War is hell – “The Forever War”, by Joe Haldeman

Another of my all-time favourite books, “The Forever War” is written from the point of view of the “poor bloody infantry”, the squaddie on the ground. The author was involved in the Vietnam War, and it comes across quite clearly that he has seen combat. The first line, “Tonight we’re going to show you eight silent ways to kill a man” drew me in, and the book has never let me go in the last twenty five years. As well as being an excellent science fiction story, it is also a love story, and damning critique of the military.

Set in the near future, Mankind is expanding out into the stars, using collapsar gates. Then contact is made, with one of our colony ships being destroyed by an unknown enemy. Mandella, the protagonist, is drafted into the military, and the story begins with his platoon being trained in Missouri, to go and protect portal planets. Training is harsh, and recruits die before it is over. The bulk of training takes place on a cold and dark planet on the edge of our solar system, where the environment is undoubtedly more hostile than any enemy.

This was one of the first stories I had read where the military used powered armour and high energy weapons, but the suits come with problems of their own, being new technology. Damage to the cooling fins means a quick death, as does falling and cracking your faceplate. The recruits learn that it is possible to die just by slipping. I imagine that would give you a new perception of the fragility of life.

The Forever War

Peace and War (The Forever War is volume one. Image from Amazon.co.uk)

Once training is over, the new soldiers are shipped out to their first mission. Another first for me was the idea of combat being conducted across astronomical distances, and by computers. Here’s an excerpt, from when the combat team are informed of combat that has just taken place:

“We just engaged the enemy with two fifty-Gigatonne tachyon missiles and destroyed both the enemy vessel and another object which it had launched approximately three microseconds before. The enemy has been trying to overtake us for the past 179 hours, ship time. At the time of the engagement, the enemy was moving at a little over half of the speed of light, relative to Aleph, and was only about thirty AUs from the Earth’s Hope. It was moving at 0.47c relative to us, and thus we would have been coincident in space-time” – rammed!  – “in a little more than nine hours. The missiles were launched at 0719 ship’s time, and destroyed the enemy at 1540, both tachyon bombs detonating within a thousand klicks of the enemy objects.”

Whoah! This was something new. Combat where the main characters were not involved, but success was achieved by guiding a massive weapon within a thousand kilometers of the target. I don’t know about you, but this certainly made me think.

The squads then proceed to their target world, which is believed to hold a Tauran outpost. The Taurans are the enemy in this book, named after the constellation where first contact was made. At this point in the book, nobody has ever laid eyes on a Tauran, as there has never been anything left, “bigger than a scorched chromosome”. One of the aims of their mission is to try and capture a live one. Combat follows, but the only surviving Tauran dies, apparently through suicide. Thus having partially failed in their objective, they return to Stargate.

Another thing that this book introduced me to was the idea of travel across interstellar distances in a semi-realistic way. Imagine that a means of transport has been developed, allowing you to travel immense distances. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Right, but the down side is that due to the relativistic speeds involved, you will have experienced a trip time of perhaps a year, but upon your return to Earth, twenty years have passed. Imagine that, all of your loved ones are now much older, or have passed away. The world will certainly have changed. Social mores are different, as seen when Mandella’s squad is debriefed by a male soldier wearing makeup, who tells them that a large proportion of Humanity is now homosexual, and as a heterosexual reader in the 80s, I can remember how big a jolt that gave me. How the tables turn! I found myself wondering what it would be like to live in this universe, a sign that the story was drawing me in.

All returning troops are encouraged to reenlist. Mandella has become involved with one of his group, Marygay Potter, and it is round this relationship that the rest of the book revolves. After a brief spell on Earth, both Mandella and Marygay realise that the only life that they understand now is in the military. Returning troops were guaranteed their preferred postings, so both decided to reenlist, become officers, and be stationed on the Moon. That lasted all of an hour or so, until their reassignment orders came in, sending them back into relativistic combat, against an enemy that had made significant technical advances.

I can’t really tell you very much about the rest of the book, without spoiling a great deal of what I loved about it for you. So, I am going to be annoying, and focus on recapping what I think makes this a fantastic read, and why I think you should have a copy of this on your bookshelf.

This book was written in 1974. How many of you were alive then? I was, and probably potty trained by that stage. It was ahead of its time then, and it still holds up just fine now.

It is about as anti-war a book as I have read, without being a tub-thumper. Instead, Haldeman focuses on the people fighting the war, and how it affects them. At one point in the book, people essentially go insane, after being forced to fight and slaughter Taurans. His sympathy for the ordinary soldiers, and their ordeal, is palpable.

It is a touching love story. I can’t tell you much about that either, without spoiling the plot, but it was enough to make me cry.

“The Forever War” was one of the first books by Joe Haldeman that I read, and I’ve bought several copies of it. If I had to save five books from the flames, this would be one of them. Despite knowing the story back to front, I still love to read it, which I think is the mark of a great book. Yes, the bit that made me cry still makes me cry.

Better still, the story is available as part of a trilogy, the picture for which is above. While neither of the other two volumes is quite as ground-breaking as the first, really, how could it be? I would recommend reading all three. Haldeman shines the spotlight on the ground-pounder in a way that reminds me of Heinlein in Starship Troopers – the book, not the dreadful film of the same name.

This really is one of the best books I’ve ever read. The trilogy is excellent, and available here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Peace-War-Omnibus-Forever-Gollancz/dp/0575079193

As always, your comments are welcome. Please let me know what you thought, and of your own favourite reads. Nothing is better than a recommendation which turns out to be an epic, lifelong friend of a book.


Colin Forbes – License to thrill?

I started reading Colin Forbes’ novels when I was a teenager, growing up in Midlothian. I didn’t have many friends, and turned to books for distraction and to be transported. As part of the 1st Midlothian Scouts, we would often have jumble sales, where I would be able to organise the book stall. This had some clear advantages for someone who loves books, and I would be able to buy interesting volumes myself, including some of my first thrillers, including many by Desmond Bagley and Len Deighton.

However, my first foray into Forbes territory came with “Deadlock”, a tale of searching out a terrorist mastermind before he carries out an atrocity. This story, and most of the others, revolve around a team of investigators, led by Tweed. The tale moves from England, through Switzerland, Luxembourg and Belgium, before ending up in Rotterdam. The characters are well drawn, particularly the main antagonist. I was taken at the time by just how readily he killed people – I hadn’t encountered a character like this in books before.

The next book I bought of Forbes was “The Greek Key”, followed by “Whirlpool”. While these books had some of the things that I really enjoy in thrillers, foreign travel and decent characters, they also began to seem a little formulaic. This is where I would like to know what you readers think. I recently read a number of Forbes’ most recent output, and they seemed to me as though they could have been churned out by a computer. Looking back on how much I enjoyed those early outings for Tweed and co., it seems a shame to have ended up like this. Do you think it is possible for there to be too much of a good thing? Is there a point where an author, even a bestseller like Forbes, should move on to other characters?

I don’t want anyone to think that I’m knocking his writing, but they do seem to get a bit samey as they go on. I also think that they ultimately suffer from something that I see in roleplaying games from time to time – uncontrolled escalation. This is seen in games which start off small, with players only having local influence, and facing enemies on a small scale, but rapidly ends up with both players and antagonists having access to global transport and support, with the weapons getting bigger and bigger. For me, this takes something away from the story being told. With some of the more recent works, I found this happening. It was more fun for me, as a reader, when the enemy didn’t have the ability to fly anywhere, use government agencies, and field weapons just short of nukes.

So, that’s my viewpoint. What do you think? I’d be happy to hear your views, whatever they are. Do you have other favourite thrillers?

Between the woods and the water – Part 1 (Hungary to Romania)

“Between the woods and the water” is one of my favourite books of all time. People say this frequently, but in this case it is true. I have many books which are like dear friends, to which I return time and again. Many of Paul Theroux’s volumes on travel fall into this category, as do Colin Thubron’s. However, this book is one which I will treasure, as I find myself on Patrick’s journey in my mind, and think of particular sections when I need to cheer myself up. That is what makes this book so special. As well as wishing that I could have met the author, I also found myself wishing to meet one of the animals he encountered, a horse named “Malek”. Malek’s character adds to the atmosphere of Leigh-Fermor’s writing, and brings a new dimension to his travels.

A book like this deserves more than one post, but it would likely be as long as his book!

For anyone coming fresh to Patrick Leigh-Fermor (PLF) and his writing, a brief introduction is in order. PLF set out in December 1933 to walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople, modern Istanbul. The journey took almost two years, and even in modern times, this would be a daunting task.

This volume starts where “A time of gifts” ends, on a bridge between Slovakia and Hungary, in Esztergom. Friends made along the way tended to write to people they knew, in order to procure assistance for him. In this instance, he ends up meeting the Mayor of Esztergom, and finds himself in a church service on Holy Saturday. His attention to detail is remarkable, though my favourite sections of his writing are when he is in between towns, describing the countryside and people that he comes upon at random.

Esztergom Basilica (Image copyright NatashaP)

What a magnificent building. There is a link to Natasha’s Flickr stream below the picture. After the service, the Mayor puts him up at a friend’s house, but not before checking out some storks nesting in a nearby belfry. The procession to the basilica causes them, and most of the others in the town, to rise into the air with a distinctive clapping sound. By the end of the service, they are snoozing peacefully again.

Budapest, to hear PLF describe it, had just been recaptured from the Turks when he visited. Put up by Tibor and Berta, he spends time at a Ball with a charming girl called AnnaMaria, and bumps into friends from earlier in his trip, “A csodalatos Koschkak!”, the Koschkak Brothers. Another contact made for him was with Paul Teleki, the ex-Prime Minister, who had mapped the Japanese Archipelago, and the boundaries of Mesopotamia. He notes with sorrow that his friend subsequently committed suicide, when the Germans invaded Yugloslavia across Hungary in 1941. Budapest is something of a chance to recharge batteries and regroup for him, and he makes the most of his visit, planning the next stages carefully, and riding at a military stables just outside the city. He describes this as a “discrete form of vetting”, and he was equipped with Malek shortly afterwards.

It is clear that he is aware of travelling through a Europe that was vanishing, even as he wrote about it. There is a strong sense of nostalgia in his writing, as he describes treaties, sieges and conquests. I find his writing very educational as well, and am always tempted to go and try to learn some of the jaw-breaking languages that he tackled. To be sure, a good Classical education stood him in good stead, regardless of school reports. A familiarity with Horace’s Odes would ultimately prove a point of common ground during the Second World War, when he abducted General Heinrich Kreipe on Crete.

The Great Hungarian Plain brings PLF back to the kind of writing that I enjoy best, full of evocative description. Here is a bit from his first evening out with Malek on the plain:

“These lonely uprights give an air of desolation to the plain: they resemble derelict siege-engines by day and the failing light turns them into gibbets or those wheel-topped stakes in pictures by Hieronymous Bosch where vultures wrangle over skeletons spread-eagled in mid-air.

The evening was full of the see-saw creak of their timbers. At one of them, by a ruined farmhouse with a stork’s nest in the rafters, two dismounted drovers were toiling: their wide, white linen trousers, worn loose outside black knee-boots, came halfway down the calves of their legs. They had finished watering a large herd of remarkable pale cattle with almost straight horns of enormous span that filled the air with trampling and lowing and dust. When the drovers had remounted, I waved a greeting. They lifted their black hats with ceremony and wheeled their horses around, then, abetted by rough-coated white dogs, they spurred after the herd, trotting or cantering on the outskirts and whirling long goads to keep strays from wandering. The declining sun outlined all their silhouettes. Haloed in dust and trailing long shadows, they moved westward with a noise of harsh cries, dogs and a jangle of horns and bells. a stork joined its mate in the rafters, probably after swallowing a last frog captured at some quieter oasis and I trotted east towards the darker end of the plain. The clouds had flushed an astonishing pink.

But this was not to be compared with the sky behind. The flatness of the Alföld leaves a stage for cloud-events at sunset that are dangerous to describe: levitated armies in deadlock and riderless squadrons descending in slow motion to smouldering and sulphurous lagoons where barbicans gradually collapse and fleets of burning triremes turn dark before sinking. These are black vesper’s pageants…the less said the better.”

Arad at sunset

His travels across the plain and into Rumania took him to a town called Arad (above), where he was interested to hear more Hungarian than Rumanian, and noted Hungarian, Jewish and German names above many of the shops. He describes Arad as being about the size of Guildford (as it was in 1934), and famous for the Austrian execution of thirteen Hungarian generals, after Kossuth’s uprising against Habsburg rule in 1848. While there, he encountered and sketched Izabella. He found the sketch at the back of his notebook, while writing this book, nearly fifty years later, looking “almost as pretty as she had in real life”. This is the shade of someone long since gone, and I find myself worrying about wether or not they survived the coming war. I’ve often found myself thinking like that about people, in my favourite books.

I think that this is a good place to stop, with PLF getting ready to play skittles with Brother Peter of the Franciscan Abbey of Maria Radna. The story continues, but I’ll finish it in a second post. Dracula, Ada Kaleh and the Iron Gates of Kazan are still to come.