The Forever War

Joe Haldeman

I’ve read and enjoyed lots of Haldeman’s short fiction, but when I came
across this recent interview it reminded me that I hadn’t read The Forever War, although I had a kind of ghostly memory of it which might have been the result of reading it at an age when I was too young to really get it, or of having read an excerpt or a review long ago. So I downloaded the e-book, which is available from SF Gateway – if you’re my age and an sf nerd, you’ll have a Pavlovian response to the Gollancz-yellow typographic covers.

The novel more than lives up to its reputation as cracking military sf, although that’s not a genre I’ve really read much of – the descriptions of combat could have been written yesterday, although if they were there would probably be much more stuff about computer viruses and all-purpose nanotechnology, which is all to The Forever War’s advantage as I’m bored with the “computational turn” of sf. This is a seventies novel, so it uses the genre toolkit of its time, that peculiar bow-shock of plausible tech and recent astrophysics which actual science and technology pushes before it into its fictional amanuenses: low-temperature physics, “collapsars” (stellar-mass black holes), stasis fields and relativity played with the net up. The combat and training are as numbing an alternation of boredom with haphazard brutality as any actual modern battle, and the succession of alien worlds on which war with the Taurans plays out are free from the contrivances and cliches of planetary romance. (They also include two of my favourite astrophysical objects, Epsilon Aurigae and the giant star S Doradus.)

The most famous feature of the novel is the dislocation caused by time dilation, which stretches the main characters’ subjective timelines out over what become centuries back on Earth. Haldeman was in Vietnam, but the disjunction between the main character and his home planet isn’t played out in the political clichés of home-front contempt which have come to dominate how we think about that war: they feel like they would be applicable to any combat veteran. The most dated aspect of the novel is its treatment of homosexuality, which is promoted by the world government as a remedy for overpopulation. It’s not that it’s homophobic, Haldeman giving the impression of a decent open-minded straight dude doing his best, but its assumption that orientation is completely malleable, or that a majority-gay society would mirror our society’s homophobia, aren’t credible.

Another aspect of the novel’s treatment of sexuality which I disliked is the baseline 1990s military culture at the start: mixed-gender troops with mandatory partner-swapping which amounts to a form of enforced prostitution. This is the occasion of some fairly unpleasant humour and is on the whole no more convincing than the broader social changes later in the novel. (I ended up wishing that all the sex stuff had been written by another writer, Samuel Delany, for instance.)

It’s still a great book – one of the best of that subgenre of sf which uses relativistic time-dilation as a powerful metaphor for the friction between time as lived experience and time as history, something which gets to us all these days, soldiers and civilians alike – and deserves its reputation.

Five Fantasies about Tony Abbott

The fantasy about distributism

Abbott’s relationship with B A Santamaria, still a compulsory mention in every op-ed about his political character, implying that he represented some strain of mainstream Australian conservatism which opposes free-market neoliberalism. Look, I like G K Chesterton as much as the next guy (if I were to meet Abbott, my first question would be, “do you like Chesterton?” and my second would be “what do you think of his anti-semitism?”) but this idea is as much a fantasy as The Man Who Was Thursday. The last positive traces of distributism in Australian political life were probably the soldier’s settlement schemes of the twentieth century: intended (by Santamaria and others) to breed a race of stout yeomen capable of resisting the corruptions of modern life, actually resulting in some of eastern Sydney’s drearier tract housing.

In reality, there’s no Australian conservative movement of any significance which opposes capitalism. (This is why I don’t like to call them ‘Tories’: Australian conservatism starts with Locke, and any attempt to pretend otherwise is just cosplay.)

The fantasy about social conservatism

Speaking of B A Santamaria, much of his later career was devoted to plaintively challenging the huge, progressive shift in the ability of the state to police sexual behaviour which took place in the last two decades of the twentieth century. This rout of social conservatism was so dramatic that we’re still in the swirling confusion after the battle, and the stupider members of the right are still running around with Cory Bernardi, unaware that they’ve lost.

All that Abbott could do in this field was shore up Howard’s rearguard action against marriage equality, which is doomed anyway, as eventually we’ll need to recognise marriages ratified by other jurisdictions. There’s no suggestion that the LNP at a State level are going to change anything in this regard.

There’s a really interesting story to tell about how mainstream conservatism came to a rapprochement with the decriminalisation of homosexuality, a reform which up until the 80s they (and a large part of the ALP) had been firmly against, but a conservative tradition as unreflective as Australia’s is unlikely to tell it.

The fantasy about the boats

The fantasy about what’s actually happening under the veil of operational secrecy; the fantasy that the Dickensian legal trickery of extraterritorial detention won’t eventually fall apart at the seams; the fantasy (from the nice left) that all of this is somehow a radical degeneration of Australian law and morality, rather than a continuation of its traditional racialised brutality.

The fantasy about an Oxford education

The English, when they speak of Oxford, talk mostly about class. Australians, of either political persuasion, talk about brains, despite the fact that the Rhodes Scholarship has no particular academic entry standard above what’s normally required. It’s rather touching. One thinks of the Rhodes Scholar as a stock comic character in such nostalgic entertainments as Max Beerbohm’s Zuleika Dobson, and wonders what Max would have made of Tony.

The fantasy about ‘economic management’

Here’s a scary thought: Abbott and Hockey weren’t exceptional, the remnants of an otherwise competent and sane conservative party at the end of some dreadful process of Faulknerian decline. They were perfectly representative Libs, running on nothing but half-inarticulate social prejudices and Baden-Powellish ‘character’. Turnbull had to get rid of them before they completely wrecked the fantasy of the Liberals (also based on half-inarticulate social prejudices) as the party of (stop laughing up the back there) fiscal responsibility and (look here) reform.

Castles in the Sky

The Bridge Over the Stars, Philippe Druillet, 1972

The Bridge Over the Stars, Philippe Druillet, 1972

The Kepler satellite, tasked with the meticulous examination of thousands of stars to detect the minute dips in intensity which are caused by the transits of their planets, has detected something odd about the light curve of KIC 8462852. (It’s customary in popular journalistic accounts of this sort of thing to make a sarcastic crack at the fact that the star is known by a catalogue number rather than a name, to which I want to respond, ok, you think up names for the 2.5 million or so stars now known to science, if you’re so smart.) The objects orbiting KIC 8462852 are more numerous than is expected of planets, but inconsistent with the star’s observed age: young stars are surrounded by swarms of dust and rubble, but this star’s spectrum indicates that it’s mature. The objects might be debris from a planetary collision which we are just lucky enough to observe before all the fragments have dispersed, or they might be a large family of comets – the hypothesis favoured by the scientists who, with the help of amateur observers, brought the phenomenon to the press’s attention. But the idea that’s got the article retweeted is far more engaging: alien megastructures.

In a fictional setting, I like a megastructure as much as the next guy: the Death Star, the Other, Larger, Death Star, that big cloud or whatever in the Star Trek film that started out as a space probe. Not to mention the even more grandiose offerings of science fiction novels: Larry Niven’s Ringworld and its descendants in Iain M Banks’ Culture novels, Arthur C Clarke’s Rama, down to the drastic reconfigurations of the Solar System undertaken in Charles Stross’ Accelerando and Hannu Rajaniemi’s Quantum Thief trilogy.

Megastructures, however, straddle that strange territory between science fiction and, if not exactly science fact, then at least science I’ve-got-tenure-so-let’s-see-how-big-these-brain-farts-can-get. The theoretical musings of physicists such as Freeman Dyson, whose eponymous Sphere is a shell constructed in order to capture the entire energy output of a star. Or the Anderson Disk: a circular plate the size of the orbit of Mars, with a hole conveniently placed in the centre in which a sun suffers the indignity of bobbing up and down to provide a day-night cycle. The epitome of this mindset is the Kardashev Scale, formulated by a Russian astronomer in 1964, which rates civilisations on their ability to marshal the energy output of their entire planet (I), their star (II) and their home galaxy (III).

This mode of speculative cosmic architecture is usually recounted with a poker-faced seriousness which goes beyond the fun of science fiction into something stranger and more touching: a deep and unrequited nostalgia for that Heroic Age of Insane Infrastructure, the twentieth century. In a world where both sides of the Cold War contemplated using fission bombs as the world’s least environmentally-friendly earthmoving technology, reprocessing the planet Mercury as the raw material for a sun cosy is just the logical next step. It’s also a displacement of the colonial engineer’s ambitions, thwarted by environmentalism on this world, set free to rend asunder the rest of the Solar System without restraint.

Leaving aside the fact that no known or even hypothetical material has the strength to throw hoops around stars or build artificial moons, none of the scientists, and very few of the science-fiction writers, ever address the social or economic transformations which would be needed to organise any of this. The further we get from the fever of the Cold War, the more the prospect of industrial societies organising any project larger than a cluster of skyscrapers seems to dwindle; on a planet where the nation with the largest economy seems to be forgetting how to maintain its road bridges, it’s hard to imagine, even if we were given the technology and an unlimited budget, how we could sustain the focussed attention required to build even a modest space elevator before we got bored and switched over to Netflix.

Which is why, of course, megastructures are almost always built by aliens (or, in the admirable works of Finnish sf author Hannu Rajaniemi, a particularly brutal and industrious clade of post-humans). Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International stands as the minatory architectural ghost of utopian communism, and it could be that the space-entrepreneurial plans of Elon Musk and Richard Branson will serve future generations as a virtual memorial of capitalism. But aliens—who, like robots, are a sort of dumping-ground of wistful but incorrect ideas about our own capacities—never faced these disappointments; their Tatlin’s Towers reach all the way to the stars.

In fiction, megastructures are usually abandoned, enigmatic and perilous, and when we read pop-sci articles which treat them as a serious possibility, we should remember their true nature as aesthetic objects: the grandest incarnation of the statue of Ozymandias that our culture has yet produced. In his novel The Pastel City, M John Harrison wrote of the empires that preceded his beautiful and melancholy city of Viriconium:

The last of them left its name written in the stars, but noone who came later could read it.

Chesterton on Fascism

That in my normal journey towards the grave this sudden reappearance of all that was bad and barbarous and stupid and ignorant in Carlyle, without a touch of what was really quaint and humorous in him, should suddenly start up like a spectre in my path strikes me as something quite incredible. It is as incredible as seeing Prince Albert come down from the Albert Memorial and walk across Kensington Gardens.

As someone who pored over SPY in the late 80s, I feel the same way about Donald Trump.

MANage Your Diet with Dudetrition

Low GI Joe

The Old Man and the Celiac

Heart Foundation Tick of Approval of Darkness

Men Without Gluten

A Safe Idea

We in the first world have the same relationship with dangerous ideas as we do with wild animals. We think they’re really cool and awesome, and we love to talk about them and watch them on the telly, and the chances of us coming to any personal harm from them is basically zero.

Things, Enjoyed

Bell Shakespeare’s production of The Tempest
Marc Ribot’s solo show at the Vanguard in Newtown
Running in the City to Surf
The first volume of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (I think Gibbon should be prescribed to bookish types with anxiety and depression, that their cares might be diverted by his material, and their temperaments balanced by his style)
Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword (the sort of sf novel that the Hugo-stacking dorks are rightly afraid of)
Recovering from the shin splints I got after the City to Surf
Autechre’s box set of EPs (not so good for the old mood, I have to say)

Antisocial August sucks.