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Monthly Archives: July 2015

The Forever War

I read Joe Haldeman’s most famous novel, The Forever War, in only a little more than twenty-four hours. That alone speaks volumes about the work, which isn’t a long novel, but it isn’t short either.

I read this book right after having read Neuromancer (which I had some problems with, as this review shows), and so The Forever War was like a breath of fresh air. Like Neuromancer, it was extremely fast paced, but in an entirely different way. The chapters were very short (like in Neuromancer), but the book was mostly description, but description done so artfully that it was enough to move along the plot on its own, even in lieu of character interactions. Of course, there was plenty of dialogue and a lot of character interactions, but the description and narrative in The Forever War really stood out, and (unlike Neuromancer), made it incredibly easy to follow – and thus I was able to think more about the themes and ideas it brought up.

The novel is clearly about the Vietnam War, which the author has himself admitted. At its most basic, The Forever War is about a man drafted into a war against an unknown enemy, who it (rather predictably) turns out had been misunderstood from the very beginning (the ending of the novel was its weakest point by far; I won’t say anything more here, but it was weird, in a sort of cliched way, and I don’t think Haldeman came up with the cliche himself).

So, the novel is a war novel. However, it is a novel about war with surprisingly little combat; only two ground operations and one space battle are actually part of the narrative, and the rest of the combat is implied. However, the book isn’t so much about combat against aliens (with commentaries on first-contact and the nature of humanity thrown in at the end as an afterthought), but rather about the effects of war on two levels: the individual and the social.

Both of these effects are interwoven by following one man – William Mandella – as he is drafted into the human army to fight the mysterious, threatening “Tauran” foes, as he goes from trainee to Major. However, what is unique about this “Forever War” – which lasts, in the end, over a thousand years – is that it is a war across star systems affected hugely by relativity. Ships go so quickly between star systems through “collapsars” at enormous speeds, and so while little time passes on the ships, many years pass in the outside world. This has enormous effects on individuals involved in the war, as they go to complete one combat mission and return home decades later, to find that the world they came from is not what it used to be. In The Forever War, the first return home reveals Earth has become a dystopia, its economy and political system entirely dependent on the war, and is rife with violence. Throughout the novel, as the main character ages much more slowly than the rest of human kind (and ultimately survives the whole war), we get glimpses of how society is changes through his interaction with new recruits, including a period where heterosexuality becomes a dysfunction and, at the end of the war, one of the strangest visions of advanced humanity I have yet read about.

We also see the effect the war has on him, not only through fighting Taurans, being hypnotically conditioned, surviving brutal training, and becoming a high-ranking officer, but through the people he loses, both in the war and just be aging so slowly due to relativity. The effect of the war on the individual is extremely powerful, and the centerpiece of the novel.

What is also interesting is Haldeman’s vision of how the war is fought when relativity is taken into account. The war lasts a thousand years, and due to the time lag due to relativistic travel, one is never sure what level of technology the enemy you meet at any system is; you could be fighting Taurans armed with advanced technology you’ve never seen before, or Taurans even weaker than the ones you had just fought. As someone says of the Earth military high command, they plan “in centuries,” which is necessary due to the time dilations experiences by soldiers during the war.

The book is never slow, and though at times it has immersion breaking moments where you think “that’s odd” (such as the first return to Earth and the strange, somewhat troubling role of semi-forced sex in themilitary), it is definitely a worthwhile read and, I think, one of the best science fiction novels I’ve had the pleasure to read.

 
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Posted by on July 16, 2015 in Readings

 

Neuromancer

On June 29th, I Tweeted my (very brief) thoughts about my current reading project, Neuromancer, and mentioned that it hadn’t been what I had been expecting, and got seven retweets. For someone who is lucky to get a single retweet, I was surprised at the (relatively high) response to this one Tweet with almost no content. Clearly (in my psuedo-scientific analysis of one Tweet), #Neuromancer is important to the denizens of the Internet, and discussion about it catches peoples’ attention. This is not surprising, given how important Neuromancer‘s conceptualization of the Internet – before the Internet was even a thing – has been to the actual development of the Internet.

William Gibson’s Neuromancer is considered by many to be the seminal work in the cyberpunk genre. While it certainly did not found the genre, it is likely responsible for the genre’s rise in popularity, as well as its consolidation as a unique area of science fiction. The novel also was the first winner of the science fiction “triple crown,” winning the Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick awards. As such, I went into reading this book with very high expectations.

I was both disappointed and impressed.

When thinking about and evaluating Neuromancer, I was forced to do so on two levels: Neuromancer as I read it today, and Neuromancer as I would have read it when it was published. My two evaluations at these levels are very different.

Had I read the novel when it was published, I would have been blown away, as many people at the time clearly were, given its reception, its spawning two sequels (into the Sprawl trilogy), and a whole literary genre. Reading the novel now, though, I was underwhelmed.

Neuromancer depicts a future society (presumably even after the current day), in which human society is becoming increasingly cyberized, has colonized Earth’s orbit, and is also increasingly run by huge multinational corporations. This is an incredibly rich playground (I sort of play around with it myself, particularly in my work on parts of Dreadship Omnipotence), but Gibson does not use it to its fullest extent in Neuromancer (though he very well might in the other books of the Sprawl trilogy). Instead, he focuses in on a very small cast of characters, and their manipulation by and struggle to free a rebellious Artificial Intelligence from the chains that prevent it from becoming all-powerful.

The character Gibson follows are members of a small strikeforce brought together by a mysterious man to do a hacking job on an artificial intelligence, a notoriously dangerous task that could kill everyone involved. The central figure is Case, a hacker whose ability to link into/jack into the net has just been restored. He is supported primarily by Molly, a “razorgirl” who is essentially a cyborg commando (think Motoko Kusanagi from Ghost in the Shell, but with extendable blades in her fingers) who takes care of whatever analog work has to be done to complement Case’s hacking.

The content and ideas of Neuromancer are extremely well-developed, especially for its time. Gibson’s conceptualization of the global Internet, especially in the way he describes Case’s hacking in terms of visualizations of geometric shapes changing color and shape, is breathtaking and thought provoking. He gives the Internet a personality, and he lays out the groundwork for a very interesting cyberculture attached to it, as well as to the dark side of cybercorporate rule on the streets of Chiba City and the Sprawl.

I say “groundwork” here because it emphasizes what I liked least about Neuromancer, and that was the lack of a full exploration of the world and characters. There is nothing wrong with Molly and Case as characters, and they seem real enough (though there are a few ‘what the hell’ moments, such as the first sex scene), but they just aren’t as explored as well as they could have been. The exploration of the setting – which is utterly fascinating – is even less developed, and you only catch glimpses of the strange, cyberpunk world of the future.

I think the culprit for these weaknesses is my other criticism of Gibson’s masterpiece, and that is his writing. His ideas are brilliant, if underdeveloped (which is fine for one of the earlier works in the genre that laid the groundwork for other works to come). However, the way in which he presents these ideas is severely limited due to the way in which the book was written. The book is incredibly fast-paced, with short chapters, and short sections within chapters. Description is kept to a minimum, and the majority of the text is either dialogue (which I loved) or else internal monologues (which I found annoying). However, the dialogue does not reveal very much about the world (or, really, the characters), and serves mostly just to move the plot along. A focus on the plot is good, as it keeps things moving, but in the case of Neuromancer, I felt there was too much focus on the plot, and it worked to the detriment of world-building and character creation.

This was compounded by the very fractured nature of the writing. There were lots of sentence fragments and short sentences; they were very to the point, but for me they were also somewhat immersion breaking (though one could argue that the writing style was meant to be evocative of the world Gibson was creating). The descriptions, when they were there, were also very sparse, and a lot was left up to the reader’s imagination; in my opinion, a bit too much. It took my fifty pages to figure out what was going on, as I was thrown without mercy into a world of slang and jargon that would have been incomprehensible for even longer had I not been familiar with some science fiction and cyberpunk tropes. While I applaud his complete lack of exposition, the lack of any sort of explanatory text was difficult for me to handle – though perhaps that speaks more about me as a reader than about him as an author.

Overall, though, Neuromancer was an enjoyable read, and I would recommend it, but with the caveat to prepare to be confused at first, and not to expect any clear answers – but then, when has society ever given us a clear answer?

 
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Posted by on July 13, 2015 in Readings