Richard Morgan changed from award winning science fiction writer to award winning fantasy writer, Stephen King has written in a plethora of diverse styles, and amongst his juveniles and his early major and markedly different later major science fiction novels, Robert A Heinlein also wrote a conspicuous fantasy, Glory Road, so why shouldn’t Joe Haldeman, Grand Master of Science Fiction though he may be, depart from the genre for which he is best known and deservedly highly regarded and choose that his new novel be a slightly more than modern thriller?
The tale of Jack Daley, a soldier turned writer and his many regrets, with sixteen confirmed dead on his conscience, he muses that “every writer who’s been a soldier has to write his war novel,” and certainly Haldeman has done that, twice in Asia (War Year and 1968) and once in outer space (The Forever War), but this is different, a reflection from many years later channeled into a tale within a tale, the movie tie-in adaptation Daley is approached to write bloody, graphic and disturbing, but with nothing so disturbing to him as his memories of war.
Straight off, Daley says “I’m not as nice in person as I am at the keyboard,” a warning for the reader, but Daley may also be an unreliable narrator, and certainly from the evidence of the strength of his relationship with his girlfriend Kit he has turned his life around despite any past problems. His debut novel may not have achieved success, but it has brought him sufficient attention to be asked to pen The Monster, and even though it will be for a flat fee, no royalties, strictly work done for hire, Daley has the urge to embellish, to showcase his ideas as he expands the basic premise of the script.
To get his mind around the character of private investigator Stephen Spenser, hired by the father of one of the first victims of the titular monster to set himself up as a target, riding through the back roads of Florida, Georgia and Alabama where the attacks have taken place, Daley takes to the roads on his own newly acquired bicycle (“40 miles to the gallon of Heineken”), planning to make a road trip of the experience. Then comes the box dropped at his door containing the rifle followed by the anonymous phone call asking Daley to take his sniper experience and kill an individual not to be identified until he has agreed to accept generous payment for the task.
Though the framing novel is only marginally science fiction in so much as the surveillance equipment and some other minor technologies are more advanced than the modern day, the prose is delivered with the same assurance Haldeman is known for, though the protagonist of the novel within the novel is most definitely extra-terrestrial in origin – “An autopsy would immediately reveal that he wasn’t human, which would displease his masters” – or possibly entirely delusional, though the flavour of the work is undeniable, the Monster writing pulp science fiction to make ends meet, sat in a cabin with the bookcases crammed with neatly lined up SF paperbacks and a framed Star Trek poster on the wall, possibly a comment on the two tie-in novels Haldeman wrote for that franchise, Planet of Judgement and World Without End .
A difference between the two narratives is that the style of the internal novel is a step away from the accustomed warmth of Haldeman; there is no laughter, no happiness, both Stephen and the Monster joyless in the pursuit of their goals, though the grim tone is leavened by the commentary of Kit and Daley, comparing the manuscript to two masters of the genre: “It’s Stephen King if the script possess him and makes him act it out. It’s Hitchcock if he’s just crazy.”
While consistent with what has led to it, the denouement of the novel is disappointingly simplistic, the clockwork intricacy of the plotting raising an expectation of more than is given, though the company of Daley and Kit, on the run from the their anonymous and insistent benefactor yet finding comfort in each other in the most trying circumstances, is almost sufficient compensation.
Witty, tolerant, supportive, dedicated, adoring yet totally independent and strong in her own right, Kit is the latest incarnation of Gay, Haldeman’s wife of nearly fifty years to whom the novel is dedicated, ever present by his side in many of the novels he has written, from Maria Marconi in The Long Habit of Living (Buying Time in the US) and most directly as Marygay Potter, later Potter-Mandella, in both The Forever War and Forever Free.