“I’d been off Earth for so long I didn’t recognise the sound of gunfire.”
So begins the sobering return to the planet of their birth for the characters who began their outward journey in Marsbound, only to discover that world was home to a species placed there to monitor the Earth, then continued onwards in Starbound for a meeting with those mysterious masters, the Others. At the conclusion of that second volume, Carmen, Paul, Namir and their company had returned home following that confrontation, but in their absence, the governments of Earth had taken action of their own, raising a armed fleet against the Others which was ready to leave orbit.
Deeming this a threat to their security, the Others denied humanity space travel in a simple and direct move; by detonating the moon and scattering the resulting debris in low orbit, they destroyed the fleet and created a barrier to the stars. The hubris of humanity responded by launching a rocket to begin the clearance of the rubble, so the Others struck a second time, and by turning all electricity off have sent seven billion people back to the nineteenth century.
As evidenced by that explosive opening line, a Joe Haldeman novel is never one to coddle with exposition, and he picks up the narrative at the moment the second novel concluded. In survival, urgency is key and explanations can come later, but fortunately for those of us who have not visited this universe since January 2010 when Starbound was released, when the team gather a new companion, they catch their breath and discuss their recent history with her, reminding the reader of the backstory in the bargain and efficiently informing those who choose to start here.
Earth itself has changed in their absence: Carmen’s brother, now vastly older than her due to the relativistic effects of time dilation, is representative of many Earthers, estranged not only from her but from much of reality, as his “real” life and identity were primarily in the virtual world that ceased to exist as soon as the power was cut. Even if they do somehow persuade the Others to restore the world, but they have an awareness that for many the American way of life is little more than “cheeseburgers and bad television.”
Attempting to reach what they hope may be safe haven, they must cross a land that collapsed to lawlessness at the flick of a switch. It is said that the difference between a man and a savage is the distance to the next meal, and with no infrastructure to produce and distribute the vast quantities of food required to support the cities, and no means to coordinate what little infrastructure remains, those with access to armament quickly overpower and eliminate those who would attempt to maintain a semblance of civilisation.
For all his soft voice and gentle approach, as the novel reaches its climax, we are reminded that Joe Haldeman is a man who has been to war and lived through battle, and the immediacy of his descriptions are gripping and horrifying as we are caught with the characters between the dread of anticipation and their need for the inevitable moment to arrive when the waiting becomes as unbearable as the outcome. When it happens, as it often does, the violence is never glamorised, but it is sudden, shocking and irrevocable.
Parallels are present between the oblique motivation of the Others, who can only communicate through intermediaries such as the Martian species they created and the force represented by the monoliths of 2001 A Space Odyssey, of equally unknowable agenda. Like that monolith, whose observation and manipulation of the species lasted millennia, the Martians apparently represent an intelligence test which was triggered when humans had reached as far into the solar system as Mars, to ascertain whether they were sufficiently evolved to be allowed to continue on the path to the stars.
All relationships are predicated on scale, and between humans and the Others the gulf may be insurmountable – “We don’t even rate the compassion of lab rates; we are bacteria in a petri dish” – but while the Others are incomprehensible to man, for all the power they hold, the world of Earth is as alien to them, suggesting that we are a test the gods as much as they test us.
Another echo is Fahrenheit 451, with the realisation that beyond water, food and shelter, the most valuable commodity is information. With computers useless the knowledge of the world will be lost, and preservation of books, particularly basic medical and engineering texts, is a priority for those survivors who look to the long term. Even then, sacrifices will have to be made as art and literature become luxuries, as they face the choice between becoming “successful savages or cultured corpses.”
When the end of the world comes, you could do worse than have these people for company. Experienced, capable, educated and with a broad skill set, the team are not given to panic despite the circumstances, and maintain their resolve and dignity to the end. After three books, two planets and a fifty light year round trip to a nearby star, we’ve come a great distance together, and it is an honour to complete the journey, despite the tears along the way.
Unlike many in his field, with his apparently effortless creation of setting and character, Haldeman has always excelled at brevity in his writing. There are no flowery descriptions or laboured inner monologues; the story is primary and always moving forward, but the downside of this is his novels are rarely as much as three hundred pages. Having worked primarily on standalone novels since the completion of the Worlds trilogy almost twenty years ago, it is a pleasure to have him return to an extended narrative.
Earthbound is currently available from Ace books, as are the first two books in the sequence, Marsbound and Starbound
Please follow the link for our recent interview with Joe