With the Peace and War trilogy, the Worlds trilogy and the standalones The Coming, Guardian, Camouflage, Old Twentieth and The Accidental Time Machine and two of the 1970s Bantam Star Trek books, Joe Haldeman is a prolific author who has consistently delivered intelligent, exciting and engaging novels. In his career he has won the major science fiction awards for best novel, the Hugo and the Nebula, twice and three times respecively, and in 2010 received the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award. His new novel, Earthbound, completes his latest trilogy, and he graciously took time to answer a few questions for us.
Geek Chocolate – First up, and most importantly, you had us all worried last year. How are you keeping?
Joe Haldeman – I’ve been really well since spring. Not up to biking any centuries, but I can do thirty or forty miles without much trouble. Can’t drink more than a light beer or a glass of wine a day, but otherwise my diet is unaffected. Appetite all too good!
The Forever War
GC – Since The Forever War was published, America has been through two Gulf wars and the War on Terror. It’s not often you say to a writer you hope a day will come when their most famous work becomes irrelevant to the world, but in this case, it’s true. Will there ever come a time when we learn to get along with one another?
JH – Hmmm . . . we do get along with one another, for certain values of the variable “other.” It’s glib and almost useless to confirm that if everybody could walk a mile in his enemy’s moccasins, Kemo Sabe, there would be no problem. But ech, you want me to put on his shoes? I’ll kill him first.
I think the human race may survive long enough to unlearn hate. I didn’t used to think so; maybe I’m getting soft in my old age. But we do have to learn to get along sometime before the race is able to make the planet uninhabitable.
GC – It’s long been talked about that The Forever War might become the subject of a major Hollywood adaptation, possibly to be directed by Ridley Scott. Considering he’s finally returned to science fiction after a break of almost thirty years with Prometheus, is there anything definite you can tell us? Even better, how about following it up with the companion novel, Forever Peace?
JH – I don’t know anything definite – actually, I don’t know anything indefinite, either. It’s the usual H’wood deal – treat the writers like mushrooms. (Keep ‘em in the dark and feed ‘em bullshit.) Scott bought the rights to the title Forever Peace, but not the novel. I guess that’s so no one can sneak up behind him and produce the sequel first. (Or maybe he wants to keep the title for a more martial sequel.)
GC – One thing that has changed in the US army is the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Considering how keen the conservatives are to point at any smoke and scream “fire,” with even the Muppets being accused of anti-capitalism, do you think there is a danger that they would use the plot of The Forever War as propaganda for their own ends, as though it were prophecy rather than parable?
JH – I think the conservatives will use anything that’s lying around. Jesus would be spinning in his grave, if he was still there.
GC – One of the things that makes your novels so accessible is the directness and honesty of your prose. You don’t use narrative tricks, or overload with clumsy narrative or exposition, you use precisely the right words to convey your meaning and let the characters tell the story, which always gives you terrific pace. Is it as effortless as you make it seem?
JH – It’s not effortless, but it’s hard to say precisely what the effort entails. I usually write slowly, line by line – subvocalizing the line over and over until it seems right. Then I write it down (I always write with a fountain pen) and go on to the next line. I think it’s a poet’s strategy. I was a poet long before I wrote my first stories.
GC – Another aspect that makes you readable is that whatever the setting, your characters are always human – hopeful, kind, weak, angry, lonely, disappointed, determined, resourceful. In many ways you are one of the warmest, most approachable novelists working in a genre that many critics dismiss as cold and impersonal, obsessed with technology and abstraction. Do you see yourself as a rebel swimming against the tide, or do you think the genre might be more accepted by the mainstream if other writers concentrated on character first?
JH – I don’t feel like a rebel. I do like the image of swimming against the tide, which is sort of a cliché that works against itself – when you actually do swim against the tide, you find yourself going in the tide’s direction. Just backwards.
I like the last line of The Great Gatsby – “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Maybe that’s me.
I’m really not aware of the tide while I’m paddling along. I don’t avoid science fiction, but I don’t really stay abreast of it. I just write novels that feel like science fiction to me.
GC – Guardian was an atypical novel for you, written from the perspective of a pioneering woman in the formative years of America who goes on to write science fiction under a male pseudonym. What was the inspiration for that?
JH – The Alaskan part of the novel clearly came from a vacation we took a couple of years ago, riding a boat up the inland waterway from Ketchikan to Skagway. I’ve always loved Alaska – lived there growing up – and (preparing for the trip) had read a couple of books of Inuit and Tlingit folk tales and legends, and travelling through that country made me want to write about them.
The atmosphere is tailor-made for a science fiction story, and I guess I wanted to go against type, and make the protagonist a female schoolteacher rather than a male prospector or adventurer. So I just made up a story for her.
GC – The Coming had a very different narrative style, with each chapter ending with a handoff as the narrative passed from character to another, always shifting perspectives on the world and the events that were unfolding. It must hav
e been a very different challenge to write for so many voices.
JH – It seemed like a natural way to tell a story, actually. When I was part-way through it, a friend told me about the Kurosawa movie Rashomon, and seeing that sealed it.
I think the root of the technique goes back to a comic book I read when I was a kid, a 3-D Western adventure. It was the simple tale of a shoot-out in a bar, but the story was told from three different points of view, seriatim.
Everybody has his own story, imagine that. It blew me away.
GC – When the Worlds trilogy was written, America had a thriving space programme, and the idea of using carbonaceous chondrite asteroids for resources was, if optimistic, not an unreasonable idea. Twenty years later, have we said goodbye to the dream of the stars?
JH – I don’t think so, though I doubt that space flight will ever be a strictly American (or Russian) preserve again, which is for the best.
The future of space industrialization hinges on a technique to get materials and people into low Earth orbit on the cheap. Once that hurdle is cleared, it will be anyone’s game. Even America’s, if we have the nerve.
I would love to see some technique that would put stuff into orbit cheaply enough so that people who weren’t politicians or millionaires could get into the game. It might never happen . . . or it might be one scientist’s inspiration away.
GC – We met back at the Holodeck Star Trek convention in Edinburgh, back in the summer of 1990, and you talked on a panel about the science, or lack thereof, in science fiction. Both yourself and Sir Arthur C Clarke have firm grounding in engineering, Isaac Asimov and Vonda N McIntyre are biochemists, Alastair Reynolds an astrophysicist, but that alone is not what makes them good writers. What is the extra ingredient, and is it possible to write good science fiction without that background?
JH – (Incidentally, my background’s in astronomy, not engineering.) Some really good science fiction writers don’t have science or engineering training. I think it would be a mistake to not keep up with science, at least to the extent of an interested layman. And conversely, it’s wise not to pretend to know things you don’t know. (Of course a lot of dumb sf results because people don’t know how much they don’t know!)
But one thing that might be counter to common sense is that, as far as the writing’s concerned, it doesn’t matter whether the science is right or not. What matters is that the writer do the best job possible, and believe that it’s right. We’re really not in the business of teaching science. We’re in the entertainment business, and an entertainer has to be confident about his tools.
GC – Despite the heavy themes you deal with, the ease with which you can be read makes your books ideal for those starting into science fiction, and I’ve often recommended them as such, or for those who have English as a second language. The fantasy and the horror genres have strong offerings for young adults, but science fiction seems to hold itself in higher regard, and the early Clarke and Heinlein novels, labelled “the juveniles” primarily because they featured young characters, are now looked on disdainfully. Does science fiction take itself too seriously in the hope that it will then be taken seriously by others?
JH – I don’t think you can generalize about sf that way – certainly some writers have that attitude, but most sf writers are more realistic about their place in the universe.
The last word on the subject of seriousness, and heavy themes, has to come from Hemingway: A serious writer is not to be confounded with a solemn writer. A serious writer may be a hawk or a buzzard or even a popinjay, but a solemn writer is always a bloody owl.
GC – Joe Haldeman, thank you so much for your time.
Joe Haldeman’s new novel, Earthbound, is out now from Ace and is reviewed here
Special thanks also to Gay Haldeman for passing along the request
Joe’s homepage can be found at home.earthlink.net/~haldeman/