Boy, gender roles are enforced to a point, but if work needs to be done, then whoever can do it will be required to help out.

Compared to the industrious Wilders in Farmer Boy, the Ingalls family is positively idle. Which is not to say they aren’t constantly working, but without a large farm to take care of, the daily tasks of taking care of the stock and the garden are much less labor intensive. Pa spends a great deal of time tramping through the woods — hunting and trapping and fishing to be sure, but also enjoying himself while doing it. Ma certainly knits and sews, but it’s not clear that she has the materials for the sort of spinning and weaving that Mrs. Wilder was able to do. Interestingly, Ma, a former schoolteacher, does not really seem to press academic lessons very hard on Mary or Laura; both girls seem to have lots of free time in which to play.

But it’s not so much the plot or even the characters which make these books so fascinating. As I mentioned in my comments on Farmer Boy, it’s the details that drive my interest. Wilder was aware she was writing about a way of living already foreign to most of her readers, who had grown up with automobiles and the A&P. She took the time to describe the process of how things worked — from the perspective of a child — and include interesting details that just captured the imagination. If someone confronted me with a roasted pig tail I would probably recoil, but reading about Laura and Mary’s delight in the treat makes me want one: it sounds absolutely delicious.

The drawback to the weight given to process detail, and the fairly episodic nature of these early books means that the characters themselves are not deeply drawn. Ma is quiet and efficient, Mary is good and ladylike, Pa is mischievous and a good provider, Carrie is a baby, and Laura is restless and naughty. Part of this is, I think, because the Ingalls children themselves are so young in these books, it would be difficult to draw a more nuanced portrait of Ma and Pa while still retaining Laura’s perspective. And part of this is because they are meant to be idealized versions of the Ingalls family. Living in a tiny shack in the woods of Wisconsin cannot have been an easy life, no matter how rosy a picture Wilder tries to paint, but to start with real hardships are pretty much glossed over: everyone is well-fed, warm, and comfortable, even if they don’t have lots of possessions.

By the time we reach Plum Creek, the girls are starting to grow older and are more aware of their own lack of wealth relative to others around them. Nellie Olson appears on the scene for the first time, providing a sharp contrast to the Ingalls household with her heaps of toys and dresses, furniture and books. Something I didn’t pick up on reading as a child, but which comes through clearly now, is Charles Ingalls’s restless and somewhat irresponsible nature. His move to Kansas may have been well-considered, but to leave in what amounted to a fit of pique was truly shocking, and his decision for the family to settle near Plum Creek was poorly researched to say the least. Surely the fact that the man he bought the land from was so eager to get out of Dodge should have given him a clue? (Hint: When the oldtimers are talking about “grasshopper weather”, ask them what they mean!) And then he falls victim to easy credit, building a house without any actual money to pay for it. I’m left with the feeling that if he were alive today, his mortgage would be underwater and he’d be up to his eyeballs in credit card debt in spite of his ideals of self-reliance.

And I can’t much speak for Caroline Ingalls either. Though she is obviously part of the decision which brings the family to Plum Creek, because of the proximity to a school for the girls, she seems in no hurry to actually send them — she keeps them home most of the first year they live there, for no good reason. As a child, I never noticed it, but it does seem odd to me that the very clever daughter of this ex-schoolteacher heads to school around age eight just barely knowing her alphabet. Especially when Mary can apparently read? I am not sure what was going on there.

But none of these were things I noticed when I read them long ago, and even seeing them now and knowing more about the real Ingalls family and how they differ from the book version doesn’t take away from the charm of these books. It’s easy to see why they’ve inspired such a fandom as they have.

*Recently, the author Cynthia Rylant has attempted to bridge the gap by writing a midquel, Old Town in the Green Groves to cover this missing period, a book I’ve not yet decided upon reading.

In Short
The first three Laura-focused books in the Little House series covers a span of five or six years in Laura’s life, during which her family moved several times to radically different locales. Wilder describes their lives in each location, dwelling on interesting incidents and pulling these anecdotes together into an idealized portrait of her early life. Though reading them as an adult allows one to pick up on undercurrents that a child probably wouldn’t notice, nothing detracts from their charm and interest. These are books I will and have read again and again.


Conspiracy 365: January (Gabrielle Lord)

The Plot
A few months ago, Callum Ormond lost his father to a mysterious virus. His whole family is still reeling from this sudden and unexpected death. Then, on December 31st, he receives a strange warning from a man who may or may not be crazy: he’s in danger, and will be for the next year. Cal must figure out what it was his father had discovered just before his death in order to discover just who and why people are out to get him.

My Thoughts
January begins our year long spotlight on New Zealand and Australian authors. We start with a look at a series which intrigued me greatly when I first saw it — a series of twelve books, one for each month of the year, recounting in ‘real time’ the increasingly frantic efforts of 15 year old Callum Ormond to solve the mystery surrounding the discovery his father made just before his death.

Why the series caught my attention will probably be obvious when I admit that I’m a big fan of the TV series “24”. The conceit of that show, that all the action takes place continuously within a 24 hour time period, with each episode taking place ‘in real time’ with one hour of action, works extremely well on television. (Even better as a marathon!) Conspiracy 365 looks to take that idea and transfer it to text. Rather than exactly replicate it, author Gabrielle Lord has decided to spread the action out over the course of a year and spread the series over 12 books, one for each month.

I think this is a wise choice; “24” was necessarily restricted in the complexity of the plots it could present because of the inability of the characters to travel long distances or do anything that took longer than an hour or two. With an entire year to work with, the conspiracy of the title can be that much more twisty, that much more suspenseful. Plus, the 15 year old protagonist, Cal Ormond, can be a bit more realistic.

As expected, this first book sets up the initial mystery: a few months ago, Tom Ormond, Callum’s father, discovered something big, something he claimed could “change history”. Then, before he could do more than write a quick letter to his son, he was struck down by a virus that destroyed his ability to communicate before it killed him altogether. Callum is puzzled by the letter he received from his father and by a drawing which accompanied it, but the events of New Year’s Eve and Day are what really start things going: Cal is warned of coming danger by a crazy man who’s then carted off by paramedics, and then a few hours later is nearly killed in a boating accident which turns out to be not nearly so accidental.

The situation deteriorates quickly from there, with Callum attempting to make progress on solving the mystery while trying at the same time to stay alive. He ends the month with a new plan and in a cliffhanger situation that makes me glad we also got the February book at the same time. (And worried that we haven’t yet got the rest!)

The book reads very quickly, structured as one would expect, by day and time. One interesting choice is that the pages are numbered backwards, though only within this book, not backwards to get to page 1 at the very end of the series. It was an interesting choice and did contribute to the feeling of counting down to the end of the month.

This is definitely not a character driven series; Cal is a fine main character, but he’s not given a lot of depth, and everyone else is sketched very lightly. But in depth characterization is not the point: it’s the plot, which races along at a very satisfactory rate.

In Short
From the description of the Conspiracy 365 I expected this to be very similar to “24” in book form. I was not disappointed. January sets up the scenario, introduces our main character, and gets Cal on the road to trying to solve the mystery. Hopefully I won’t have too much trouble acquiring the rest of the series, because it’s going to be impossible not to blow through the entire thing.