Sunday, August 22, 2010

Starbound by Joe Haldeman

Following on the heels of Marsbound by Haldeman, I read Starbound as soon as I was done with the previous book. As this is a sequel, it was a logical course of action...

In Marsbound, we discover intelligent life on Mars, life that was bio-engineered to be the mouthpieces of an advanced alien civilization based on silicon-oxides and existing in a sort of cryo-state: nearly immortal because at those temperatures, nothing moves fast and chemical reactions occur at a snail's pace. The cost of immortality? Living an existence where 1 minute is actually 8.

Carmen and Paul, along with 3 military types, 2 scientists, and 2 Martians, crew an interstellar ship with the purpose of contacting the ET civilization. Their message? Please don't kill us!

So the ship makes the journey of 24 LY to Wolf 25, contact the "Others," and open a dialouge, of sorts. The message is that the Others can't be bothered with treating humanity as anything other than a child civilization, and you'd better not get on our wrong side, or you'll be punished...

The book ends with the "free energy" system that Earth had reversed-engineered from Martian artifacts being "turned off" by the Others, and in fact, all energy sources above biological being robbed of their capabilities. This because the Others had found out that the Earth had built a defensive warfleet, to defend the Earth against Other aggression, while the crew offered their message of peace. Thus the Other's response is to blow up the moon, and deny Earth any sort of spacetravel -- even low Earth Orbit -- for the next 13,000 or so. And rob humanity of technology in general.

I really enjoyed these 2 Haldeman books, but found the ending to be really unsatisfying, so much so that I'm hoping there will be a third book to tie it all up.

What is really dissatisfying about the series is the attitudes of the Others. Haldeman I think goes to great lengths to differentiate their "mentality" (to quote the great, late Marc Bloch) from that of humanity (or even the Martians). What would we have in common with, say, tool-using octopi?

I'm not sure he was entirely successful though. In the end the Others come across as being less interested in exploration, and more interested in "The Game" (there was a throw-away line -- perhaps more important than I would have guessed at the time -- that the Others enjoy games, played by bio-constructs -- in which the objective is not to win, but to learn the rules of the game). Not only does this make it look like they were just playing with humanity ("testing us," as Spy, one of those bio-constructs, mentions), but it also makes them look like a civilization inhabited entirely by immortal children. Arbitrary and capricious.

In the end, I don't regret reading the books, and I think it is one interpretation on how a first-contact scenario might play out. But I'm hoping for a 3rd book that will propel this series from being merely interesting to "great!"

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Marsbound by Joe Haldeman

The name Haldeman should be a familiar one to Sci-Fi literature fans: he wrote the widely regarded The Forever War. Winning the Hugo, Nebula and Locus awards (source), this book was as much about Vietnam as it was about SF, cleverly using the plot device of time dilation to illustrate the alienation of soldiers returning home from war.

Marsbound is a somewhat different book, and explores both early colonization of Mars, as well as "first contact." There is nothing original about the storyline, but Haldeman tells it well. It is from the first-person perspective of Carmen, daughter of two scientists that go with them to the Mars colony, along with her younger brother Card. And of course along the way she meets Martians.

When I first started reading this book, I almost thought it was a juvenile SF. The fact it was from the perspective of a teen-aged girl reinforced it. But as the character grew, so did the plotline. By the end it wasn't quite a juvenile I had thought it was. Furthermore, Haldeman's direct, basic, and uncluttered writing style kept it simple and at a good pace. I was easily able to read over 100pgs a night (I usually read for 2 hours) and the book came in at 304pgs, so it only took me a few days to plow through it.

There's some very interesting science-fictional concepts in it, such as the nature of the "Others" (only hinted at in this book) and of course the purpose of the Martians. Overall a good book, and I'm already reading the sequel Spacebound.