A best-of collection for Joe Haldeman may seem premature. He has, after all, published four novels in the last five years, an active figure by most counts. And while Haldeman might be described, like a complex wine, as well matured, he is far from spent. Perhaps a more accurate title should be The Best* of Joe Haldeman: *so far. Haldeman himself seems aware of the irony. He introduces each of the nineteen tales and the book as a whole, and in these twenty introductions he treats the book less as a celebration of greatness and more as a learning exercise. He describes the geneses of stories, talks about the creative process, and gives advice to writers. Throughout, his tone is more bemused than self-pleased. It is as though Haldeman, long a teacher of writing at MIT, finds the processes of instruction and reflection linked—much to the benefit of readers.
Haldeman winds down the book's introduction with an image of Charles Dickens at his desk finishing a novel with a curlicue flourish of his pen; the satisfaction that the old Victorian allowed himself in that moment, Haldeman says, he also feels every time he finishes a story, which is why he has written so many over the years. The tales in this collection, he adds with characteristic understatement, "are some I'm still satisfied with" (p. 11). What follows are nineteen tales of various lengths, many of them award winners, spanning the breadth of Haldeman's career. Nowhere does he explain or justify the selection of these works except in the introduction's enigmatic final phrase, "still satisfied with."
We might ask what unites these works. Is this the author's vision of the world? The full expression of his oeuvre? Perhaps, as billed by the publisher, it is "a stunning portrait of a writer who may be more complex and varied than even his most devoted fans suspect." Haldeman seldom takes advantage of the opportunity the introductions offer to explain his work, and is content instead to let it speak for itself. And does it ever.
So what is the "best" of this science fiction author? Not necessarily what you might expect. Haldeman defies categorization by including classic SF, noirish horror, a pulp detective story, and even a Western, and he utilizes a wide variety of narrative voices and perspectives. This last is perhaps clearest in the narrative voice of "The Monster" and the shifting perspectives of "Seasons."
The voice in "The Monster" came from a tour bus driver Haldeman met in Jamaica, whose voice he describes as "beautiful and haunting," a "basso growl" that was both "wonderful and creepy" (p. 217). In Haldeman's hands, the tones of that bus driver become the voice of Chink, a man haunted by something unbelievable he saw in Vietnam. Chink slips in and out of various speech patterns, from the educated distance of, "To talk about this 'Monster' requires addressing such concepts as disassociation and multiple personality" (p. 222), to the street rhythm of, "Now I know from twenty years how true that be" (p. 221). What Chink sees is a thing he calls the Monster, a being of incredible strength and ferocity, and it sees him back. But is the Monster real, or is it a hallucination Chink conjured to distance himself from what he has done? The Monster continues to haunt him for years until it inevitably comes home to roost. (The sense of inevitability is common through many of these stories.) The tale concludes with a coroner's report, in yet another distinct narrative voice, which further complicates the question of Chink's sanity.
"Seasons," meanwhile, is a Heinleinian novella of scientific arrogance and misunderstanding that shifts frequently between perspectives and manages to breathe life into multiple protagonists in the first few pages. It is one of the best selections from an already fine collection, a fact Haldeman seems aware of. After its conclusion, he adds a postscript noting how he uses it to instruct his writing classes on the characteristics of readable novellas—which he says are multiple viewpoints, classical dramatic structure, compactness, a lot of action, and big ideas.
In the introduction to "Seasons" Haldeman notes, "Most novellas don't work. They're either bloated short stories or shrunken novels. I tried to figure out why, and write a novella that didn't fail" (p. 164). In this project, he succeeds admirably. The novella commences in medias res with a group of scientists hiding in a cave, fearing for their lives, hoping not to be discovered by the Plathys, the intelligent species they were observing. But of course they are discovered, and as they flee the formerly docile Plathys—who have turned suddenly and inexplicably violent—we shift back and forth between the perspectives of Maria, Gabriel, and Brenda. As the escape progresses, the hunted are transformed by their experience, especially the leader, Maria. She admits she's "become too much like them. . . . Let them come for me; let me die in a terrible ecstasy of tearing flesh and cracking bones. Let them suck my soft guts so I can live in them" (p. 184). Later, Brenda notes, "I wonder about her psychological state. Almost euphoric, which hardly seems appropriate" (p. 194). Team members are picked off one by one as the party flees toward a supposedly impenetrable sanctuary. But the Plathys know more than the scientists ever assumed, and the drama unfolds with all the certainty of a Greek tragedy, with a few injections of hope to keep us on the edge of our seats. As Haldeman notes in the postscript, the tragic flaw here is "Maria's faith in scientific method—in anthropologic methodology, specifically. And natural law substitutes for the wrath of the gods" (p. 216). The consequences of the blindness caused by Maria's faith continue to reverberate in the imagination long after this chilling story is laid to rest.
"The Hemingway Hoax," another novella, is yet another virtuoso selection in this book, one that manages to marry fatal irony with dark humor. Taken together with "Seasons," one might conclude that, despite the dangers of the bloated short story or shrunken novel, Haldeman is at his best in the novella format. "The Hemingway Hoax" begins with a simple enough concept: a Hemingway scholar meets a con man, and together they decide to forge the lost Hemingway papers. From here it rapidly departs into a multiverse goose chase as the scholar, Baird, tries to stay a step ahead of an inter-dimensional being who seeks to prevent the completion of his forgery, as well as his erstwhile partner who turns out to be not so genial. The novella won both the Hugo and Nebula awards in 1991, an achievement that will be unsurprising to anyone gripped by its whirlwind plot. Themes of alienation and transformation run strong here; after being killed several times and waking up in different universes afterward, Baird notes: "It gave him a strange feeling. All of the universes were different, but this was the first one where the differentness was so tightly connected to Hemingway . . . in fact, most of the ways he was different from the earlier incarnations of himself were in Hemingway's direction" (pp. 304-305).
Baird will eventually experience Hemingway's life, beginning with the moment of the author's suicide and traveling backward through time, which is an echo of Haldeman's own relationship with Hemingway: after being frequently compared to him when his first book came out, Haldeman, who had never read Hemingway, decided he'd better brush up "before somebody exposed my ignorance" (p. 230). He quickly became obsessed and read every word Hemingway wrote, and Haldeman's hard-won experience shines through here as well; fans of Hemingway will note with pleasant surprise the "facsimiles" of Hemingway forgeries. Haldeman admittedly plays fast and loose with time and reality here, but readers won't find any reason to object. This is Haldeman at his best, and you should content yourself with strapping in and holding on.
I first encountered Haldeman, like many people, through his classic The Forever War (1974). At the time I was on an extended trip overseas, and perhaps the sense of alienation, bewilderment, and wonder I then felt helped me connect more intimately with its protagonist, William Mandela, but any reading of the first item in this current collection—"Hero," the novella on which The Forever War was based—will find more to excite the imagination and tug at the heartstrings than just the conflicting emotions of wanderlust. It is also an excellent introduction to the Haldeman worldview: on the first page a sergeant delivers an important demonstration, whereupon Mandela "sat up straight . . . assumed a look of polite attention and fell asleep with [his] eyes open" (p. 13). That insouciance is a trait many of his leading characters will display, from William Mandela at the dawn of Haldeman's career to the Mars Girl, Carmen, who made her first appearance more than thirty years later.
Haldeman is often described as a writer whose worldview was shaped by Vietnam—many of his characters are current or former military; dismemberment and death occur unpredictably and often without higher symbolic meaning; war is never viewed by these characters as glorious or noble, but instead as a menial job with incompetent managers who will probably get you killed—but one problem I have with such readings is that they all too easily imply a "just" or an "only," as in "Haldeman is (only) a Vietnam-afflicted writer." Such reductionism falls woefully short of the mark, a point which this collection drives home in stories like "For White Hill" and "More than the Sum of His Parts." The first is a beautiful, moving novella on love and art told in fourteen parts, modeled after a Shakespearean sonnet; it is at times poignant, lovely, wrenching, and melancholy, and manages to place conflicts over culture, ethnicity, and history alongside more cerebral questions about aesthetics and legacy. "More than the Sum of His Parts" stemmed from a writing assignment Haldeman gave his class, in which he asked them to pick a page number from a book on science in science fiction and couple that technology with a story structure from another anthology; he got cyborgs and "Flowers for Algernon." His students said the combination "was not a winner" (p. 146), but the resulting story, an eerie exploration into the fluid boundary between humanity and technology, was nominated for a Nebula.
As a tale of the dangerously addictive power of technology, and the complacency such power engenders, "More than the Sum of His Parts" fits in with both "Seasons" and "None So Blind," a tale of genius and love, sacrifices and consequences that won the 1995 Hugo Award. This latter story involves a young genius, Cletus, and the blind girl he loves, Amy. Amy is a musical prodigy, but Cletus believes she can be much more and devotes his life to studying neuroscience. The idea of the story came from a question Haldeman asked himself: why aren't blind people all geniuses? If the unused visual cortex could just be rewired . . . This becomes Cletus's goal, and as an adult neurosurgeon, he performs a successful operation on an unsuspecting Amy. Her brain power increases exponentially until she is unable to converse with regular humans, and soon Cletus has the operation performed on himself. Before long, it is a worldwide phenomenon, and not having the "secondsight" surgery becomes a handicap in intellectual fields. It is a success as far as Cletus is concerned, but whether it is in human terms is a question left mostly unanswered. We are given one hint, however: "If [Cletus] had paid more attention in trivial classes like history, like philosophy, things might have turned out differently. If he paid attention to literature, he might have read the story of Pandora" (p. 338). There is an undercurrent here which might be read as ableist—Amy's blindness is something that Cletus will "fix"—and while this isn't satisfactorily resolved, the ominous sense of something lost after the "secondsight" surgery, and the warnings of the narrator, leave us with a sense that it is best to leave nature alone. Blindness is still a deficiency in the story's logic, but one not worth the consequences of fixing.
If technology and its temptations are prevalent themes in this collection, horror is a common—though not ubiquitous—mood. Like "The Monster," both "Graves" and "Complete Sentence" delve into the horror of a past that can't be escaped. "Graves" is a tale of the lingering ghosts of war, the idea for which came from a "macabre experience" the author had in Vietnam where men under his command, in near hysterics, desecrated a body (p. 322). The narrator has a sleep disorder "that makes life difficult for me, but still I want to keep it. Boy, do I want to keep it" (p. 323). The reason he prefers insomnia slowly unfurls: he has a haunting experience in Vietnam that involves a disappearing body; in his dreams over the years, he relives that moment. First the body reappears, then it begins to approach him, and night by night it draws nearer. The eerie narration and hypnotic imagery make the narrator's fear very palpable when he admits, "The doctor gives me tranquilizers. I don't take them. They might help me stay asleep" (p. 330).
Easy as it may seem to categorize Haldeman—these are war-haunted stories, those are focused on the temptations of technology—we must resist the urge, because such descriptions reduce complexity to simplicity, and we lose part of the ineffable Haldeman magic in the process. We'd also find it impossible to place the screwball time-traveling comedy "Anniversary Project" or the sexy pulp detective piece "Blood Sisters" into our pigeonholes, to say nothing of the gritty, superstitious Western "Manifest Destiny." And what to make of the protest piece, "Civil Disobedience"? If there is a Platonic Form for a Haldeman story, it will have to include all of these very different pieces. So what is the meta-Haldeman? As I read this collection, that thought stayed in the back of my mind, biding its time. It was not until finishing the concluding piece that I found an answer.
"Complete Sentence" is about a man, Charlie Draper, who may be innocent but is nonetheless sentenced to one hundred years of solitary confinement in virtual reality. Something goes wrong with the technology, however, and he becomes trapped within his own mind in a hell of his own making: "He screamed until he was hoarse. Then he tried to sleep. But the noise . . . kept him awake" (p. 497). Concluding the collection with this last image of futile rage and despair has the air of an exclamation point, and perhaps should be read as the author's way of saying "Here—this is what I'm talking about." And, going back through the previous eighteen entries, we can find similar themes of isolation and alienation, of enduring the hells of our own making, of a somewhat sinister form of fate. Similarly, just as Charlie's reality is transformed by his descent to hell, there are moments of transformation and descent across other pieces: Maria in "Seasons" begins to think and act like the Plathys she fears and admires; Dr. Cheetham in "More than the Sum of His Parts" begins to identify more and more with the machines that have replaced his limbs; Cletus and Amy in "None So Blind" exchange their basic humanity for increased brain power.
Readers will find it difficult not to be infected with Haldeman's disillusionment and fatal irony, or converted by his dark humor. For this is the essence of Haldeman's magic: reading becomes a conversion process; the more of his work you read, the more his worldview bleeds into your own. By the time we get to "The Monster," we're left with no surprise, only agreement, when Chink says, "the grave be one place we all be getting to, long road or short, and maybe the short road be less bumps, less trouble" (p. 221). But before things can seem too bleak, Haldeman injects some humor—inflected, naturally, with a dark side: While explaining the recovery process from the brain disorder aphasia, his narrator informs us, "The afflicted person can say his name, and then his wife's name, and then 'frying pan,' and before you know it he's complaining about hospital food and calling a divorce lawyer" (p. 337).
Haldeman is similarly direct and unapologetic about sexuality in these stories, and often treats it as an inevitable, animal response, as unremarkable as eating or sleeping—except that it is so often remarked upon. When Maria the leader sleeps with the much younger Gabriel in "Seasons," it is depicted as a natural reaction to stress: "I'm beyond embarrassment, beyond dignity. Nothing to be embarrassed about anyhow, not really. . . . It's a strange state . . . all tickled and excited inside, and at the same time feeling doomed" (p. 193). She then proceeds to wonder about the evolutionary justification for the dramatic shift in Plathy behavior, without making the obvious self-reflection. Readers are predisposed to make the connection, however, because just beforehand Gabriel remarks on the Plathys' "overnight transformation into completely sexual creatures" (p. 185). When Baird's wife sleeps with Castle in "The Hemingway Hoax," it is similarly natural and inevitable: Baird was out of town, the narrative seems to say, what else would they do? Dr. Cheetham in "More than the Sum of His Parts" first explores the possibilities of the bionic half of his body by sleeping with a nurse, and then taking his wonder member to a brothel to commence a very dispassionate, clinical exploration. It is perhaps in "For White Hill" that we get a real sense of the role sexuality plays: referring to a fellow artist who is neuter, Water Man reflects, "He claimed that sex took too much time and energy from his art. I think his lack of gender took something else away from it" (p. 362). What we're left with, then, is sexuality and gender as natural, expected, and necessary components of life and identity. Critical readers will find a lot of traction reading this collection with the idea of sexuality as identity in mind.
Any collection will have its high and low moments, and the same is true here, but the least successful of these stories are still never less than very good, and most of them are much better. Some will even sneak into the spaces between your neurons, lurking with dark promise, and you will find yourself recalling characters, images, and scenes for days and weeks afterward. As a sample of the career of one of science fiction's most laudable living authors, The Best of Joe Haldeman is a respectable success. I wouldn't necessarily call it his very best work ever—some of his novels, such as The Forever War, Forever Peace (1997), and Camouflage (2004), rank in my mind as equal to or surpassing the best of this collection—but there is a lot on offer in this sizable anthology, and longtime fans and newcomers alike will find much to be satisfied with.
A. S. Moser is a writer currently in between homes and countries, and prefers it that way. His novella, Libations, appeared in the Summer 2011 edition of Kaleidotrope. You can follow his travels at his blog, Wanderlust for Beginners.