Earthbound by Joe Haldeman
Many aspiring authors have been led to believe they need a great opening sentence to get their book through the slush pile and into print. The theory proposes people who are hooked by the first sentence will keep reading even if the rest of the book is deeply flawed. We need not concern ourselves whether this is true. Suffice it to say, some first lines in published novels are memorable — if only because they are so easily mocked. My favourite parody is, “Bang! Bang! Bang! Three shots rang out. Two policemen fell dead and the third whistled through his hat.” (Anthony Buckeridge attributes this to the first novel by his series character Jennings.) I mention this because, in Earthbound, Joe Haldeman comes up with a line that stops you dead in your tracks. “When I returned [home], almost forty years ago, two of the first people I met were my dead brother.” Sadly, it’s not the first line but you get my point. There’s just something inherently memorable about the idea, you want to tuck it away in your data stick against a boring rainy day when you can upload it to a machine and savour it again.
Anyway, the actual first line of Earthbound is, “I’d been off Earth for so long I didn’t recognize the sound of gunfire.” and this sets the tone for the book. Let me explain. We’re playing in the backyard of the big idea type of science fiction with this, the final book in a trilogy. Walking alongside Robert Charles Wilson with his sequence, Spin, Axis and Vortex, John Varley’s Eight Worlds series, and others, we have individual books and stories describing the arrival of aliens with the power to deal with humanity as they wish. This gives these aliens an arbitrary quality. We rarely understand their motives for disrupting our lives although, sometimes, this does become clear: according to Varley, the folk of Jupiter are acting to protect the whales when they dismantle civilisation and send humanity back to the Stone Age. Joe Haldeman has his aliens blow up the moon to create a debris field substantial enough to deter further launches into space. When we try anyway, they turn off the electricity.
This immediately places us in the post-apocalypse mode most recently occupied by John Barnes in Directive 51 and Daybreak Zero. When Earth loses all its technology, the knee-jerk reaction is for everyone and his well-trained dog to reach for the nearest gun and start shooting. So, long before starvation has a chance to thin out the population, humanity is fighting and, more often than not, destroying the means of future food production. I’m not saying fear and desperation would not drive us to this level of stupidity. But it’s depressing when you see the Libertarians proved right in fiction. Because of their paranoia, they are usually the ones who have been preparing for self-sufficiency, building stockades, filling stores with tinned food, and training as a militia.
In a convenient few days when the power is restored, Joe Haldeman has our team of spacefarers do a whistle-stop tour around America (with a brief diversion to Russia). On the way, they meet the Vice President who’s hiding in Camp David and talk with various communities doing their best to survive. The general tenor of these meeting is downbeat. The implication is few of these outposts of supposed rationality will survive as the rising tide of panicked humanity is on the move, better armed and more aggressive. Inevitably there’s time for some of our heroes to die, some more slowly than others, and also an opportunity for speculation. There’s a general sense these aliens are treating us like laboratory rats in an attempt to understand what makes humanity tick. So the only hope for the rapidly declining number of humans is to do well enough to persuade these powerful beings we deserve to survive as a species. Given how trigger-happy we have proved to be, it’s hardly surprising the aliens should have acted to keep our feet on the ground. All we’ve done from the start of this trilogy is to prove we shoot first and ask questions later. This is hardly likely to endear us to the galactic community.
When you put all this together, you emerge with a well-written book — Joe Haldeman is incapable of producing anything else — but one which shows us humans in a less than flattering light. While I don’t mind the odd critical note in the name of entertainment, Earthbound is committed to showing the triumph of the mindless majority over the more sensible minority of humanity. At least the aliens switched off the lights when they left the Earth. They signed up for the Kyoto Protocol and reduced Earth’s emissions at a stroke. We need aliens like this so long as I can live on a self-sufficient island paradise surrounded by sharks to keep the rest of the world away from my coconuts.
Nicely atmospheric art for the jacket from Fred Gambino.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.