If you're thinking about reading this book, know that this is one of the most respected and important novels in science fiction history for its commen...moreIf you're thinking about reading this book, know that this is one of the most respected and important novels in science fiction history for its commentary on war. That means, don't read it expecting a swashbuckling space opera or a good guys/bad guys action adventure. Brace yourself for sorrow and heartache. Because you can't read this novel without being reminded of those Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan veterans who live among us as ghosts, roaming our streets, people out of sync with time.
The great accomplishment here, and why people praise it so consistently, is because of Haldeman's ability to show how war affects the soldiers who fight in it. He doesn't gloss over the consequences of a war based on time travel. Instead, the physics are painfully real. Relative time has severe psychic and physical affects on Mandella, the main character. Through Mandella's eyes we see how, from one time jump to the next, in pursuit of an enemy billions of light years away, his war becomes irrelevant even as he's fighting it. Earth, which is 100+ years ahead of Mandela's present, constantly changes its rationale for war, so that by the time Mandela sets out on a mission the people who gave him the orders are long dead. By the end of the story Mandella is the war's oldest veteran but he's been fighting in relative time for only 3 short years. Fascinatingly, he's both the oldest and youngest man alive. Eventually, Mandella returns home to a future shock of the social sort (not the technological). You'll have to read the novel to find out why he has trouble adjusting to Earth's new society.
No science fiction author has conveyed the costs of war so well. It's a testament to the vision of the author that a novel written in 1974 can be read as a parable of a 21st century war that demands longer and longer tours of duty. The longer the war goes on, the more the soldiers start to lose contact with their homes, and eventually, their own sense of humanity. This statement applies to both Mandela and to us--the spectators and fighters of our own "forever" war. Neat trick, that. Social commentaries like this are what good scifi can do, especially when written from experience (Haldeman is a Vietnam veteran).
Finally a note here about the style of the message. Haldeman gets contrasted to Heinlein a lot. I don't see them as opposites within the scope of their stories (their ideologies, maybe). Both make it clear that pacifism only works when everyone feels that way. Both downplay the concept of heroism while showing that true heroism happens as a result of circumstances and ingenuity rather than brazenly charging the enemies guns. Haldeman isn't preachy. He doesn't hit you over the head with any hippie dogma or moral righteousness. It's a thoughtful work, one that lets you roll the ideas around in your mind, with a firm focus on the soldiers--not the politicians, military brass, or technobabble getting in the way. This focus is what gives the Forever War a gravitas that other books of military scifi lack.
**spoiler alert** The Faded Sun trilogy is one of the most unique books I have ever read. My first thoughts after finishing this marvel of a novel: un...more**spoiler alert** The Faded Sun trilogy is one of the most unique books I have ever read. My first thoughts after finishing this marvel of a novel: unbelievably dense culture building multiplied three times (for three cultures), all the while using space opera to churn out complex moral questions. Cherryh manages to turn humans into the great Others, the exotic foreigners whom you struggle to understand. Once you reach the end of the story, you begin to think like the mri, the nomadic mercenaries who send their dead into the fires of suns.
I can barely contain my excitement about the mri - this culture is brilliant! You see it in their philosophy on death and rebirth: life is as long as the cosmos, the great voyage from one planet to the next. Forgetting the previous world to be reborn on another, "dying" for the mri is both literal and metaphorical. Welcoming death, they play a game where knives are thrown to each other. To play the game is to cast one's fate from the hand, to let go, to make the leap forward freely, without fear. I loved the way that humans struggle to understand why the mri would want to "harm" their own comrades in such a game. The mri's explanations for their behavior are never without reference points to human culture--even their strict caste system creates hierarchies that mirror our own society. Yet still, the great tragedy of the novel is how cultures misunderstand one another--in fact, the whole novel is a riveting diplomatic nightmare.
Granted, Cherryh's story contains a classic trope: "going native." She breaks it, however, by disallowing the white hero to function as a savior to the natives, seducing one of their women in the process. Dances with Wolves/Avatar/Pocahontas this is not. Cherryh instead opts for a male-on-male bromance--which was a highlight for me. I loved the warmth that grew between Duncan and Niun during the 3rd book.
The Faded Sun is a mash-up of all things SF: ancient mysticism and futuristic machines, swords and lasers, spaceships and psychic grizzly bears, imperialism and violence. I loved it and I'm so sad it's over. (less)
**spoiler alert** Transcendental reading, never boring, but heavily metaphorical. Awash in literary devices but never weighed down by them. It takes a...more**spoiler alert** Transcendental reading, never boring, but heavily metaphorical. Awash in literary devices but never weighed down by them. It takes a certain kind of person to like this novel, and if you don't that's perfectly understandable. I see why some reviews call it intentionally confusing; a masturbatory, creative writing exercise with an undercurrent of misogyny (a man's bitter, entitled treatise against a woman who left him). I was overwhelmed by too many two-dimensional characters all written in the same voice who relentlessly wound themselves with paper cuts, bee stings, and hot pokers.
But I sense that the author is keenly aware of this negative interpretation and the reader's frustrations. The constant mention of Napoleon insinuates the smallness of an author writing a big book about the pain of lost love. To conquer another people against their will (textually) is the only way to maintain his life that spins out of control. And sure, what a pathetic motivation for a novel, right? But the effort is also humanizing and truthful. The colonial "war" is what makes the entire novel work, I think. Somehow all the world's history of colonization, miscegenation, and racial betrayal ("Malinche"...ouch) is brilliantly woven into one guy's break-up with his girlfriend. The story won't reveal this to you at first. So eventually, in the last 100 pages, I came to empathize with the author's sadness over a woman who left him (for a white man), and understand his desire to create and control something else to make the sadness go away. (less)
Spoiler free summary: An alien archaeologist digs through dead Earth's past to use humans as bait for the purpose of intergalactic pest control. Human...moreSpoiler free summary: An alien archaeologist digs through dead Earth's past to use humans as bait for the purpose of intergalactic pest control. Humans don't like being bait for alien spiders who drink their neurological pain endorphins, so they resist, ally, or betray one another to the exterminator. Centipedes, spiders, humans, gnomes, robots, ghosts, and zombies clash in a space war fought across 15 planets and two sentient "suns" that are actually machines designed to maintain the insect trap.
Who is AA Attanasio? Oh, just a writer using every inch of his brain to pummel readers with the most original, outrageous story set to paper. He's a master mood manipulator, turning on a dime from cerebral (ow, my brain), to terrifying (dont read if you have arachnophobia), to grotesque (oh the distorts you'll know!), to badass (Vikings fighting robot zombies? fuck yeah!), to charmingly goofy (evil priests live in a fortress of insect parts on the north pole!), to poignant (humanity's glorious flaws radiate on every page).
Though the writing is overwrought at times, it's actually a very taunt novel without a page of wasted space to advance the plot. Oh, and "the plot?" It only spans some seven thousand years. Seven billion years if you count the death of Earth. And the timeline is hardly linear--add in the paradoxes of time travel and parallel universes and it's perhaps the most ambitious story ever told. Somehow this complexity doesn't overwhelm, it only astounds. Even characters who appear in the flash of a year are given a memorable background and purpose. On the whole Attanasio transcribes a beautiful nightmare "rising from the tar pit of dreams." By the end I didn't want to wake up.
So we know that Habitation of the Blessed is about the legend of Prester John. But it could also be a radical re-interpretation of Wonders of the East...moreSo we know that Habitation of the Blessed is about the legend of Prester John. But it could also be a radical re-interpretation of Wonders of the East, the book of marvels written around 1000 AD detailing a race of disfigured humans that Alexander was thought to have encountered in his travels to India. Here's an excerpt from it, featuring some of the "grotesques" (panotii, blemmye, and amyctrya) that are humanized so poignantly by Valente in her novel:
See how static and placid they are? How they're framed as if on a shelf in some collector's menagerie? That's the way that Empire constructs and handles monstrosity: by attempting to contain it. Call it propaganda published by the true "monsters."
Valente inverts the Orientalism of Wonders of the East in many ways (thank god), one of which is by preventing the monks in search of John's legends from succeeding in transcribing the full story. Because even if they did read it, they'll never fully know it. And some of the characters Valente creates (Hagia, for one) just don't deserve to be in some pope's boutique.
Another way she inverts Orientalism is by making the Christian hero, John, a grotesquerie himself. The inhabitants view John's zeal as childlike and deranged. And he views them like a typical missionary--conversion material to redeem his own sins. However, my inept description paints John in a very broad brush. In fact I really enjoyed his characterization because he's just as flawed, sympathetic, and surly as the rest of the wondrous creatures he encounters. That some described John as the "villain" of the novel made me re-think my feelings of abject pity toward him. I have a hunch he'll send his kingdom to fight in the Holy Wars in the next book. If that happens, his villainy is well deserved.
The fact that a century-long hoax is the impetus for this novel is neat. That the hoax became legend conveys the desire for a Christian Empire that could never quite penetrate the East like the pagan conquerors of old. Essayist Nate Barksdale brings up an interesting point about how this envy invented John's kingdom: "What better way to argue that one could be as powerful as Alexander and still be Christian than simply to manufacture a Christian Alexander—and one so humble, incidentally, that he let no man call him King, but only priest or Presbyter?" The hilarious thing about Valente's interpretation of the hoax is that she imagines John "the person" as real but John "the great Apostle of the East" as a fraud. So was it all a hoax anyway?
Finally, there is a theme here that I can't quite temper into clarity, but I'm going to think on it as I read Book II. It's about the way that "the inconceivable" in fantasy flummoxes reality, imagination, and faith. Seeing, imagining, or believing means boxing the impossible into the possible. I now realize why Borges' Imaginary Beings wasn't an interesting read: it could have been much more radical if these encyclopedia entries had been allowed to tell their own stories like they do in Valente's book. She made me think about how miracles, monsters, resurrection, eternal life, gryphons, phoenixes, and talking trees don't need to be thrown together in a butterfly collection to show us the strangeness of things. Books like this are not about what we can imagine, see, or believe, but about what we can't.
gawd, this book was amazing, fucking the heteropatriarchy on every single trashy page. Enjoyed reading Tea's epic struggle to prevent men from enterin...moregawd, this book was amazing, fucking the heteropatriarchy on every single trashy page. Enjoyed reading Tea's epic struggle to prevent men from entering her body and soul while working as a prostitute. Profound stuff in here that only a working class queer woman could observe: "I hate it when people look at you like you're a whore and you actually are one. It makes me want to kick their teeth in." Tea doesn't accommodate, doesn't despair, doesn't relent, but also doesn't present herself and her girlfriends as triumphant demi-goddesses either. The art was also well done; I can't imagine the book without it.(less)