Retro Post: The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

I really enjoyed The Forever War when I read it in 2010; the version which I read had a fantastic cover which is the collection, Peace and War, which includes the other Haldeman books on the same theme, Forever Peace, a companion novel, and Forever Free, the sequel which I describe (accurately) later in this diary as “batshit fucking loco”. I’ve put together several entries from my diary about the novel, with the dates attached.

24th May 2010

In reading The Forever War I have become much, much more interested in proper sci-fi. The book, thus far, is brilliant, conveying a proper sense of isolation, of distance, and of the difficulty involved in long distance space travel, and especially war. There’s a lack of distinct otherness to the alien life-forms and world – although the cold, empty planet on which the Privates train is certainly well feeling. It’s mostly that the Taurons, as bi-pedal two-armed upright-walking creatures are just a bit too close to human for me. Insofar as interstellar travel is concerned this is certainly the best sci-fi I have ever read.

But I suspect that my interest grows for other reasons, too. A Scanner Darkly is probably the best Philip K. Dick book I’ve read [this remains true], and I have been reading a lot of Interzone too. But I am starting to believe that while fantasy can and perhaps should [be able to] get away with principally being a romp (as Retribution Falls and The Lies of Locke Lamora are) sci-fi needs to be more than that. The Forever War is a commentary on the Vietnam war (and by extension all wars) by a veteran; A Scanner Darkly by a veteran of the war on drugs, showing that the side on which he fought was the wrong one.

26th May 2010

Some initial thoughts upon finishing The Forever War: it is good, very good. One of the best books that I have read so far this year, and certainly the best that isn’t by Ursula Le Guin [which were The Earthsea Cycle, in its entirety by this point I think]. I’m not too certain about its attitude to homosexuality, but given the contexts of a) the time it was written and b) its use in the book [as an alienating factor for the veterans] I think that I can understand it. I’m not certain that it’s meant to be condemnatory, rather than just alienating.

I like the ending, even [obviously, edited for spoilers]. I think that works, as does most of the rest of it, especially the [spoilers deleted]. It was a satisfying conclusion.

The warfare, the technology, the extraterrestrial setting – I liked all of that. The sense of distance, isolation, and loneliness I thought were fantastic. My internal imagery was usually better [in my opinion] than, say, the comic book, and though Alien is probably the closest film adaptation and despite my love of Blade Runner, I’m not certain that even Ridley Scott should bring this to the screen. [As he was rumoured to be doing at the time; this was before Prometheus, so I didn’t complain about this film, despite the opportunity to do so. It’s rubbish!]

My criticism, ironically, is mostly to do with (so far as I can tell) the novella “You Can Never Go Back”, which wasn’t in the original publication of the book because it was too dark and negative. If it is the earthly part of Lieutenant Mandella the it’s mostly because of the treatment of homosexuality, but I wasn’t so keen. It did, however, provide the right sort of sense of isolation that I thought was necessary for the story. [The soldiers go home to a world that has moved beyond them and changed, which is now unrecognisable – they can’t stay, and re-enlist in the army, as I recall.]

Other than that, there were some minor inconsistencies which, frankly, I’m willing to ignore. Generally, I really liked it, and I’m looking forward to reading some more classic sci-fi this year.

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Prometheus Unbound (2 of 2)

I started to write this blog immediately after I had written the previous Prometheus blog, which can be found here. That was some time ago. My life has kept me away from writing this blog and the film has faded into memory a little, now generally only refered to as a joke (saying “So that’s what Prometheus was about!” whenever someone says something profound, or stupid) or as a proverbially bad film. Furthermore, what I wanted to do with the blog changed after I read Film Critic Hulk’s very long analysis which I felt covered everything which needed to be said about why the film was bad, and what needed to be done with it.

After reading The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell I began to have some more profound thoughts about the questions prodded by Prometheus. One of my problems with The Sparrow was that the aliens did not feel to me to be suitably alien, as they engaged in what was basically a Capitalist system, and while there were a couple of fundamental differences the aliens were fairly similar to humans, with similar motivations and desires. One of the beautiful things about the Alien franchise was that the xenomorphs were so completely alien in so many ways. The lethal, perfect predator desired by The Company, evolved for survival. It did not appear to be intelligent in the way that we are, but it was smart and skilled. It adapted. In Prometheus we learned that, contrary to known facts about the evolutionary process, they shared the same creators as us, which were basically massive humans (even having the same DNA!).

In the Hainish Cycle/Ekumen books I find that Ursula Le Guin has a good excuse for the similarity all the species have to human beings: they are descended from the same ancestors, the Hain, who colonised the universe in a far distant past. Some, such as the Gethen, appear to have been the result of genetic engineering, while the Athsheans have evolved to be very different indeed. There differences are intended to reflect on aspects of Earth society and this works. I suppose that in The Sparrow they are intended to look very similar, but to turn out very, very different. In Alien, it seems to me, they were intended to be absolutely terrifying. In Prometheus they were designed to… what? To generate a question. To ask “what if we were made by another species?” But the answer is provided by the film: “Ah, but who made them?” It’s not actually an answer. It’s a deferral of the question. It’s like asking what a Lego structure is made from and answering “Lego”. The real answer is plastic, but it’s being deferred to sound clever, even though it isn’t.

With the xenomorphs ruled out the most alien aliens I know of are the Areikei/Hosts in China Miéville’s Embassytown. The Areikei are very different to the human beings whom they host but are changed by their contact with the outside world in a number of ways which make them more similar to humans, but they are still incredibly different in both biology and social structures. This is perhaps due to my ignorance with a lot of SF but they seem very alien in ways that I can’t see being easily topped. But what, then, is the point of creating an alien species? It is different in Embassytown, which explores the nature of language, to the use in Prometheus, which is closer to The Sparrow and A Case of Conscience by James Blish. These three narratives aim to ask questions of the place of human beings in the universe and in relation to god when there are other intelligent beings in the universe. One of the key questions, both in the fictions and for the Catholic Church, is the importance of the crucifixion in the wider universe.

I didn’t notice the correspondence in Prometheus between the disaster which occurred on LV-223 and the crucifixion – that they were both 2000 years ago. Once this is pointed out one can begin to see that the problems began to occur because humanity killed the Engineer’s embassy to Earth who was Jesus Christ. I’m not entirely certain what Prometheus is trying to say with this. Catholic dogma always taught me that the crucifixion was necessary to the forgiveness of human beings for the sin of Adam (who they also taught me was fictional). Also, it is followed by the resurrection. Removing the divinity of Christ from the question and the resurrection as the proof of the power of god’s love seems to me to render the story of Christ fairly meaningless. He is not much more profound than any other ancient philosopher, it’s just that his story thrived in a way that others didn’t. It suggests to me a great ignorance about the religions of the world in the early Roman Empire – why, for example, was it not Mithras, or Alexander of Abonoteichus who was the Engineer, and the rejection of their teachings the problem? It seems to me that Christ has done very well, and being annoyed because he was sacrificed (when individual Engineers had been sacrificed to create life anyway, in the opening scene of the film) disregards the fact that he was the most influential figure on the last 2000 years of human history. Although I suppose portraying god as a petty, stupid creature actually comes as close to the god in which I could actually believe as any representation of god I have heard.

The Sparrow and A Case of Conscience never directly reference the crucifixion, as I recall. Jesus plays something of a side-part in their narratives; perhaps analogous to contemporary Christianity? But they do question, if there is other life in the universe, what part do they play in creation? Like Prometheus they don’t really provide an answer – how can they? We have not yet encountered extraterrestrial life and it is questionable whether religious belief will play much of a role if we actually do so. The likelihood is generally decreasing. But they ponder the question in a way Prometheus completely fails to do. Blish mentions that the Catholic Church has guidelines for the treatment of extraterrestrial life, but the internet is not very forthcoming with them. It involves the question of whether the beings have a soul; if they are fallen (as we are) in which case they need to be saved; if they are not fallen then how do we interact with them? A Case of Conscience was written before he knew of this guide, if it exists; The Sparrow appears to exist in ignorance of it.Prometheus doesn’t even seem to think that it will cause a problem, except in the sense of deferring the question which I mentioned above.

Something which is acknowledged by The Sparrow but which appears beyond the grasp of Prometheus is that science and religion aren’t actually in competition. Not really. The argument is that while science can tell you what happened it cannot tell you why it happened. As The Sparrow puts it (and I have heard elsewhere, an In Our Time on the subject can be found here) “God is in the why”. This is a fault inherent in both modern religious thinking – which tries to insert god into science where it doesn’t belong, as in the intelligent design hypothesis – and in modern atheism – which in general can prove that religion probably isn’t right, and has no real basis, but can’t actually prove it wrong in most cases. I believe that there are actually some biological arguments to suggest that religion is actually wrong, but I don’t know them so I won’t come down on that side of the argument. Instead, I will resort to popular culture. For you see, the real answer to this question (which a lot of proper atheists will accept and probably tell you) comes from a lesser-known quotation of the Jedi Master Yoda in the film The Empire Strikes Back:

There is no why.

This is fundamental to being an atheist. If you think there is a reason why, then you are agnostic. That’s OK too. Here we have reached the state of philosophy, and there are no right answers. Or rather there should be no way of confirming the right answers. If a god appeared to me and explained all the whys to me in a logical way which made sense to me I’d start believing that there was one. Or would I know there was one? I’m afraid my philosophical education was cut short when I decided archaeology was the most interesting part of Classics.

Does this make life pointless? Is this a negative attitude? I believe Jean-Paul Sartre had something to say on the matter, but in this circumstance my actual source for my personal philosophy is Mr Joss Whedon again,* in his second greatest television series (bearing in mind I haven’t watched Dollhouse) and, if you are reading this Jonathan, this is a SPOILER ALERT but I am going to remove character names and not mention where it is from to reduce that, if you want to read it nonetheless.** This is what I think:

“[…] it’s like nothing I do means anything.”

It doesn’t.”

Doesn’t what?”

Mean anything. In the greater scheme, in the big picture, nothing we do matters. There’s no grand plan, no big win.”

You seem kind of chipper about that.”

Well . . . I guess I kind of worked it out. If there’s no great glorious end to all this, if . . . nothing we do matters . . . then all that matters is what we do. ‘Cause that’s all there is. What we do. Now. Today. I fought for so long for redemption, for a reward, finally, just to beat the other guy. But I never got it.”

Now you do?”

Not all of it. All I want to do is help. I want to help because I don’t think people should suffer as they do, because if there’s no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world.”

Yikes. Sounds like you’ve had an epiphany.”

That’s what I keep saying, but nobody’s listening!”

So where to conclude? That I got more out of an episode of one of Joss Whedon’s shows than I got out of the entire film Prometheus? Is that such a surprise? I think I get more out of that than I get out of most of the ancient literature I’ve read, except perhaps Lucretius, which taught me not to believe in an afterlife and won me a lollipop from Josie Long. Perhaps that asking the question isn’t enough, proposing an answer is necessary? But I have admitted to believing that there is no answer. Accepting, then, that there is no answer. But this is not good for everybody. Some people want an answer. Sometimes it is hard, believing or understanding the universe to be pointless.

But perhaps it is this. I loved The Sparrow. I liked A Case of Conscience. And I was raised Catholic. While I was wondering around colleges the other day I commented to the girlfriend that I was glad we’d had religion, as it had produced so much or beauty. And it still does, if you would like to look at Aaron Sorkin’s question of theodicy in the excellent West Wing episode “Two Cathedrals” below. I don’t believe in a god, and I don’t think that it is necessary to do so. But I do think that it is essential to come to that conclusion yourself, and to have a reason, and to understand that it means no reason. But no reason doesn’t matter. If there’s no reason, everything is important.

Which perhaps is the more scary answer, after all.

* This episode of this particular series is actually written by Tim Minear, but as he was an executive producer on Firefly and worked on Dollhouse too, we can say fairly strongly that he was close to Mr. Whedon.

** Obviously it’s from either Buffy or Angel, as you’ve seen Firefly and Dollhouse (which I haven’t). And a later point than I know you to be at. But you can get an idea about it, if you don’t read the quotation, from the commentary on Objects in Space, if you have the Firefly DVDs. Or if you know anything about Sartre, which neither I nor Joss Whedon really do.

Prometheus Bound (1 of 2)

I have decided to write two blogs about the film Prometheus, whether it deserves them or not. The second, which shall be entitled “Prometheus Unbound (2 of 2)” will consider the themes explored in the film with reference to this blog, to which my sister directed me after I posted a facebook status about the film, as well as having Hesiod, Aeschylus, and Apollodorus at my side for reference to the myth and the interpretation within the film of what those myths mean, while using my own knowledge of the Greek world ([ego]which is considerable, as I have two degrees from the University of Oxford in that subject and am working towards a third [/ego] ) to suggest how these myths should be considered in their context. Expect that in the next couple of days. This blog, however, will consider my reaction to the film as someone with a passing knowledge of the Alien franchise, as an archaeologist, and as someone who exists within the cultural setting in which the film was made (more or less).

So that facebook status read as follows:

So Prometheus was a pretty clever film if you don’t have a passing knowledge of archaeology, biology, philosophy, or theology (also probably linguistics). If you have any of those it was a stupid film.

It has five “likes” so far and a few comments. I came to the film having glanced at reviews, but without having read any, knowing that the film was attempting to tackle questions about the beginning of life with which I would not agree, and, from the trailer, that it would begin with some dubious archaeological myth-science which probably wouldn’t make sense to me. On the other hand, it was going to have aliens and scary monsters and space and that H.R. Giger aesthetic which I absolutely adore from the original Alien films.

An aside here. I was a child raised with Star Wars, I like science fiction and space opera, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is my favourite TV show and I also enjoy comic books, not to mention those degrees (and an A level!) in Greeky things and their literature. The xenomorphs from the Alien films are probably my most favourite fictional species. I love them. They are so cool.

The biggest problem with Prometheus was that it basically failed to deliver fully on all counts, apart from looking pretty. It looks really, really pretty. Of course, I use “pretty” fairly loosely here, as the slimy alien structures and the xenomorph/Christ figure on their wall would hardly fit into a standard definition of the word. But while there were a few alien creatures there was very little of the xenomorphs, very little monsters chasing people, very little horror or even fright. And the philosophy, well . . .

Let’s start with the scene in which we are introduced to our archaeologist protagonists. They are excavating on a random hill on the isle of Skye in a tiny little area. Fine. OK, so their equipment hasn’t come on much in 80 years, but I can get behind this. It’s archaeology, a lot of us are still doing this in the way it’s been done for fifty years or so, new technology moves slowly into the field and is funding dependent. Except – they have a carbon dating stick. A stick which carbon dates. Great! OK, so its dubious carbon dating as it doesn’t give you a range of dates, but that’s OK. Simplifying for the non-archaeologists, I get that. On the other hand, it also carbon dates cave paintings in Skye to 35,000 years ago. Skye, and all of Scotland, was under a glacier until 11,000 years ago, according to my environmental archaeologist girlfriend. So, basically, they need to work on their calibration curve.

These archaeologists go on to interpret the iconography which they have found as a star map, pointing the way to the place where the giant men came from. The question I have here is: are all giant men the alien dudes who made the human race? Is King Darius one of them? Or are some giant men related to a size/importance iconography which places their entire hypothesis in doubt? Not to mention the fact that stars move in 35,000 years. But whatever. These guys are the kind of archaeologists who deal principally with iconography. They’re not scientists or anything!

Except that, for the rest of the film, they claim to be scientists. They perform autopsies, analyse DNA, do sciency things. Which is fine, some archaeologists do that (although no so much the autopsies). But really, those kind of archaeologists would think twice before following such a dubious iconographic principle which is the basis for the film. They also proceed to not understand that carbon levels on other planets would be different and need a different calibration curve so carbon dating a creature raised on another planet (ignoring the possibility that it might have, once, eaten seafood) wouldn’t be accurate using an Earth carbon dating stick. And, while we’re mentioning DNA, humans have different DNA to one another, although somewhere around 99% of it is shared with mice, dolphins, and lettuce (et cetera). So how can the alien dude’s DNA be “the same as ours” as Noomi Rapace claims? Furthermore, if it IS the same as ours, at what point does this fit into our well-known structure of evolution? The film appears to be based on the idea that evolutionary theory (which it calls Darwinism, but whatever) has enough gaps for humans to have been created, which it doesn’t. At some point we will have had to evolve. Where does that fit?

Let’s focus on the biologist for a moment. When presented with a dead alien life-form, the biologist gets scared and runs. On the other hand, when presented with a live alien life-form, which flares at him, almost certainly a sign of aggression, he sticks his hand into its mouth/vagina dentia. What kind of biologist would do that? If he wasn’t expecting there to be life, why was he on the mission in the first place?

My earlier troubles about the films philosophy were elevated during the opening credits of the film when my girlfriend commented that the writer, Damon Lindelof, was responsible for the end of the TV show Lost. I grew tired of Lost during its first series, believing the brilliant idea of a group of people stranded on a desert island had been undermined by some rubbish sci-fi twaddle, but I have read the ending and it is awful. The man clearly has no knowledge of any of the themes or history of the philosophical concepts with which he is trying to deal, and attempts to explain questions to which there are either no answers, or to which the answers are immeasurably more complicated than he is equipped to deal. Various themes come up in the film: parenthood and abortion; the beginnings of life; creationism verses evolution; the necessity of the soul; the relationship between creator and created. None of these themes are properly tackled, but are only hinted at. It doesn’t seem like any research was done into any of them, which makes me wonder why they were even there – the film could have been perfectly good if it was just a group of working people getting torn apart by xenomorphs like, for example, the rest of the Alien franchise.

That being said, I did enjoy the bits of the film where they weren’t being stupid. Michael Fassbender, Idris Elba, and Charlize Theron gave great performances. And it looked spectacular. If only it hadn’t tried to look clever, it wouldn’t have look quite so stupid.