novel

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.

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

Norwegian Wood - Haruki Murakami by Usamah Khan

When I think back on "Norwegian Wood" the first thing that comes to my mind is how beautifully it's written. Murakami flows together descriptions and images of Toru's emotions so eloquently and simply, it was hard to put down. I think that's why I stayed up until 5:00 am reading. I really enjoyed it. More than anything I really enjoyed it as a character study. The story seemed present just to fuel changes in the different personalities. That probably why he picked a time and setting that was closest to his own experiences. 1960s Tokyo was described so precisely I felt really connected to it. It seems to be quite autobiographical. So I guess having that as the backdrop made it easier to deal with a study of characters in the novel.

The most interesting characters to me were Nagasawa, Reiko and Midori. Nagasaki is an over intelligent friend of Toru's who's good at everything he tries and an overachiever who suffers from a lack of interest in what he's capable of to such an extent that he dons a feeling of high and mightiness. Ironically, even though he sounds like an ass (which he is to a certain degree) he's in many ways a guy who everyone wants to be. No one likes him in person and they don't want to admit it, but they envy him and that's why they surround him.

Reiko, on the other hand, is incredible at her art and passion. But she couldn't handle it and the success that came with it. She's the opposite of Nagasawa with the same talents. Even right down to her sex life. Nagasawa uses his sexual abilities to manipulate women, notably Hatsumi, while Reiko on the other hand is manipulated by someone else's sexual advances. She ultimately loses her life (metaphorically speaking) not unlike Hatsumi who takes her own life. Nagasawa wanted to go out and see how much he could conquer and Reiko was happy to be a cog in the machine at the communal asylum. The two characters who have the most effect on Toru are two sides of the same coin.

Midori was interesting to me. She behaved in no way like anyone else and neither did Toru. But he couldn't see that. Not until much later that is. She was so free, sexually and mentally. She would challenge him unlike the others in his life he had to take care of. I'm never sure what more to say about her. She's just beautifully enigmatic.

After the writing and the characters, another aspect that drew me in was the setting of 1960s Japan. Everyone was rebelling against the established order, yet as Toru put it, it seemed that they were hypocritical in doing so. Reminded me a lot of activism now. I thought it was just an issue of our generation but maybe most academic rebellions end the same. It's always the same majority type of people going to school; kids with the funds, good education and a life compass directing them to stable incomes (in Japan the sought after path of a "salary-man"). It's hard to truly fight back against the system when the system has provided you with everything to be who you are.

You could really take this novel out of it's context and it would fit nicely in any era. The setting merely provides a backdrop and a feeling of tension while amplifying the feeling of not being able to do anything but kick a few shins. I guess that was Murakami's point about the futility of really trying to do anything when you're young.