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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Retro Post: Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding

I’ve been meaning for years to use entries from my old diary (23rd May 2010-2nd July 2012) as the inspiration for blog entries. Now that I have some distance between then and now, and as many of my more recent entries are based more firmly on notes from my current diary, I feel more able to do this. The plan is to copy out slightly edited versions of the entries themselves, perhaps with annotations [in square brackets]. In some cases (such as the entry on Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino) I may re-read the books in question and add new comments; in others (such as the entries on The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin) I will have to check that there isn’t already information on this blog which matches them. I guess I will try to make these updates regular, once or twice a week, rather than just whenever I can be bothered with them. It might help the blog keep going, and prevent further four-month gaps in updates.

The entry with which I am going to begin is from 23rd May 2010.

Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding was alright. As good as I really expected it to be, not at the level of the best fantasy like the Earthsea cycle but it was a readable, Firefly-esq jaunt in a fantasy world. The problems which I have with it [are typical:] towards the end, especially when dealing with the character’s feelings, he over-indulges in telling rather than showing. I also wasn’t particularly impressed by his female characters – they were minimal, and exclusively introduced with sex in mind: Frey thinking about how useful it was that Jez was plain, the beauty of the female Century Knight, and the others being primarily Frey’s conquests in one form or another.

The other part is setting. Much of the geography of the world in Retribution Falls, besides some of the NSEW locations, is indistinct. I couldn’t figure out my way around the Ketty Jay, nor even precisely what it looked like. [I think my gist here is that the type of ship the Ketty Jay was – airship? Aeroplane? – was unclear, so there were no clues about how it should look apart from the cover.] Greater descriptions would have been nice, but there was also the chance to imagine it for yourself, which was quite good.

[I think the comparison of this novel to Firefly was over privleging, but I know what I mean. The idea was that there was a group of misfits, on the run, on a ship. You’d like them because they were roguish, although I don’t remember them being funny. I have a lot more to say about this book in later entries concerning the rape of all the female characters; a theme of this diary was how many of the novels I read approached rape, as a vast number of fantasy novels seem to do. Perhaps also worthy of note is that this book has two sequels now, neither of which I have read or really intend to.]

A blog about books

I said yesterday that I was planning on writing a blog about books today, thinking that I would finish reading The Sword of the Lictor and I could write my thoughts so far on Gene Wolfe’s (thirty year old) four-part novel The Book of the New Sun (Sword is book three). Instead, I spent today playing New Super Mario Bros. Wii with my sister. Empirical proof that video games are stunting literature. Instead, I will say something about the act of reading itself, but quickly because it’s Christmas Eve and we’re going out in half an hour or so.

In the academic year 2009-2010 I took a year out, meaning that I thought I would find a job and earn some money to pay for my DPhil. This happened eventually (March 2010) but from late October when I got back from Greece (and the period from July to September before I went to Greece) I was unemployed, and I did a lot of reading. After watching Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince I thought it was about time that I read all of the Harry Potter books so that I didn’t find out the ending through the films. I’m glad I did that, because the end of Deathly Hallows is so much better in my imagination than it was on-screen.

I didn’t read a lot as an undergraduate or Master’s student. I’m not really sure why this is, and it might not actually be true. I can certainly remember having to give up on Claudius the God as I couldn’t cope with studying early Imperial Roman history then going home to read some more about early Imperial Roman history – although curiously I didn’t have this problem with I, Claudius, probably because it is really good. Similarly, now that I am a DPhil student and my work days are much better organized, I find it difficult reading in the evenings when I have spent all day doing so for work. I don’t think this is such a bad thing as I think it’s because I like what I read during the day too, but my leisure time has become more television/iPlayer based than reading.

In 2010 I decided to try to read 52 books (that’s about one a week!), which is far more than I would usually manage. It was more than I managed in 2010 as well (44 was the final count) although I did manage 52 short stories. If you look at the statistics which I gathered, however, you see that I was fine up until I went back to university – hence the theory that it is working with reading all day that makes me unable (or unwilling) to do so for leisure. Then again, I stare at a computer all day for work and seem perfectly happy to do so for leisure as well. If I were to take an objective view of the process, I would probably suggest that it is because I think of reading as a challenge, rather than something I do for pleasure, and I have added a lot of rules to it in order to track my reading more thoroughly and take the aforementioned statistics.

After reading the Harry Potter books, in the start of 2011 I read A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin (arguably the original version of the idea which inspired Harry Potter). I resisted reading The Tombs of Atuan, the second of the Earthsea books, immediately afterwards as I felt that I had rushed the Potter books, and reading them one after the other in a relatively short space of time has slightly spoilt them. In the end I wound up reading the Earthsea books alternately with other books, meaning that I was still through the series in a few months, but that they don’t run into one another (then again, the Earthsea books are much more distinguishable from one another than the Potters). This became one of my first rules – don’t read books of a series (also: by the same author) next to one another. Hence not-yet having finished The Book of the New Sun despite beginning it last July (I think). It became much more complicated when I was reading several series in tandem, which is probably the real reason why I haven’t finished New Sun or Le Guin’s Ekumen Cycle; I like a variety of authors in my yearly lists, even if there are those who crop up every year (like Philip K Dick, for example).

The 52 books in a year is a bit of a silly challenge. I relies on the notion that a week is a good length of time to devote to a book, which is sometimes true, but if I’m reading books 400 pages long that’s [lots] of pages a day when I’m already reading [lots and lots] of pages a day for work. It stems, of course, from an inbuilt desire to READ ALL [most] OF THE BOOKS IN THE WORLD which would collapse if I really knew what all the books were like (not very good). Plus it’s nice to have a challenge – I’ve considered trying to do a year where I only read books which I already own, but then I couldn’t read any new books (i.e. newly published rather than newly owned). I just need to consider a reasonable number. And, to be honest, I need to read more. This year I’ve managed about fifteen books. Worse still, I’ve only managed about twenty short stories, and they are short! I am a tiny bit ashamed of this.