The Best of Joe Haldeman
author: Joe Haldeman
publisher: Subterranean
pub date: 03.31.2013
pp: 504
tags: SF , Hard SF , Alternate History , Cyberculture

Alastair Reynolds on The Best of Joe Haldeman

Generous, Versatile, and Humane

June 18th, 2013 reset - +

THIS IS AN overdue book. Joe Haldeman has been publishing science fiction since 1968; he has remained a significant and influential figure within the field from the moment, forty years ago, when The Forever War began to make its bruising impact. Despite being a prolific novelist, Haldeman has also maintained a gladdening output of shorter fiction, operating with equal effectiveness across the range from vignettes to novellas. He is still engaged and productive. It seems anomalous that there has not been an earlier Haldeman retrospective, adding to a sense that the field does not quite value this versatile and humane writer as well as it should.

 All but a handful of the stories have appeared in earlier collections, although the book is maddeningly devoid of any information about dates or prior publication history. The four collections I own provide only partial solutions. The earliest piece in the book is also the first, the 1972 novella “Hero” — part of the sequence of stories that would eventually be fixed-up into The Forever War. The four pieces that close off the volume — “Angel of Light,” “The Mars Girl,” “Sleeping Dogs,” and “Complete Sentence” — have not appeared in previous Haldeman collections, although “The Mars Girl” formed the seed for the novel Marsbound, which in turn became the first part of a trilogy. In between “Hero” and this quartet are another fourteen pieces that appear to be arranged in approximate order of publication.

Haldeman has always been generous with his readers, salting his collections with enjoyable insights into the creative process, always in the same modestly unassuming tone — it’s hard to think of a less affected writer — and the tradition continues here. There is a short introduction by the author, and typically illuminating notes accompanying each story. It might be ungrateful to expect any more than that. We are told that these are the stories that Haldeman is still happy with, and it’s certainly a fine enough selection. All the same, we’re none the wiser as to the input provided by the editors. Why are some pieces here and not others? Have these stories been in any way amended since their publication? What do the editors have to say about the choices? What do they think about Haldeman’s work generally? Strahan and Wolfe are two of the field’s most insightful commentators, but their voices are here silent, which I think is a shame.

While it might have been nice to have an additional layer of commentary — a book as belated as this one really ought to feel like a festschrift — there is little to quibble with in the selection of stories. Haldeman’s default voice — the sassy, straight-talking, first-person confessional —- may occasionally overstay its welcome, but the themes and settings are as diverse as one could wish for, ranging from period gothic to post-Vietnam horror, cyberpunkish thriller to transhumanist futurism. The book is anchored by four long pieces, starting with the aforementioned “Hero,” still as brutal and gripping as it must have been forty years ago, even if it only just functions as a piece of standalone fiction. It does, however, make one want to re-read The Forever War with some urgency. “Seasons” is a bracingly bleak account of first contact, framed as a series of recorded transcripts issued by the dwindling members of an anthropological study team, dropped onto an alien planet with only the barest of modern contrivances. It’s one of two stories here that hook into Haldeman’s extended Confederación universe, as also explored in the episodic novel All My Sins Remembered.

“The Hemingway Hoax” starts with an intriguing nugget of genuine literary history — the inexplicable loss, in 1922, of a set of unpublished Hemingway manuscripts and their carbon duplicates from a Paris railway station. What would it take to produce a convincing fake of those lost manuscripts? Could a dedicated and resourceful Hemingway scholar fool the world, even if they had to track down the right sort of antique paper and ink and “damage” exactly the right fonts on exactly the right sort of typewriter? The mechanics of achieving a plausible hoax are actually a bit more interesting than the time travel and parallel universe shenanigans in which the story eventually tangles itself — it’s a case where the intrusion of science fiction elements feel slightly gratuitous — but the story’s fine and moving resolution, a majestic reversal through the life of the actual Hemingway, is more than ample reward.

Near the end of the collection we reach “The Mars Girl,” a Heinleinesque juvenile lightly updated for modern sensibilities. While I’m not convinced that the voice of the story’s protagonist — the young Carmen Dula, sent with her family to skew the demographics of a fledgling Martian colony — rings exactly true for a sixteen year old, the story nonetheless stabs a page-turning hook into the reader, and it’s impossible not to be cheered as the resourceful Carmen turns the colony on its head in the most surprising of ways. It’s old-fashioned in some respects, but at the same time it does what it does so expertly that you can’t help but enjoy it. Another thing it has going for it is conviction: Haldeman is expert at making you believe that his worlds are thought-through and solid. It’s less about world-building than the casual, laconic authority of his voice, even when channelled through a sixteen year old. As far back as “Hero,” when Haldeman tells us stuff — such as, this is how military combat armor must and will function, or indeed malfunction — we have no choice but to believe it.

If “The Mars Girl” never feels entirely modern, Haldeman can still operate on the cutting-edge when required. Perhaps the best piece here, and another lengthy one, is the fine novella “For White Hill.” It’s an elegant and evocative piece about a group of artists returning to an Earth ravaged by hostile alien nanotechnology. It plays out like a series of surrealist images organized into narrative, and the ending is joyously, upliftingly bleak. Like a handful of pieces here, including “Tricentennial” and “More than the Sum of his Parts,” it as rigorously conceived as any “hard SF.” Yet you sense that this has never been Haldeman’s central concern — it’s just a mode he can do when he feels like it. You sense also that the formal structure of the piece — its template is Shakespeare’s Sonnet 14, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” — matters at least as much to the author as the relativistic calculations buttressing the characters’ backstory movements.

Not everything worked as well for me as that piece, but that’s inevitable in a book of this length. “Anniversary Project,” one of the earlier pieces, is a story that has never come into adequate focus on multiple readings. I also felt that there was, on occasion, some dated gender politics — the women in these stories do seem to spend a lot of time falling out of their clothes or neglecting to get dressed: even Carmen Dula, the Mars Girl, only gets into serious trouble after she attempts some late-night skinny-dipping. As Haldeman allows in the introduction to “Blood Sisters,” getting naked women into a story was a helpful factor in being published in Playboy, which for a period was one of the major paying markets for short science fiction.

I also felt that the otherwise effective “Lindsay and the Red City Blues” shaded a little uncomfortably into stereotyping of its Arab antagonists, even allowing for the story being filtered through the loathsome worldv-iew of the sex tourist Scott Lindsay.

These criticisms, though, are merely the inevitable side effects of a long and successful publishing career. To his credit, Haldeman has also made a point of peopling his stories with strong female and non-white protagonists, and as the late piece “Civil Disobedience” amply demonstrates, he is fully capable of being moved to anger by the more inhumane idiocies of the Republican right. Indeed, one closes this book pleased with the sense that a writer of Haldeman’s longevity can still be mightily pissed off with things, and determined to say something about it.

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