I didn’t really know what to expect when I picked this up. Someone had recommended it, so I was going in blind. I did read the introduction, which is an interesting look at the problems and possibilities of getting stories published and serialised and what that can mean for novels. It also gave me the tip that this could be, and has been, seen as a “Vietnam book.” Which of course influenced my reading of it, but not I think in a deleterious way; I think actually I appreciate it more for knowing its context (which should be no surprise, let’s be honest).
The focus of the story is William Mandela, an army conscript for a war against the first aliens humanity has come into contact with. He’s trained on various moons to fight an enemy whose capabilities, and indeed appearance, are completely unknown… and then does indeed fight said aliens, with less than convincing results. This fight is followed by what is, I think, one of the most important aspects of the entire novel: Mandela’s return to Earth.
Because this is not a story with faster than light travel (it does have wormhole travel), and the fight took place several light years away, while Mandela has aged months many, many years have passed at home. While in theory this is great for the pay which has been accumulating in his bank account, and also for years served, all of those problems you encounter when you’ve been away a few months and then go home? Compounded, multiplied, and then made even worse. I’m sure they’ve been written, but I’ve not come across another story that deals as convincingly with the time dilation problem as this one. Haldemann reflects on the personal consequences for the soldiers, as well as on how this would impact news coverage of the ‘war’ and other, broader, issues. It’s probably the aspect that will stick with me the longest, although it’s by no means the only interesting bit.
The story ends up following Mandela over more than a thousand years, which is remarkably ambitious in 250 pages. Haldemann is, thankfully, not foolish enough to imagine a static society over that period, and he imagines and experiments with various alternatives for Earth – which Mandela mostly just samples, since he generally can’t cope with being home and so ships out again. There are huge changes to Earth’s economy, to reflect an entire planet being on a war footing (and, of course, that getting co-opted…) – imagine a society whose currency is calculated in calories; there are changes to sexuality, in response to population issues (his theory on sexuality in the marines is an interesting one too – a corps that’s not equally gendered but where sex is expected to take place regularly and with multiple partners… I can’t figure out how this would have been regarded in the 1970s); and even different modes of consciousness. All of which is very clever and, again given how short it is, somewhat frustrating – in a book written today, I would bet this would actually be a trilogy, each distinct part of Mandela’s life covered in excruciating detail… ok maybe I prefer this version.
And call me a sap, but there’s also a rather wonderful, understated love story at the heart of Mandela’s adventures, and I’ll admit to getting a little teary at the end. WHATEVER.
The Vietnam connections? Oh yes. An unknown enemy and seriously unknown tactics; a country (actually in this case a planet) geared towards a war that most people at home don’t really understand; little comments about the propaganda and rhetoric used, as well as the first fight taking place on a jungle planet – it’s very clever, because Haldemann doesn’t shove it in your face but definitely draws rather pointed parallels. All of that said I think this is still a fairly relevant book, since there are still – and probably will be for a long time – these sorts of wars, on varying scales.
Plus, maybe one day we’ll have wormhole travel, and then we’ll have to figure out how to deal with the time dilation problems.