Joe Haldeman has compelled me to write my first (and perhaps only) Amazon.com book review.
I picked up the author's preferred edition of "The Forever War" at a used bookstore earlier this year. I wasn't familiar with Haldeman or his work; it just looked like an interesting read. By page 20, I was enthralled by his edgy writing style and wonderfully unique storytelling. The book was outstanding.
Fast forward a few months as I gradually went through "Forever Free" and "Forever Peace," reading each with increasing unease and a lingering sense of disappointment. "Free" was a hackneyed sequel to "War"; "Peace," while a decent read, just didn't have the magic that made "The Forever War" such an utterly compelling story to me.
By then I'd pretty much chalked Haldeman up as a one hit wonder. But one last fluky purchase of a dog-eared, faded, tattered copy of "All My Sins Remembered" for 50 cents at a half-off half sale marked the best buy I've made in 20 years.
I won't go into the plot particulars, but suffice it to say that Haldeman's Vietnam experience laces nearly every word in this unusual story of interstellar espionage. He published the book in 1977 and it's clear when comparing this story with his later work that nerves exposed and rubbed raw during his military service were still itching him when he penned this novel.
The central question of the story is this: Can a fundamentally decent man programmed to spend his life committing atrocities survive when his service is done and the killing stops? The theme parallels the nearly impossible adjustment many Vietnam ground combat veterans faced upon returning home. Like lead protagonist Otto McGavin here and William Mandella in "The Forever War," U.S. veterans found reintegrating themselves into polite society after living in a bloodbath for months or years a task for which the human psyche is ill-equipped to deal.
Haldeman also explores the underlying theme of duty in this context. To what degree should an enlisted man accept government rhetoric that the lives he's taking are for the good of the whole? As the story progresses through the years and McGavin's body toll rises, he finds himself questioning his profession and his assignments more and more. Will assassinating a low-life scum on a remote planet really ensure interstellar peace, or are missions like this simply political justifications to keep the money flowing in and higher-ups working? Is the Confederación truly interested in harmony among its member planets, or is its primary goal instead propping itself up at any cost? Again, themes such as these are pulled straight out of Vietnam, and Haldeman updates and presents them to be as topically pertinent in the unknown future as they were 30 years ago in the United States.
I enjoy science fiction. Like any genre, you take the bad with the good, and for me at least I've run across a great deal more formulaic laser-toting drivel than deftly woven stories that explore fundamental human (or even nonhuman) issues that strike to the bone. Clarke, Heinlein, Azimov, Niven, and Pournelle are a few of the modern greats who dig far below the glittery surface of starships and little green men to expose the true depths and wonder of good science fiction.
Add Joe Haldeman and "All My Sins Remembered" to the list. He's not as consistently good from novel to novel as the acknowledged masters, but when he's on, he's as good or better than any of them. "The Forever War" is brilliant and deserving of the Hugo and Nebula it won, but "Sins" is even better. It's extraordinary science fiction. My only regret is that the yellowing 23-year-old paperback I own will surely disintegrate long before I can properly introduce it to my young one...END