Saturday, June 13, 2015

"Reprogrammed to Be a Killing Machine"

By Joe W. Haldeman (b. 1943).
Del Rey Books (paperback).
Novel. 218 pages.
1976 (first published 1975). 
Originally serialized in Analog magazine:
  "Hero," June 1972 (online HERE; go to text page 8)
  "We Are Very Happy Here," November 1973 (online HERE; go to text page 104)
  "The Best of All Possible Worlds," November 1974 (online HERE; go to text page 137)
  "End Game," January 1975 (online HERE; go to text page 66)
  "You Can Never Go Back," Amazing Stories, November 1975 (online HERE; go to text page 6).
For sale HERE.
William Mandella, the child of hippie parents, gets caught up in events way beyond his control. Just before a battle he pauses to reflect:
Then what the hell are you, we, am I answered the other side [of my mind]. A peace-loving vacuum-welding specialist cum physics teacher snatched up by the Elite Conscription Act and reprogrammed to be a killing machine. You, I have killed and liked it.
Like all draftees, William didn't ask for this, but now that he's in it he knows it's kill or be killed. Such is the way with all wars. High-flown rhetoric about "why we fight" sells newspapers, but when you get right down to it, you fight for your life and your buddies' lives—and not necessarily in that order.

From all reports, an alien race known as the Taurans (what they call themselves is anybody's guess) have attacked an Earth transport without provocation and a state of war now exists. So it should be a simple matter to track the Taurans to where they live and reduce them to less than nothing with tachyon bombs, right? Not quite. It was recognized centuries ago that infantry is the queen of battle, meaning that no matter how many ships and planes and bombs you throw at them, sooner or later somebody has to occupy and hold the enemy's terrain.
Enter William Mandella, reluctant hero. The Forever War chronicles Mandella's wartime experiences from raw recruit to company commander, his battles (which are never glorious), his love for Marygay (which is marked with pain and keen loss), his injuries (which include mutilation), and his reactions to the changes wrought by time on the culture he left behind—for, while he and Marygay struggle to survive, back on distant Earth, things are getting stranger . . . and stranger . . . and stranger . . . .

The best writers—SF authors among them—are able to transport the reader to a time and place and culture that either once existed or exists only in their imagination. Haldeman succeeds by limiting us to Mandella's perception of events; William's wry and laconic narration convinces us of the plausibility of the advanced technology he dazzles us with even as we realize with our logical faculties how unlikely all of this is.

There's high-tech aplenty in The Forever War: tachyon drives allowing high-speed movement through normal space at velocities nearing the speed of light; interstellar travel through "collapsars" (collapsed stars, which have since been commonly termed "black holes," permitting instantaneous passage through what are now called "wormholes" connecting to other collapsars); battlesuits that recycle everything, making it possible for troopers to stay in them for weeks (not really a pleasant prospect, just ask Mandella); stasis fields that dampen electronic systems, thus necessitating fighting with bows and arrows and swords (!); and acceleration pods that make it possible for the frail human body to withstand upwards of twenty-five gees—of course, you're totally incapacitated and in a near-coma, but at least you won't wind up looking like a bowl of salsa that's been slammed into a wall. And let's not forget Heaven, which William and Marygay get to without dying.

Since the tachyon drive permits near-light-speed travel, Haldeman makes the most of Einstein's relativity theory, hanging two important plot points on it—which we won't reveal. But think about this: As you may recall from that physics class you might also have slept through, Saint Albert tells us that the faster you go, the slower time passes for you, while in the outside universe time passes at its normal rate. The spaceships in The Forever War travel from collapsar to collapsar at relativistic speeds, taking weeks, months, or even years in transit; but once they enter the collapsar they exit at the other end in the smallest fraction of a second—in one instance jumping 140,000 light-years in the blink of an eye. This implies that the folks on the ship seem to age more slowly than the people back on Earth—and that means kids like William Mandella grow older just a few years at a time while centuries are passing back home. Imagine Christopher Columbus returning to Spain this afternoon and you'll get an inkling of what Haldeman is up to.

The Forever War was awarded a Nebula (voted by writers and editors) and a Hugo (voted by fans) back in 1976. We believe it was as much a zeitgeist vote—most Americans were fed up with the conflict in Vietnam, a kind of "forever war" that never seemed to end—as an acknowledgement of the quality of the writing, which is quite high for the usual "hard science fiction" novel.
The Forever War invites comparison with Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers. Many believe Haldeman was writing a rebuttal to Heinlein's book, but Haldeman is reputed to have denied it; so the jury's still out on that.

Joe Haldeman, a Vietnam War draftee and Purple Heart recipient, is still producing fiction. You can find his website HERE.

Parental warning: Strong language and sex scenes.


From the text:

In space there are more ways to die than most of us are familiar with:
Ten seconds, but she didn't hear or she wanted to get just a little more distance, and she kept running, careless leaping strides, and at the high point of one leap there was a flash and a rumble and something big hit her below the neck, and her headless body spun off end over end through space, trailing a red-black spiral of flash-frozen blood that settled gracefully to the ground, a path of crystal powder that nobody disturbed while we gathered rocks to cover the juiceless thing at the end of it.
Mandella reflects on the oddities of special relativity:
I'd been in the army ten years, though it felt like less than two. Time dilation, of course. Even with the collapsar jumps, traveling from star to star eats up the calendar.
After this raid, I would probably be eligible for retirement with full pay—if I lived through the raid, and if they didn't change the rules on us. A twenty-year veteran, and only twenty-five years old.
For William time, more than distance, separates him from the culture he once knew. When he tries psychoanalysis with someone born centuries after he left home:
It was impossible. Although he knew all about my problems in an academic kind of way, we didn't speak the same cultural language; his counseling me about love and sex was like me telling a fourteenth-century serf how best to get along with his priest and landlord.
William has lost Marygay and travels to an arid mountain they once climbed together:
I walked to the edge and looked down the sheer rock face to the dim frozen rippling of dunes half a kilometer below. I sat with my feet dangling over the edge, thinking nothing, until the sun's oblique rays illuminated the dunes in a soft, tempting chiaroscuro of low relief. Twice I shifted my weight as if to jump. When I didn't, it was not for fear of pain or loss. The pain would be only a bright spark and the loss would be only the army's. And it would be their ultimate victory over me—having ruled my life for so long, to force an end to it.
That much, I owed to the enemy.
Fear, pain, loss, death, betrayal—after all that, you might get the impression The Forever War is a total downer. But the ending will leave you with a great big smile on your face . . . .

Category: Science fiction

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