Thursday, October 1, 2015

Classic Sci-Fi: The Forever War

Starting October right off with Joe Haldeman's 1974 novel "The Forever War", an appropriately classic selection for the Classic Sci-Fi Meetup.

"The Forever War" is told from the perspective of William Mandella, a conscript in the titular war who winds up being one of the very few to live through it from beginning to end. The war is being fought against an alien race, the Taurans, at far-flung locations around the galaxy (and at least one outside it); time dilation effects mean that each wave of combatants wind up temporally separated from the rest of the war (and the rest of society) for tens or hundreds of years at a time.

It's a Hugo and Nebula winner, seen by many as a challenge to Heinlein's pro-military "Starship Troopers" (1959), and a reflection on/of the Vietnam War.

There may be spoilers below!

My apologies, by the way. I missed the beginning of the discussion, and was out of it for the first part of the meeting: a devious bit of stick in the road and the worst speed bump in Chicago conspired to fling me off my bike, so I had to do some roadside repairs and figurative wound-licking on my way. Bike & I are okay, though.

I caught the very tail end of a discussion of sexuality in the novel, which is a fairly big theme. In addition to the kind of dubious morality/practicality of mandated promiscuity in the first military wave, there's some odd orientation stuff later on. The world government (DUN DUN DUN) "encourages" homosexuality as a population control measure, apparently very effectively--which seems to assume that sexual orientation is a choice, albeit one that can become very deeply fixed. However, when Khan/Man (dunna nunna dunna nunna) takes over, They apparently look at sexual orientation as set, but amenable to being changed through a technological process.

Also, I heard being debated whether or not Mandella is homophobic or not--he seems to have the strain of tolerance that's more "tolerant as long as you keep it out of my sight."

The thing about Malthus is that
he's always eventually going to
be right in any finite system.
When Mandella, Marygay, and the other first-wave survivors return home and attempt to re-enter civilian life, they find a pretty depressing planet, where food is strictly rationed and the vast majority of the population are essentially in a crappy welfare state. We talked for a bit about why this particular vision of the future was common for a while in SF-- I thought of Heinlein's "Farmer in the Sky" (1950), a few of the possible realities in Le Guin's "The Lathe of Heaven" (1971), and Brunner's "Stand on Zanzibar" (1968).

Pondering this, we talked about how the economy at the time might have encouraged these kinds of bleak futures--particularly the rising commodity prices and economic downturn of the 1970s, with the Winter of Discontent referenced as a low point in the UK, as well as the energy crisis globally. I also thought--and particularly given the way that the "crappy future" here is also connected to a world socialist state-- that Haldeman may have been influenced by images and stories of the Soviet Union during its worst times.

Not sure if Halo's saying
anything about war other
than "it can be fun I guess?"
We talked for a bit about how well (or not well) the novel has aged, with most of us finding it still a very fun read, but with most of its innovations blunted by frequent repetition since. And, granted, "The Forever War" itself is borrowing many of its key topoi from "Starship Troopers", like the armored battle-suit, which at the time was a pretty cool idea but is now pretty omnipresent in SF military tales of all kinds. This in turn led us to some (mildly scoffing) discussion of Scalzi's "Old Man's War" (2005), which is a pretty blatant homage to this genre. Curiously, Scalzi says he hadn't read "The Forever War" before writing that--he did the foreword to the newest ebook release of "The Forever War".

One has to just suspend disbelief and go with some of the time-dilation mechanics, we decided, particularly the idea that the Taurans & Terrans would be anywhere near technological parity in a way that would preclude one side just completely overwhelming the other. It was pointed out that, realistically, if we meet any other intelligent species (or life at all), we'll likely be millions of years apart in terms of development.

The notion was brought up that we could be sorta-kinda able to do interstellar travel right now--generational or cryogenic ramscoops, perhaps--which apparently Stephen Hawking has proposed as a way we could visit or be visited by species at roughly the same level of our development. However, this assumes that a generational starship would be technologically stagnant, which brought us around to Robinson's "Aurora" (2015), which I have fresh in my mind from the Blackstone discussion.

Also, the idea that we could go into space or out of the solar system in a big way led to a heated debate about whether humanity could get our shit together enough to pull that off or not. Which in turn made a few of us bring up Stephenson's "Seveneves" (2015), which I also have fresh in mind from the Chi-SF discussion. In discussing that novel, Stephenson talked about the problem of constructing an "appropriate disaster timeline"--close and definite enough that we'd actually do something about it instead of assuming later generations would, but far enough off that we actually could do something about it.

Ah yes, the advanced civilization that
thinks "point a loaded gun at them"
is a good, peaceful first-contact strategy.

Re: time mechanics, we also talked about how the communication lag here is part of the war's beginning and slowness to resolve, being an example of the "Great Misunderstanding" war-type: I also thought of the Formic War in Card's "Ender's Game" (1985) and the human-Minbari conflict in Straczynski's "Babylon 5" (1994-1998).

Talking about the course of the Terran-Tauran war, who started it, how the military/government responded to and used it, led us to talk about how that worked in "Starship Troopers", and also in Verhoeven's (superb, subversive) 1997 film adaption--Verhoeven's "Starship Troopers", while superficially following Heinlein, is spiritually more an adaption of the critiques and ambivalence of "The Forever War".

Knowing that "The Forever War" has much to do with Vietnam, we talked for a bit about how exactly to read the Taurans and the psychic bear-sheep aliens. Probably no 1:1 correspondences here; the bear-sheep are probably just a kind of civilian caught in the crossfire between two colonial powers. It was also pointed out that having some "psi" earlier in the story sets up the hive-mind of Khan/Man later on.

We debated the realism of killing so many trainees before they even faced the enemy; while the 50% mortality or so on Charon is exaggerated, rookie soldiers being killed while being trained is definitely a thing, probably even more of an issue in a conscripted army, and we thought it was one of the ways that Haldeman is basically calling out Heinlein and other "bloody armchair warriors".

However, we also talked about the fact that Heinlein said in interviews that he very much liked "The Forever War", and that the differences between this and "Starship Troopers" might have been less about the ideological/experiential differences of the authors, and more about the huge differences between Vietnam and the second World War.

Alan also brought up Alan Moore's revisiting of "The Forever War" in the comic "Halo Jones" (1984, presumably no relation to Master Chief, above). Also the prescient use of "drone warfare" in the last battle; although we noted that this novel would have been very different if Haldeman had had a more optimistic/realistic idea of where computer & AI tech might go.

Curiously, they never brought in Sherlock
for the Case of the Missing WMDs.
Drones plus wars fought under false pretences brought us around to Iraq & Afghanistan, which conflict, rather than this novel, is apparently what you may get if you google "Forever War".  We connected the (apparently endless) War on Terror to the military machinations in Haldeman's tale, and talked about possible motivations and outcomes if the current power structures encountered an alien force that we could engage militarily.  In Scalzi's foreword to my new copy, he talks about the way that "The Forever War" might not be perpetually relevant, but thus far it has been cyclically relevant; at group we talked about how strange it is that Western military intrusion into Afghanistan has allowed Dr. Watson to be an Afghanistan vet in "Sherlock Holmes" both originally (Doyle 1887-1915) and in modern adaptation (Gatiss/Moffat 2010-2014).

Talk of artificially-instigated war led us to talk about the Crimean War (1853-1856), about which the most that can be said is that we got "The Charge of the Light Brigade" (Tennyson, 1854) out of it.

We swung back around at the end to some of the economic questions we'd had earlier--in particular, wondering about alternate economies, welfare states, and whether some kind of true post-scarcity or mostly-post-scarcity economy (where a small minority of producers provides necessities for the majority leisure/artisan class) is feasible. He doesn't spell it out enough to really test it, but the closest I've seen to a plausible version of this is the Mondragon Accord in Robinson's "2312" (2012), which uses a "split" economy (necessities vs. luxuries), extensive automation, and financial/policy AI micromanagement. Hints of this in various other novels, though--I thought of the "karma" credit system in McAuley's 2008 "The Quiet War" (a Chi-SF selection) and related works, or the "Whuffie" currency in Doctorow's 2003 "Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom" (a Sulzer SF/F selection).

Also we learned that Mandella's last name--which is explained in an aside about his hippie parents--shares the misspelling of "mandala" with a Peter, Paul, and Mary song:
And with that appropriately anti-war song, I leave you.

November's selection for Classic Sci-Fi is "The Doomsday Book" (1992) by Connie Willis. For December, Clifford Simak's "Way Station" (1963) edged out Nancy Kress's "Beggars in Spain" (1993) by virtue of being a bit shorter, December being a busy month.

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