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Work Done For Hire by Joe Haldeman

work done for hire

Work Done For Hire by Joe Haldeman is a very interesting book from a man better known for his science fiction. For the most part, this is a contemporary or near future thriller which adopts a somewhat metafictional structure. Since the nature of the plot is clearly intended to build up to an unexpected outcome, I will be careful to avoid anything too explicit in this review. I’ve probably read too many thrillers and SF novels to be taken by surprise. One of the flaws of the book is that, once you are given confirmation your suspicion is correct, there’s no effort made to retrace steps to explain how it was all done. I’m not saying setting this up in the real world would be impossible, but it would have felt more reassuring if Haldeman had offered a few words. Perhaps the US military really does surgically implant tracking devices into its key assets and another group could hack the device and follow him around. Or there’s some other near-future technology in play here. Whatever it is, the author should come clean. As to the actual ending, it’s less than rational and rather perfunctory. As one of the US military might say, this has grown into something of a clusterfuck and wrapping up all the loose ends and consequences in a single paragraph is the worst kind of lazy writing. This seems to be an author who thought of a plot which nicely got our protagonist into a mess and then couldn’t work out how to resolve it. So he threw down a few paragraphs at the end and hoped no-one would notice the arbitrary way in which everything came screeching to a halt.

 

So what can I safely say about this? Well, meet Jack Daley who was a sniper in the latest conflict. He picked up a wound in his leg and was invalided out. This leads to the usual PTSD problems and he’s heading for the usual scrap heap when he meets the right young lady. He writes a book about his experiences which is not unsuccessful, but no publisher seems very interested in his next book. Then his agent comes back with an offer from a film producer. They have a script outline and are looking for someone to novelise it. Actually, the studio doesn’t want a full novel. Novelette length is sufficient. If the studio likes it, they will build it into a shooting script with a big bonus if it’s made into a film. Note this is pie-in-the-sky future financial security. He’s only sure of the small advance. Throughout the book, we therefore get to read the chapters in this novelette as they are written. Indeed, it’s not impossible to see the emerging science fiction horror story as offering at least two points of interest. The hook for the story is a man down on his luck who’s paid to act as bait for a serial killer. It’s left ambiguous as to whether this Hunter is human or an alien. All we can say about this creature is that he eats those he kills. The second feature is the writing process influences the direction the fiction takes. As our writer as protagonist feels threatened, so his novelette becomes more gory. Obviously a sniper has a different view of the process of killing. His subconscious may therefore be taking the novelette in a direction the studio might consider unfilmable.

Joe Haldeman

Joe Haldeman

 

Everything is moderately conventional for the first third of the book. Our protagonist begins to demonstrate he’s not the greatest writer of horror which may be sfnal and we get to meet the woman in his life. He then receives a rifle with instructions to set it up for a hit and then stand ready for instructions. If he fails to obey, the voice on the telephone makes the usual threat that “they” will kill his girlfriend. So begins an exploration of how far each side of the potential bargain is prepared to go. Although Daley is not a banker, he’s used as a literary device to explore the phenomenon of moral hazard. He’s been a paid killer for the government. Now he’s asked to continue in his trade for private hire. This plot development might be more interesting if he was told who he was supposed to kill, but because the precise details of what he’s expected to do are never made explicit, the extent of the dilemma is not allowed to develop. Put simply, what we see of his writing suggests he’s never going to make it as a novelist, and he has no other real skills with which to earn a living. Resuming his life as a well-paid killer would pay all the bills and enable him to live a comfortable life. Unfortunately, the details remain largely theoretical and this aspect of the plot loses its impact.

 

This leaves me thinking Work Done For Hire is undercooked. Far more could have been done to bring the near-future technology into focus. The inclusion of an entire novelette inside the novel slows down the action and leaves less room for the thriller to build and be resolved coherently. The metafictional opportunity to use the fiction as an internal mirror is never seriously exploited. Although the characterisation of Jack and Kit is good, particularly when they go on the run, the book itself never really decides what it wants to do with two such interesting characters. The actual plot mechanism used in the final quarter of the book is very clichéd and makes little sense given what has gone before. So even though there are good features, I can’t really recommend you read this which, for a novel by Haldeman, is disappointing.

 

For reviews of other books by Joe Haldeman, see:
The Accidental Time Machine
Earthbound.

 

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

 

Earthbound by Joe Haldeman

February 16, 2012 2 comments

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.

Joe Haldeman looking the world straight in the eye

 

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.

 

For reviews of other books by Joe Haldeman, see:
The Accidental Time Machine
Work Done For Hire.

 

Nicely atmospheric art for the jacket from Fred Gambino.

 

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

 

The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate by Michael Chiang

Well, for once, I’m setting off to write a short review in honour of a short “book”. Subterranean Press have a wonderful habit of picking extraordinarily good stories and packaging them well. In this instance, I propose to say a few hopefully well-chosen words about The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate by Michael Chiang. This won the Nebula Award for Best Novelette (2007) and was nominated for the Hugo.

As I have commented in two other reviews on this site about time travel, it’s very difficult to get the logic right and avoid boredom as the inevitable asserts itself. Joe Haldeman gets the plot working as it should but fails in the writing. Kage Baker just writes the book and rather ignores the paradox problems. Here we have a model author who gets everything absolutely right. This is quite simply one of the best written, most elegant time travel stories I’ve read for years.

It starts off with a delightful cheat in that, instead of hard science, we have a mediaeval alchemist in the Middle East develop a gate that allows people to pass through a predetermined amount of time in either direction. The partial telling of the history of this gate is therefore left to one of the travellers who, being stranded, comes to the attention of the local Caliph. Yet this is no One Thousand and One Nights with djinns and the usual trappings of Arabian, Persian, Jewish and Indian folklore. This is a work of modern sensibilities where love, loss and redemption resonate implacably through time. It is the kind of story you can reread with perfect satisfaction, simply admiring the mechanics of plot and writing in such perfect harmony. A real joy!

For a review of a new novella from Chiang, see The Lifecycle of Software Objects.

The Accidental Time Machine by Joe Haldeman

June 29, 2009 3 comments

Following in the footsteps of David Copperfield, you should continue reading to find out whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by somebody else.

But, just in case you’re of a nervous disposition, I’m the eponymous author of this piece, so be reassured. I survived to the end otherwise I couldn’t have written as much as I did before I (was) stopped. Ain’t no-one who can chop logic better than me (or something).

In this, I’m following the general trend in modern fiction. Most stories with an “adventure” element promise from the outset that the main characters are almost certainly going to survive whatever is thrown at them (like the cat in Ridley Scott’s Alien). If the authors want to introduce tension and suspense, the tried and tested tactic is to build up empathy between the readers and the most favoured characters. Thus, when they are exposed to the threat of injury or death, we can feel the vicarious thrill of danger. Escapes by the skin of teeth generate the “white-knuckle” quality that makes a good thriller. If the authors can’t manage a real sense of danger then they have to fall back on wit or satire or something else that will engage our interest and make us want to read to the feel-good ending of hero/heroine triumphant. There are, of course, famous exceptions where the author cheats and the hero/heroine dies. Sometimes, this happens in a first-person narrative which increases the shock value when we read the last page.

A different exception to the general rule crops up in some time travel stories where the authors happily maim or kill off lead characters in one version of history because they can be continued uninjured in sequential or parallel timelines depending on whether history is retrospectively changed (and no-one remembers) or multiple universes are created (as in the TV series Sliders). An example of mutable timelines is Orson Scott Card’s Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus where a small group of time travellers make sequential attempts to change history for the better. The alternative is the assumption that the timeline cannot be changed (as in the Company novels by Kage Baker). The best known example I can give you to explain why never to write a book based on this proposition is probably J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. It’s about as exciting as watching paint dry because, having struggled through the overblown first version of history, you then get to read it all over again as the “hero” loops round to ensure that what was predestined actually results.

All of which brings me to The Accidental Time Machine by Joe Haldeman (Berkley, August, 2007). Joe (sorry about the familiarity, but I need to distinguish brother Jack) is getting a little long in the tooth. In conventional PR-speak he’s an “old pro” or a “veteran”, having first leapt into prominence with Hugo and Nebula Awards for The Forever War in 1975 — a triumph that should never go out of print. His approach to writing is simple and uncomplicated, telling the story in a straightforward way with little embellishment. This directness works really well when the plot moves along. Unfortunately, this latest effort is genuinely pedestrian. Now, of course, there’s nothing wrong with pedestrians. They lurk forlorn in the corner of our eyes as we swish past in our gas guzzlers. But, in a different way, Joe is following a genuine favourite of mine, Jack Vance. The young Vance was full of passion and imaginative fire, and reading almost all his books is a delight. But that delight peters out when we come to what I assume will be his last book, Lurulu. Don’t get me wrong. It’s still a perfectly readable book. But it’s not a good advertisement for Vance. Similarly, Joe’s latest book is a big disappointment with his simple prose now wooden and lifeless.

Joe is peddling the saga of a young researcher as he hops forward through time. Structurally, time travel is simply a narrative excuse to jump from one culture to another, much as Swift pushed Gulliver into meeting people of varying size, avoiding uncultured Yahoos and inquiring whether sunbeams could be extracted from cucumbers. Swift was, of course, writing a satire which might continue in a cycle with Wells’ The Time Machine, detour via Huxley’s Brave New World, and end with Sheckley’s The Status Civilization. Wells tells us a straight-laced allegorical story about innocence and Morlocks. Huxley creates a dystopia of genetic manipulation which produces a sterile, drug-based, caste-ridden society. And Sheckley gives us another of his rollicking over-the-top satires. In short, the writer’s motive for introducing cultures that contrast with our own is to hold up a mirror to edify, amaze or amuse us.

So what does Joe offer us here? Well, the two pivotal episodes are religious and economic. As to religion, early writers like Charles Williams and C.S. Lewis set the bar high, closely followed by individual classics like Blish’s A Case of Conscience, Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, etc. but Joe seems content to dally with the notion of a new Church Militant, prepared to cast the first missile and smite the unbelievers in a restoration of an archaic Puritanism. Given the polarisation in the USA between believers and non-believers, I can understand that such a theme may have a certain contemporary resonance, but the delivery is curiously unconvincing. We’re given little more than a flat description of what our hero sees with no explanation or rumination to enliven the proceedings.

In the second set-piece, we’re in a culture based on barter. Telling it straight, one of the best writers of economic SF was Mack Reynolds, always prepared to extrapolate albeit with slightly naive political overtones. Personally, I prefer to laugh and so love Dario Fo’s theatrical farces like Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay in which a protest over shop prices has unexpected consequences. But the big comparison is with one of the best fictional barter societies — another delightful satire, Spondulix by Paul Di Filippo, where the owner of a sandwich shop inadvertently invents a new currency. Sadly, Joe doesn’t measure up.

One of the worst things that can ever happen to a book is that it lacks momentum. In the barter sequence, the society is managed by an AI character called La. “She” describes the people as  “. . .complacent and rather stupid. . . addicted to comfort and stability”. Later explaining, “This is one boring world.” Was ever an admission so ironic from an author supposed to be interested in keeping us amused?

In short, this is a competent book that goes through the motions of a time loop because that’s how plots of this kind have to work. But, instead of maintaining interest with subversive wit, boundless imagination and a satirical eye, we get descriptions of societies that even the author admits are boring. If you haven’t done so already, read the early Joe Haldeman. The man genuinely deserves his royalties for past glories rather than for this current effort.

Hey, guess what? I survived to the end of this episode. Next week, I’ve scheduled a heart attack during a visit from my mother-in-law. You’ll have to read on to find out whether I can be bothered to survive. Hopefully, I’ll find a better book to read in the meantime.

For reviews of other books by Joe Haldeman, see:
Earthbound
Work Done For Hire.

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