The Craft of Science Fiction

Those of you in the Boston vicinity may want to make your way to the MIT Media Lab's Bartos Theatre this Thursday for what promises to be a fascinating event -- "The Craft of Science Fiction" -- which will feature of a reading by Four time Nebula Award winning writer Joe Haldeman (The Forever War) and a discussion of his work. I will be moderating the event which is being hosted by the MIT Communications Forum from 5-7 pm. Those who can't make the event can catch the streaming audio version which will go up on the Communications Forum website several days later. Something of the tone of the discussion may be suggested by some comments about science fiction's place in contemporary culture which Haldeman penned for the CMS newsletter:

Whatever its shortcomings, actual science fiction (as opposed to fantasy tricked out with space ships and ray guns) is a bastion of rationalism. The universe works by rules, even if those rules are imperfectly understood. Problems are solved not by wishing things were otherwise but by trying to understand what is actually wrong and taking action to change it. We live in a world where wishful thinking and magical thinking prevail at the highest levels of leadership. Our own government thinks it can control reality by denying scientific evidence. We're in a war that at least one side justifies by ferocious religious dogma. More Americans believe in ghosts than in evolution. For that matter, more than half believe the story of Creation in the Bible are literally true and are waiting for the Rapture. Belief in oddball ideas like faith healing, extrasensory perception, communication with the dead and haunted houses have

all been on the increase in the past decade. These people don't read science fiction, or at least they don't read it well. But they may read books that are shelved in the science fiction section, or go to movies that call themselves sci-fi....

Basically, Haldeman, a hard sf guy to the Nth degree, is drawing a distinction between science fiction which he sees as a fundamentally rationalist mode of literature (and thus as a tool to teach scientific reasoning) and sci-fi which he thinks is increasingly faith based and mired in fantasy. For Haldeman, science fiction is both a mode of popular science education and a form of social commentary. And as such, he feels it does increasingly important work in the face of what he sees as anti-science attitudes at large in the country today. As I said, lot's here to talk about.

Almost a decade ago, Joe Haldeman and I organized a science fiction reading series at MIT which brought to campus such writers as Octavia Butler, Bruce Sterling, Orson Scott Card, Frederick Pohl, Neil Gaiman, and many others. We paired national figures with local authors from the greater Boston area such as Ellen Kushner, James Patrick Kelly, Allen Steele, and Alexander Jablakov. Buried deep on the Communications Forum website are a series of essays I wrote about the science fiction writers we featured as well as transcripts of the public conversations we hosted. What follows is an excerpt from the essay I wrote at the time about Haldeman's work -- particularly about how his experiences during the Vietnam War shaped the themes of his science fiction writing. It should offer good background reading for anyone planning to attend this event. You can also read the transcript of a conversation between Haldeman and fellow hard science fiction writer Gregory Benford.

Joe Haldeman (1943- )

"Life begins in a bloody mess and sometimes it ends the same way, and only odd people seek out blood between those times, maybe crazy people."

-- Joe Haldeman

Joe 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:

"Ideally the Earth must be in peril, there must be a quest and a man to watch the mighty hour. That man must confront aliens and exotic creatures. Space must flow past the ports like wine from a pitcher. Blood must run down the palace steps, and ships launch out into the louring deep. There must be a woman fairer than the skies and a villain darker than the Black Hole. And all must come right in the end."

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.

His 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. Mandella 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 random."

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:

My mind reeled under the strong pseudo-memories: Shaggy hulks that were Taurans (not at all what we now knew they looked like) boarding a colonists' vessel, eating babies while mothers watched in screaming terror (The colonists never took babies; they wouldn't stand the acceleration), then raping the women to death with huge veined purple members (ridiculous that they would feel desire for humans), holding the men down while they plucked flesh from their living bodies and gobbled it (as if they could assimilate the alien protein)....A hundred grisly details as sharply remembered as the events of a minute ago, ridiculously overdone and logically absurd. But while my conscious mind was rejecting the silliness, somewhere much deeper, down in that sleeping animal where we keep our real motives and morals, something was thirsting for alien blood, secure in the conviction that the noblest thing a man could do would be to die killing one of those horrible monsters. I knew it was all purest soyashit, and I hated the men who had taken such obscene liberties with my mind, but I could even hear my teeth grinding, feel my cheeks frozen in a spastic grin, blood-lust.

These images mirror common themes in wartime propaganda, including those promulgated by publications like Reader's Digest throughout the Vietnam War.

Those 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 popular opinion.

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:

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, old style, there were dozens of isolated cultures still existing without metals or writing or even, in some cases, agriculture or social organization beyond the family. None of them survived more than a couple of generations beyond their contact with civilization.... The records are fascinating not only for the information about the primitives, but also for what they reveal of the investigating culture's unconscious prejudices. My own specialties were the Maori and Eskimo tribe and (by necessary association) the European and American cultures that investigated and more or less benignly destroyed them.

"A 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.

Many 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 human body.