Search This Blog

Friday, 14 November 2014

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

This one came with some mixed expectations. On the one hand, my track record with military science fiction is pretty much non-existent, so I really had no idea what I was getting myself in for. That's just a little bit scary. On the other hand, I'd heard almost nothing but praise for it, so at the very least I was starting with some of the most highly regarded military science fiction. My reaction at the end is pretty mixed too.

The Forever War follows William Mandella, a physics student in the halcyon days of 1996, who gets recruited into a war against an alien enemy, the Taurans, after an exploration ship is destroyed in deep space. The catch is that every time they travel to a new world to defend, their rate of time gets increasingly disparate from that of Earth's. When Mandella returns to the planet after what seems to him like two years, it has actually been over two decades; this time dilation only gets worse the longer he stays in space, with each new batch of recruits or civilians that he meets only seeming more and more alien in comparison to the time that he came from.
So, the good bits. First, it managed to make physics at least passably interesting, which is always a feat for me. And you really need to have at least a passing interest in that area of science for The Forever War to have any appeal whatsoever, considering that the main concept is hinged on it. Second, the combat scenes are fantastically written, with just the right balance of excitement and overwhelming sense of futility. They are utterly brutal, for varying different reasons each time, and Mandella is basically just thrown in at the deep end and praying for the best outcome each time. If you're more interested in the military aspect of the genre, I'd definitely recommend this. The main character is largely well-written too, likeable enough that the audience sympathises with his conflicting desires for the war to end and to not face what Earth has become, but detached enough that his survival makes sense.
So far so good, right? That's where my modern, liberal sensibilities come in to make things thoroughly uncomfortable for me. I didn't think that the sexual politics were written in a great way, which is why I hated how unavoidable it became as the book progressed. Okay, so minor spoiler here: when Mandella goes back to Earth, he finds that after a population boom that has taxed resources, the world's government is encouraging people to partake in homosexuality. Mandella is not comfortable with this, so when this element of society becomes more and more prevalent, it kind of feels like the book is making the point of "homosexuality = big, bad future". Add to that the implication that we will get to the point where sexual preferences can just be turned on and off? It's just all kinds of homogenous, stereotyped and uncomfortable. I know it was written in 1974, but come on. It's a book about a war in space. At what point would I have cared what the majority of the population's sexual preferences were? At what point would I have assumed that it was any different from the varied spread that we are currently aware of? It's a weird opposition between gay and straight, and I'm sure the world-building would have done fine without it. It may not bother other people anywhere near as much, but sexual politics is a subject that is close to my heart and cannot be messed with.

Overall then, a largely successful novel. Fantastic combat scenes and interesting science that is let down, at least for me, by the outdated sexual politics. Probably worth at least one read by fans of the genre, either military or science fiction. 3.5/5

Next review: The Difference Engine by William Gibson & Bruce Sterling

Signing off,

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

The Guardians by Andrew Pyper

I had been looking forward to reading The Guardians immensely, as I have always had a bit of a soft spot for ghost stories. Then my mum gave it a read and wasn't hugely impressed. A bit of a hurdle, but then she and I have had wildly different opinions before, and who was to say that this wouldn't be any different?

The story follows main protagonist Trevor and his childhood friends in two separate, but closely interlinked, story-lines. In the past, it follows their teenage selves in the aftermath of the disappearance of their music teacher, and the terrible events that happen in the abandoned house in Caledonia street. In the present, they are in their forties, returning to their home-town after the suicide of Ben, the only one who stayed after graduating high school; whilst sorting through his late friend's belongings, Trevor finds himself having to confront whatever is in the abandoned house once more, lest it forever be a sword of Damocles.
It was okay. It kind of read like it had the potential to be a really great, grippingly creepy horror story about a haunted house, but was held back by certain elements that didn't quite work. So what did work, first of all? The haunted house was pretty much perfect. The idea that the more you spent in the house, or even just looking at it, would make you more and more unstable and thus willing to listen to the evil spirit within? Now that was a concept that I could run with. And it did produce some genuinely eerie moments that were the real highlights of the book. But of course, there have to be downsides.
The first thing that instantly bugged me was the writing style. It was a fairly casual tone, but at the same time, overly wordy and a bit on the flowery side. If he could describe something in one piece of imagery, the author would use two or stretch that one bit of imagery to the absolute breaking point. It very much reminded me of my own writing at the pre-edit stage, which is possibly why it annoyed me so much.
Secondly, the plot is dragged down by a part of the story-line in the past, which seems to make little sense even in context. Okay, so their music teacher, a pretty young woman, goes missing and Ben says that he thinks that he saw someone drag her into the haunted house, which is across the street from him; he can't be sure what he saw though, and it might not have even been human. Understandably, his friends are sceptical. So when he later says that he thinks that the person that he saw manhandling her was their hockey coach, what is their reaction? They pretty much instantly believe him. I find this a bit of a stretch of credibility really, especially since we as readers are kind of expected to just believe Ben as well, without any other evidence. Since I could never be sure that their suspicions were correct, it made what followed in that part of the story-line deeply uncomfortable. Don't get me wrong, I have seen main protagonists do worse, but usually the text is self-aware enough to know that what they're doing is wrong; here, it felt like I was supposed to sympathise, but it really didn't sit right with me. Also, there were a couple of things that made the crime-reader part of me want to scream, because they do some REALLY dumb things during their investigation that would surely get them caught and at least implicated in a crime, all in the name of keeping out of trouble. Very frustrating.

Overall, a book that had potential, but was just okay in the end. The characters were serviceable and did what they should, but little more. The story was similarly average, with a few twists that I wasn't expecting, but more than a little stupid plotting to balance them out. The haunted house sections were fantastic, all the more so for being surrounded by generally more mediocre parts. I really wish there had been more focus on the house, instead of the rest that didn't work so much. 3/5

Next review: The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

Signing off,