What Was The Point of Forever Peace?

If you like scifi you need to read Joe Haldeman’s Forever War. I loved Forever War. It was my first exposure to science fiction where travel between stars takes a very very long time. Seeing the characters leave Earth repeatedly and return many years late after subjective months and having to adjust to the changes they found was fascinating and induced just a little bit of existential dread.

I LOVED the first book, but I was confused when I read Forever Free. Now, years later, I think I might finally understand why Hademan wrote the two books the way that he did.

First, I will give a very truncated summary of both books.

Forever War: In the late twentieth-century humanity goes to war with a species of aliens called Taurans. Many centuries later it is discovered that the war began as the result of a misunderstanding. Because of relativistic effects veterans of the war return home centuries or millennia after they left.

Forever Peace: By the end of the forever war humanity transcended the normal bounds of evolution and is now a race of clones living in harmony with the Taurans who are also a clone race. Veterans of the war are discontent and decided to leave the galaxy and return in 2000 years. Their journey is impeded and they learn that the galaxy has all been an experiment controlled by a god-like entity who ensured that two species on the same technological level came into contact when they did. The being leaves, and the protagonist spends the rest of their life studying the changes the being made to universal constants before they left.

If you couldn’t tell already, the second needs a lot more explanation and also makes a lot less sense.

When I first read it my first guess was that the meaninglessness of it all that was revealed in the second book was a result of Haldeman’s effort to portray a feeling of pointlessness that he and many veterans of the Vietnam War experienced when they go back home.

In retrospect, I think that a slightly more nuanced view is more appropriate.

The war between humanity and the taurans was pointless. That much is clear by the end of the first book. It is made especially clear by the end of the second.

When I first read it I was extremely put off. I hated that I had watched the characters I loved struggle for nothing…and then I realized that was the point.

Did the Vietnam war have a point? Was anything made better by it happening?

That’s the point of the two books.

In the first book our MC is faced with plenty of standard scifi conflicts and returns home to find that all of them were pointless. Then he tries to live in the world he returned to. That doesn’t work either. Finally he and many other veterans tries to escape the world they came home to and they fail, all because some greater being wanted them to fight to begin with. In the end he finds joy in discovering the changes wrought by that great being. And by small I mean minor changes to cosmological constants.

When I first finished Forever Peace I was very confused and I felt a little cheated. There hadn’t been any hint before that in either of the books. What was the point of getting invested in the characters and their struggles? With time and some perspective, I think I know.

I think that Joe Haldeman was trying to come to terms with his experiences as a Vietnam Veteran. He and thousands of others were taken away from their families, forced to fight and die, and when they came home they returned to a society that had been changed by the war. A war that history would later find was largely pointless. After suffering through a pointless conflict Haldeman was left to find some kind of meaning in life. Which is exactly what our protagonist did.

I think that this is something that should feel especially relatable to those of us who have lived through the COVID pandemic. There is no reason for more than half a million people to have died except because Trump wanted them to. Vietnam can be thought of in the same way. People died for no real reason. None of the dead sacrificed their lives for a greater future, they died because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Haldeman’s work was all about understanding this pointlessness. It’s an amazing piece of science fiction and it has never been more relevant than now. At once it makes us question the society we find ourselves in and at the same time encourages us to find something to enjoy.

I think that’s both beautiful and tragic.

Do Characters Matter?

Of course, they do, but I think that some people assign too much importance to the characters when considering the merits of a given book. You all probably know by now that Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds has been my latest hyper-fixation. On a few occasions, I’ve gone over to Reddit or to the books’ wiki to see if any fanart made depicting the ships or technology in the books. During these trips, I came across a few comments from people whose main criticism of the books concerns the depth of the characters or lack thereof.

Personally, I like the characters, we may not often get to see a detailed view of what is going on inside their heads, but we also don’t need to. The novels and short stories set in the Revelation Space Universe cover a period of time extending out to 40,000 CE. The fastest a ship can go is just below the speed of light. It takes decades to travel between planets, and the characters of the novel face enemies that can tear planets apart. The scale of these stories is just too large for the characters to matter very much. Sure, they play an important role in events, but the effects of their actions will be relatively small in the end.

And there is another reason why we might not completely understand the characters; they are old. Many of the characters have already led extensive lives by the time we meet them. They’ve been traveling the stars for decades. They don’t experience time the way we do. Travel at relativistic speeds will change them; it separates them from everyone they had known before. There isn’t time to see all the past events of their lives, and the motivations of someone who has lived 400 years separated by time and space from everyone they have ever known will have a psychology that is much different than ours.

As examples, I am going to look at three criticisms that I came across online and talk about why I don’t think they are fair.

The Single Mindedness of Dan Sylvest

Dan Sylvest is one of the POV characters in “Revelation Space.” He’s about 200 years old by the time we meet him, and he is the scion of a very wealthy family from the planet of Yellowstone. When we see him, he is first leading and then loses a colony on the world of Resurgam, a colony that he founded to study an extinct alien race known as the Amarantin. There are other things about him, he resents his father Calvin, who he speaks with frequently as a computer simulation, he’s been married a few times, and he has shown a willingness to risk his life and the lives of others in pursuit of his scientific goals. I’ve seen some complain that he does not get much character development in the book and that his wife Pascal is flat and basically just someone for Dan to lecture about his discoveries.

None of these complaints are really that valid. Dan is a POV character, yes, but he is also incredibly arrogant and, as we find out later, driven by an alien memetic virus that has inspired his obsessions in order to push towards a particular goal. In that context, his behaviors and apparent lack of depth make sense. He is someone who makes everything about himself and his work. Of course his wife seems flat, we see things from his POV, and he really just likes to talk at her. Let’s not forget that he was driven by an alien virus that did its best to ensure that he only focused on a single objective. Dan is not a character who is written poorly. He does exactly what the story needs of him.

Ana Khouri’s Lost Husband and her Role as an “Action Girl”

On her home planet of Sky’s Edge, Ana was a soldier; almost everyone was. She and her husband were both soldiers who were wounded, and after they were wounded and brought to orbit for treatment. Things did not end well for the couple after this, as a clerical error caused Ana to be shipped to Yellowstone, a thirty-year round trip that ensured that even if she tried to return home to her husband, he would be either dead or remarried by the time she arrived. When we first meet her, she is working as an assassin and offered a job in which she has to travel to a different planet to kill Dan Sylvest, and in return, she will be reunited with her husband, who, as it turns out, was in hibernation on Yellowstone the entire time. She does not complete her mission because, in the process, she discovers that she has become involved in something much larger than a pair of starstruck lovers. She also realized that her mysterious employer might have lied about their ability to bring her husband back. Some have complained that Ana’s husband rarely comes up for how important he was to her, but it’s also important to remember by the time we meet Ana, she has come to terms with what happened. She has accepted that she will never see him again. He’s basically dead to her. Her husband does come in later books, however, when she initially resists taking a new lover.

Skade and the Night Council

Skade is a conjoiner, one who hears a voice in her head that she believes to be the “Night Council” and extremely classified group within the conjoiners. She is willing to do bad things for good reasons, and the things she does cause respected leaders among the conjoiners like Clavain and Remontoire to defect in order to oppose her. Eventually, this conflict evolves into a personal vendetta against Clavain. Some have said that Skade’s death was anticlimactic and that her inclusion in the story introduced unresolved plotlines. But I think that was the point. Skade may have been trying to save her fellow conjoiners, but in doing so, she strayed far from what a conjoiner was supposed to be, and it destroyed her.

Conclusion

Finally, my last argument against the criticism that these characters are flat is that a single book in the series might cover many decades. By necessity, a great deal of interactions between characters is going to take place off-screen. I’m okay with that, and personally, I think Reynolds does a great job deciding what needs to be shown and what does not.

First Impressions: The Bad Batch

I know I’m late for the party again. I’ve just started watching The Bad Batch on Disney+. I wasn’t a fan of the Bad Batch when they first appeared in an episode of The Clone Wars, but now that they’ve their own series, I have to say that I am pleasantly surprised.

Here are some first impressions.

First, the armor design is great. Clone armor is fascinating because there is so much room for customization between individual clones, and the Bad Batch’s armor is heavily customized.

Second, we get a look at the birth of the Empire. The first episode begins at the very end of the Clone Wars as Order 66 begins. Being a group of deviant clones, the Bad Batch can think freely compared to standard clones with fully functioning control chips. It’s really nice to have a canon depiction of the days and weeks directly following Order 66.

The characters are okay. I’m not a huge fan of the individuals that make up the Bad Batch, but I love the idea of clones with experimental gene sequences. It makes the Bad Batch a good focus for a series about clones since they each are visually different and have very different personalities.

Third, there is Omega. I know I said that the characters are just okay, but I think Omega might be an exception. Omega is another clone variant, and unlike the others, is female. Forcing the hardened soldiers of Bad Batch to learn how to deal with and take care of a child is an interesting plotline that I am interested in following going forward.

In my opinion, getting to see more of the Star Wars galaxy is always a good reason to watch, at least once. But enough about what I think. What do you think of the series? Is it worth a watch?

Love, Death & Robots: The Tall Grass

It’s a little early for me to say how I feel about the second season of Netflix’s Love, Death & Robots. Each episode may be short, but each presents us with so many ideas that they need a few viewings to really sink in. But I don’t think it’s too early to say that The Tall Grass is my favorite episode of this new season.

The episode’s plot is beautifully simple. A man is on a train that has run out of steam. While the train is stopped, he decides to step off the train for a quick smoke that the conductor only begrudging allows. But he soon wanders off into the tall grass beside the tracks where he is chased by strange monsters, only rescued by the conductor as the train starts moving again. We then learn that the train regularly runs out of steam along this particular stretch of track and that the conductor has had to deal with these monsters before.

It’s a simple story, and it leaves us with questions. In short, it’s a perfect short story. It gives us just a taste of excitement and mystery in a way that causes our minds to fill in the blanks. For a writer, it’s the perfect story, the kind that makes you imagine the wider world that the story hints at.

Go watch it.

Army of the Dead Review

Netflix and Zack Snyder teamed up to make a movie! And I actually liked it quite a bit.

The plot is simple. Zombies overran Las Vegas. Years later, it is still overrun by zombies kept trapped in the city by a makeshift wall. But that’s all about to change because the government has decided to evacuate the refugee/quarantine camps around the city and nuke the whole place.

Pretty good idea…maybe…probably…right?

Anyway, the bombing is imminent, but at the last minute, the protagonist (don’t worry about the names; they’re all very forgettable) is approached by a wealthy businessman who wants him to assemble a team to retrieve two million dollars in cash under his old casino. In exchange, our hero will get fifty million dollars to divide among his team as he sees fit. There is, of course, more to this offer than meets the eye, but we don’t need to get into that now.

The movie was a lot of fun, for a few reasons.

  1. No convoluted plots. It’s a simple action/zombie movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
  2. Not all of the zombies are mindless shamblers. Some of them are organized and are seen using tools.
  3. There is a zombie tiger.

Overall I’d say watch it. It’s exactly what I want in an action movie; action. There are no unnecessary side plots, no boring romances. It’s not perfect, there are certainly a few things that could have been done better, but it’s worth a watch.

Zima Blue by Alastair Reynolds versus Zima Blue from Love, Death & Robots

I’ve been on a bit of an Alastair Reynolds kick lately, mainly centered on the author’s revelation space books. As usual, whenever I get invested in a new series, I seek out more in search of more doses of dopamine, which led me to purchase a collection of short stories that Reynolds has written over the years. This endless search for dopamine brought me back to one of my favorite Netflix originals; Love, Death & Robots.

Love, Death & Robots is a Netflix original series consisting of short episodes that bring science fiction short stories to life. Alistair Reynolds had two stories featured in the first season, one of them being Zima Blue.

The story is about a cyborg artist in the far future named Zima. It is told from the perspective of a journalist who has finally been granted an interview with the reclusive artist on the eve of the unveiling of his final work. Zima, we are told, began his work in painting portraits of the cosmos before graduating to increasingly abstract works featuring his trademark blue color, works so large that a single mural could encapsulate a planet. But the story is not so much about Zima’s art as it is Zima’s search for his truth, and in the written version, it is also about how Zima inspires the journalist to search for her own truth.

Both versions of the story are good. Netflix’s version portrays Zima’s story in a much clearer fashion than Reynolds did. However, I can’t help but feel that the story’s message is lost in the retelling. The story is not just about Zima’s search for truth; it is also about his interviewing coming to grapple with what the truth is. Zima, for example, asserts that the falsehoods created by our imperfect memories are what allow truth to come about. Truth in art anyway.

Both versions of the story are great, and I recommend both. Both make the audience ask questions, but I recommend reading the original for a complete formulation of that question.

How To Read More Books

Start listening to audiobooks.

There was a time when I looked down on people who liked audiobooks. I ignorantly thought listening to a book was somehow a lesser experience than reading the words on a page. I was so wrong.

I began with a few books that were gifted to me on Audible, and I was a near-immediate convert. I began with a re-read of Dune, and it reignited my love for the series. Then I started listening to the Great Courses, and I’ve found a whole new way to learn that I wasn’t aware of before. It didn’t take me long to get my own audible subscription, and since I have, the benefits have expanded. Not only do I get one credit each month to buy a new book, but I also get access to a whole library of audible books included with my subscription. I’ve searched for certain titles on multiple occasions and found that they were already included with my subscription. I really can’t recommend it enough.

Now, I’m not just recommending Audible because I will financially benefit if you sign up for a free trial. I think it’s a really great service. But I understand if you don’t want to support Amazon by supporting Audible. So for the rest of this post, I will focus on why you should give audiobooks a chance and a few examples of audiobooks I’ve especially enjoyed.

They’re Efficient

I know I’m not the only one who is busy. These days it’s hard for me to find the time to read a 1000 page doorstopper. As much as I love them, I just don’t have the time. Audiobooks have been a lifesaver in this segment of my literary experience. I can download an audiobook and listen to it while driving, while I’m doing chores, even while brushing my teeth in the morning. All the moments in my day where I turn my brain off while my body does something tedious, I listen to audiobooks. It’s allowed me to make those parts of my day infinitely more enjoyable while finally getting to experience the books I’ve always wanted to read.

They’re More Engaging

I tried to read American Gods on several occasions. I really did. I just couldn’t get into it. Then one day, I was browsing and found the full-cast recording of American Gods. Honestly, it was just better than the print version. A good narrator(s) can do so much to change and enhance the experience.

Recommended

Revelation Space – This is another one of those books that I would not have had time to read if I had gotten the text edition. The audiobook was over twenty hours long, and there are at least five books in the series. The narrator, John Lee, does a phenomenal job with voices. Overall the series is a great example of interstellar hard science fiction.

American Gods – This was a book I tried to read on several occasions and never got past the first chapter. For some reason, it just didn’t work. Then I downloaded the full-cast audiobook on a whim, and I blew through it. There are so many little stories inside the larger one, I know some people don’t like Shadow’s extended stay in Michigan, but that was one of my favorite segments of the book.

The Anatomy of Fascism – I often forget that Audible subscriptions come with a library of free audiobooks now. The Anatomy of Fascism, which I wrote about a few months ago, was one of those books. It’s a fascinating analysis of Hitler and Mussolini’s respective brands of fascism.

The Story of Human Language – This is one of the Great Courses offered on Audible, and I heartily recommended it. It’s a fascinating introduction to linguists and what it can tell us about our past.

How to Start Writing

workplace with laptop and opened diary
Photo by Ann Nekr on Pexels.com

I am not a published author, but sometimes I write things, and from what people tell me, it’s pretty good. But what I am is a writer. When you pick this hobby, you are also picking a lot of doubt and imposter syndrome, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

A writer is someone who writes. Not some who is published or writes 2000 words per day. Someone who writes. I would love to get paid for this, and I would love to write thousands of words per day and go to conventions and sign copies of my book for people. But none of those things are why I started writing.

I started writing because I love reading, and after reading enough, I realized that I had stories I want to tell. So I grabbed a pencil and a few pieces of paper, and I started writing. That was about fifteen years ago. Since then, I’ve written on and off frequently, but life frequently got in the way. That changes a few years ago when I started this blog and committed to getting better. I would like to think I have succeeded so far. I still have a long way to go, but I’m also proud of how far I’ve come.

I would never have been able to get to this point where I actually feel good about my work if I hadn’t picked up a pen and started dumping word vomit onto a page fifteen years ago. Now I’m getting better and more comfortable with sharing my work.

So if you want to start writing, all you need to do is start. Write because you want to and because you have stories to tell. Accept that your writing won’t be perfect, and start writing. You’ll be happier that way. Confidence will come with time.

I Submitted My Writing!

(And I won a prize)

It’s been a goal of mine for a long time to submit a piece of my writing to something. I did try a flash fiction contest with little luck, but the contest that I’ve really had in mind for the past three years has been an annual writing contest held by the school of humanities at my university.

Every year, students are invited to submit works of poetry, fiction/drama, or non-fiction. There are three potential winners in each category, although the judges reserve the right to not award any prizes in a particular category. Graduate and undergraduate students also compete separately, so in a way, there are actually six winners per category.

Anyway, I’ve been telling myself I would enter this contest ever since I started graduate school here three years ago. Every year so far, I’ve either forgotten, or I’ve felt that I didn’t have anything worthy of submission. This year, however, was different. A friend reminded me about the award, and I set about polishing a pair of short stories that I had been working on for a while (contests are allowed two submissions per category).

So I did it. I polished both stories, and I hit the submit button. Then I spent about three weeks frantically checking my email.

To be honest, I felt that my chances of winning something were pretty good. It still felt great when I got second place. It was amazing.

The past several years I have grown a lot more comfortable with sharing my work. I’ve even gotten to the point where I am honestly proud of my work. Still, it’s great, fantastic even, to have this kind of affirmation.

Anyway, I won second place in Graduate fiction. I was over the moon. The story that won was “Einherjar” it’s the second entry into an anthology that I’m writing titled “Tales from the Golden Fleece Inn.”

I am actually very proud of what I have done with this series so far. By focusing on vignettes, I really feel like I’ve managed to bring these characters to life. Honestly, I have focused more on the banter than the plot, but I am happy with the result.

The moral of this story is to submit. Don’t be afraid of putting yourself out there. The more you do it the better it will get.

And if you want to read the story that won second place you can find it here.

Organized Labor and its Lessons for Fiction

For the past several weeks, commentators and labor activists have been waiting to see how the union vote at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama would turn out. We’ve heard for several years about the working conditions inside Amazon facilities, and the pandemic only brought more attention to the situations that warehouse workers have to deal with. It really shouldn’t be surprising that Amazon employees would start to unionize. I also don’t think it was a surprise that this effort was voted down.

Except for a few groups like police unions, I think labor organization can only be a good thing. Wealth inequality is a big problem on both an individual and societal level. Anything that urges people to advocate for their own well-being and community is a good thing. 

​I also think that this outcome carries with it a lot of lessons. Union leaders are already talking about how they intend to change their strategy in the future with a new emphasis on public relations and national-level campaigns instead of local votes and agitation.

I’ve written before about what I believe the purpose of small businesses should be, but as a writer and worldbuilder, I see a lot of lessons to take from this. As much as many “centrists” and commentators on the right like to complain about politics in television and video games, it needs to be remembered that art is inherently political in all its forms. The creator’s beliefs are bound to find their way into the finished product, even if they did not mean to do so when they first started.

I myself prefer to design settings that are roughly analogous to our world’s 19th and 20th centuries, and if they aren’t directly analogous, there is still a heavy influence.

I tend to do this because I have always had a fondness for steampunk and dieselpunk and gunpowder fantasy. Classic sword and sorcery are still fun, but I like to see fantasy tropes played out in a more modern context and to put characters in environments of intense chance. The industrial revolution generated huge amounts of wealth for the upper class, allowed cities to grow, and pushed workers to organize. Old class systems declined in prominence. New ones rose to take their place. Established oligarchs fought to keep their positions while the lower classes fought to bring them down or replace them. And of course, as we see time and time again, every time a Republican is elected to office, common people can be convinced that their oppressors are their friends.

I am especially interested in this right now because it just so happens that labor unions are a major part of my current WIP. In it, the Whalvian Empire is going through a period of political and economic turmoil after its victory over several of its neighbors. My protagonist is put into a position where many in his company town have decided to unionize. He is torn between his desire for safety and stability and his sympathies for his fellow workers. Reading these articles has already given me a lot of new thoughts about what kind of internal conflicts and pressures our fictional characters might have to wrestle with.

What does the public think of unions?

Unions in America are weak. Many of the things we enjoy today are thanks to unions, but public support has fluctuated over the last fifty years. Fewer people are members of a union or know someone is. Negative biases and misconceptions need to be overcome by organizers both among workers and the general public.

Do the workers feel like the union understands their concerns?

One thing that stood out to me in one NYT article was a quote from a Black woman working in Amazon’s warehouse. She said that the union reps tried to connect Black Lives Matter to their labor organizing efforts. This individual said that they did not feel that racism was a concern in their workplace. Obviously, one anecdote does not give us a full picture of what the working environment is like with respect to race. However, effective campaigning relies on figuring out what potential supporters are concerned about and focusing on how that can be addressed. People are much less likely to care about fixing problems that don’t seem relevant to them.

Do workers feel like they have something to gain?

I was glad to see that workers were taking steps to unionize, but I’m was not surprised to see it voted down. There is a lot that could be done to improve the conditions inside Amazon warehouses, but the pay and benefits that come with working with them are superior to those offered by other employers in Alabama.

In the United States, the days of hiring armed Pinkertons to deal with strikers are long gone, but that doesn’t mean workers who attempt to unionize are not putting themselves at risk. There are basically no protections for workers who are working to organize. If those workers feel like they are already better off than their neighbors, then it’s unlikely they will want to put their job security at risk.

Are workers being told the truth about unions?

Employers have a key advantage. They can require employees to sit through “info sessions” about why unions are bad. They can make employees fear for their jobs. And depending on the employee, this may all reinforce preexisting biases.

Does the government protect workers?

In the wake of this defeat, unions are already talking about adopting a new strategy that focuses on high-profile endorsements and a public relations campaign to influence policy creation. I think this is a good choice. There are a lot of misconceptions about unions, and while I support workers unionizing, we as a country really need to do more to establish an acceptable baseline for workers.

But what does this have to do with speculative fiction? Why don’t you get off your soap box?

Okay, fair. I just spilled a lot of ink to share my own thoughts about current events, but that is because it’s a conversation worth having and because an artist’s environment will influence their art.

And it should influence their art. I generally dislike overanalyzing books in search of deeper meaning, but I think the context of the author’s beliefs can still add a lot to a reader’s understanding. I also think that pitting characters against relatable challenges makes the experience more meaningful for the reader.

A world of wizards and mind control and other fantasy elements would make the experience of workers and striking workers very different. But in the end, people just want a few things. They want safety for themselves and their families. They want to be able to put food on the table. And they (should) want to build a better future for their children.

Real-world events lack the allure of fantasy but trying to understand them yields dividends in inspiration. Fiction changes minds and writers have a big role to play in shaping public opinion.