Science Fiction

Forever Peace - Joe Haldeman by Usamah Khan

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So right after reading “The Forever War” I think I just needed more Haldeman to read. Good for me, it was 2018, and I didn’t have to wait 20 years for him to write another. Two days of feeling like I needed more was pain enough, twenty years must have been rough for fans..

Luckily I had a copy of “Forever Peace” that I picked up in a book fair a year or so before. I always figured it was a true sequel so didn’t give it a read. I was wrong, and while I still don’t quite understand how it falls into the realm of a ‘spiritual’ or thematic sequel it has all the captivating features that hooked me through “The Forever War”.

I found it interesting how the story took a long time to get going and then just turned it to 11 at the end. I really like how the concept of “jacking” (submitting yourself to a VR simulation of sorts) was introduced quickly and then put through all sorts of contexts so you truly understood it. Like for war, pleasure, stimulation and even knowledge transfer. Made me think of that Elon Musk interview when he talked about how we’re limited in our input/output. Two hands, ten fingers and our words are not enough to convey everything an idea or memory has to offer. ‘Jacking’ in offers this but with the bonus of full memory and voluntary sharing at will.

So because of this, the build up at the end was really quite enjoyable because I was fully aware of how important the concept of ‘jacking’ was and how it was such an effective way of communicating. Learning that it could actually help reform society and remove any violent tendencies was wonderfully acceptable at that point.

The more I think about it the more I can see how Haldeman’s time in the military and the war affected his writing. It’s been said, in book I’ve read such as “Dispatches” and “Page After Page”, that soldiers in a platoon in war start to know each other intimately due to proximity and always being with each other. Due to the nature of combat, senses are heightened in these times as well and as such you perform at your best or worst as a team.

However, if you took away all the feelings or possibility of danger that cause you to be at your worst and created an environment where you fostered and built all the connections between the soldiers, you would have a literal machine of war. Soldiers perfectly in sync with one another and with no fear. These would make for the best platoons. Experienced and connected soldiers.

But I wonder, are those soldiers in those platoons - the ones who spend the most time with each other and see the worst horrors of war - also the ones who come home and want the least to do with war and most wanting for peace? And so would not a stronger connection with your team then lead to a stronger desire for peace? I think this is what Haldeman was trying to get across..at least what I took from it when I flipped the last page.

I think I’m done for Haldeman’s forever series but this has just got me thinking about how sci-fi is the perfect platform to explore the human condition. Exaggerate and extrapolate every aspect of the world as we know it, but we’re not going to change as a species. At least our most basic desires and fears will stay the same. And war brings these feelings out the most in us.

The Forever War - Joe Haldeman by Usamah Khan

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When I first got into reading Science Fiction, I didn’t know where to begin. So, naturally, I did what any one with a laptop and wifi would do. I googled “best sci-fi novels”. This led me to learn about the two most prestigious awards given to writers of the genre: the Hugo award and the Nebula award.

Every year since the 1950s/60s, each of these groups give the award to the best sci-fi novel of the year. I also learned that in all this time there have only been a handful of novels to win both awards in a year. This list seemed as good a place as any to start.

So with that I made a point to read every book on that list. I was enamoured by the quality of the writing and the fantastic stories that were being told. I read a few on the list, gradually finding authors I enjoyed and spent time exploring more of their catalogues. However whenever I came back to something on this list I remembered just how good a book had to be to grab both awards.

So after a little sejour from the list, I finally picked up “The Forever War”, which won both the Hugo and Nebula in 1975, and it is probably one of the best pieces of Science Fiction I’ve ever read.

Not only was this one of the best pieces of Sci-Fi, but also one of the best books I’ve read in recent years. It’s a book that transcends the tropes of ‘just’ a sci-fi novel and tells a compelling story with an engaging commentary on war while masterfully rooting itself in some very hard sci-fi themes.

I found the war story to be the most captivating and human aspect of the novel. Briefly, Mandella, the protagonist, starts off in 1996 as one of the first soldiers to take part in this interstellar war that would span many years and many tours. His first tour takes him far from Earth, traveling at relativistic speeds.

This is so crucial to the novel, and very early on we’re made aware of how with every tour, because of the time dilation, they are coming back from a year or so away subjectively but 20 years or so later in actual time, with each tour stretching that even more. Every time Mandella comes back to a new world that looks vaguely like the one he remembers, but more different than the time before.

I guess this is what veterans feel like when they come back from war. It’s hard for them, they go away and for a while live a very static life with nothing changing around them. The war happens, they age beyond their years but they still live in the same conditions, with the same mandate and mission. But when they come home, everyone has moved on. There are new words, new norms, art, movies etc. A year away might as well be 10 years.

Granted I don’t have a great understanding of what veterans go through but I always thought about this in the same way as Herr described the young recruits in Vietnam. They were high school football stars or athletes but in those formative years of your life the world moves quick. When they came home, everyone seemed to have left them behind.

As is with all “hard“ sci-fi and speculative fiction, they key is to take an understanding of the world that you possess and extrapolate it or posit a “what if?. I learned after reading that Joe Haldeman was actually a Vietnam War veteran. This was his reality and I guess no matter what setting you put it in, the reality of war never changes.

So maybe this was his way of explaining to the world what he went through and what other soldiers went through. I don’t know what impact this had on people when it came out but I sure know that it’s made me -someone with very few positive things to say about the military and war - to understand veterans and their struggles a little bit more. I think everyone should read this novel not only to experience a great sci-fi story, but to gain an insight into war and the human condition.

Those are my thoughts, but before I end, just wanted to share some great artwork by Marvano who based a comic series on the story. Love seeing all these takes on Mandella and the world of the Forever War.

EDIT: This podcast and interview with Joe Haldeman from the guys over at “What a Hell of a Way to Die” came out a day after I posted this. Haldeman touches on a lot of points I tried to make and I think (obviously) more succinctly and insightfully. Really happy to have some of my thoughts validated but maybe that’s just because I’m skimming the surface here.

Endymion - Dan Simmons by Usamah Khan

Book three of Dan Simmon's "Hyperion" cantos. These books are so much fun. This was probably the least..."exciting" book so far, I guess I'd say. Not much happened in comparison to the insane plot fest that was "Hyperion" and "The Fall Of Hyperion" - but it was surprisingly the most action packed. "Endymion" picks up 274 years after "The Fall of Hyperion" and we get to see the aftermath of a galaxy disconnected, the Hegemony disbanded and the farcasters destroyed. The pacing is slower and we get this new insight into the church which has become a new superpower that's emerged and how they, now know as the Pax, use the Shrike cruciforms to control and give the population a kind of immortality.

There are two main stories that intertwine through the book, those of Endymion and De Soya's. It reminded me of the first book where most of the stories were told in the first person. I think they made me connect with the world easier and because of that I cared more. Maybe Simmons though the same and decided to write this way again.

The world had a new dystopian feel to it. The galaxy is in disrepair and all the worlds are reverting back to primitive early "Old-Earth" states. I guess even with all of that tech, AI and dataspheres gone the world it was a matter of a lack of connectivity that had them falling apart. Makes me think of what if the internet went down.

My favourite aspect of the novel was probably De Soya's journey from the fanatical priest general to the man who was enlightened enough to see the chinks and cracks within the Pax. He was super intelligent and probably the most badass. When he resigns himself to dying over and over again as he goes from planet to planet searching for Aenea in the Raphael, an "Archangel" class ship..well I literally had shivers. Also what a cool name for a ship.

Ultimately, the book was like the first in the sense that it's setting up for a climax in the next book. I'm especially looking forward to the inevitable encounter with the UI. The fact that it's all told in retrospective from Endymion's point to view from his "Schrödingers cat box" gives it that edge of "what's going to happen to him?" That was so cleverly written in. Always in the back on my mind but never something I remembered.

I'm guessing he's gonna travel at super light speeds and gain a time debt. At which point Aenea and him will meet again, fall in love etc. as she seems to be aware of. The power of love is such a key concept in novels, and most people cast it off as pseudo science but if you pay attention to almost all literature, but in this case specifically to most forms of Sci-Fi, you find that it's always a powerful theme and energy in place. It's the only theme that's universal yet so...badly understood.

I read this book the slowest out of the three so far. But coming to the end of it I was the most excited. Hearing about the river Tethys and the Concourse - the worlds long river and street connected via the faracasters - in the other books made my imagination go off the rails. So now, fully exploring them after the catastrophe of "The Fall of Hyperion" is really fun to read. Raul Endymion has a big role to play for the future of the galaxy. I'm looking forward to the conclusion. What a series.

The Fall of Hyperion - Dan Simmons by Usamah Khan

Wow. "The Fall of Hyperion" did not disappoint. After finishing "Hyperion" and being completely enamoured by Simmons' unique twist on a framed story ( à la "Canterbury Tales") that allowed for multiple genres within Sci-Fi to come through, I was anxious to see how he followed up what he started. It was interesting to see this time how he moved back and forth between different story lines, light-years apart, and yet he still managed to retain all the unique settings of the first book - the AI, the Tron-esque Technocore, fantasy settings and warfare.

Reading this it became more and more apparent to me that this was "Modern" Science Fiction. I didn't realize it at the time but coming from reading novels from the 50's -70's there was a certain style I was used to that most authors stuck to. There was always an emphasis on environment and conversations. In fact most old Hard Sci-Fi, particularly older Asimov, is just a long series of conversations. The worlds they were describing were designed to be similar to what the writers were experiencing at the time. Arthur C. Clarke put it well in his forward to "The Songs of Distant Earth". He wrote that, while he loved works such as Star Wars and Star Trek and appreciated them as works of fiction, he didn't think of them as Science Fiction. To him they were fantasy. Because all the environments and technology were not rooted in science and for all intents and purposes, could only best be described as "magic".  He went on the say, Science Fiction has to be based in something current, something you can cling to. From there, it can be extrapolated by one or two instances of "magic". Just so you as a writer can ask the question at the heart of Sci-Fi, "What if?". Then the writing becomes like writing any other novel. As was Milan Kundera's philosophy, the point of a novel is an exploration of "the enigma of the self".

Modern Sci-Fi tackles this differently. While technology evolves, for us the line between "magic" and reality becomes finer. We, readers of the genre, have become more comfortable with common tropes of Sci-Fi. The fact that time dilation and FTL travel are so lightly explained but such a major part of driving the plot shows this. We became more comfortable with these notions and as such writers can take more liberties in how they choose to suspend our disbelief. I thought about how Orson Scott Card wrote like this in "Ender's Game" and "Speaker for the Dead" and to a certain extent how Isaac Asimov began to write this way in his later "Foundation" novels.

From the start of "Hyperion" Simmons adopted this style of writing.  What's most interesting to me is that, almost counter intuitively, it allows for greater emphasis on character development and interaction. I guess it's because the characters aren't confined to a setting that needs to be explained to understand how they live. They are products of/produce their own environments/settings. It made it hard to put down because, like in a dream, I was creating an image and exploring/interacting with it at the same time. My mind was always working. When done right, this is an aspect I appreciate about modern Sci-Fi.

Another aspect that I enjoyed was that Simmons' love for classic literature and poetry was also super apparent throughout the novel. While it was hinted at in the first book, it actually drives the plot this time round. From what stemmed as just allegory in "Hyperion" became full on references and key plot points. The Keats persona's story (now Joseph Severn's) was modelled after the most interesting point in John Keats' life. Right down to his death from tuberculosis and the fact that the mighty AI presented his/its story in poetry.

It made me think of Keats a lot. When I was younger I went to the Spanish Steps in Rome and my mother took me to his home where I saw his deathbed. The images depicted in the book were so vivid to me. I could picture exactly what Simmon's was describing. Which is rare in Sci-Fi. I think it was one time in Sci-Fi where, because I didn't have to think about the setting, I was able to focus 100% on the character..and become pretty invested in him. Just after finishing I happened to be at home and my mother had a book of his collected works in chronological order. Going through it reading about his life you could easily see how much Simmons cared. Which in turn made me care. 

Keats' life was unfortunate, but incredibly fascinating. When I think about romantic poets of that era the I think of posh, trouble free, weak, drug addled writers..which Keats was to a certain extent. But there was a lot more to him. He died at the age of 25. Died with a legacy of work that was arguably better than the work that his contemporaries managed to write in their entire lives. To think what he could have achieved.

I read that Simmons was a teacher, and the idea for "Hyperion" was from stories he used to tell his kids as a past time. What a way to pass the time.

Edit. updated age at which Keats died