Saturday, February 9, 2008

"Forever Peace" by Joe Haldeman (Military Science Fiction, Spoiler Warning)

This book won the Nebula and Hugo awards for best novel in 1998. That's quite an impressive accomplishment.

Joe Haldeman was already a well-known figure in science fiction publishing, mainly for having published "The Forever War" in 1974, which also won the Nebula award in 1975 and the Hugo award in 1976. Despite what you might think from the title, though, "Forever Peace" is not a direct sequel to "The Forever War." It does, however, explore issues about war and its effects on soldiers from a different perspective.

In "Forever Peace," Julian Class is one of a group of soldiers who fight by operating "soldierboys." These are remote controlled battle machines, which allow the war to be fought by soldiers who remain safely in their homeland, hundreds of miles away from where the action is taking place.

The nanotechnology and other advances that make this possible are, however, not shared by everyone. Some countries have it, and fight against less technologically advanced nations whose people have to confront the soldierboys the old fashioned way, and fight and die themselves.

The soldiers who use the soldierboys are able to see what's happening during a battle as if they were really there, and the experiences they go through can still take an emotional toll. These experiences also tend to make soldiers bond closely between themselves, in a way that civilians can't understand.

War is also depicted as a form of entertainment. Video taken from battles is distributed for people's viewing pleasure. Some groups of soldiers even have fans who closely follow all of their battles.

In order to be able to connect to a soldierboy and work with a squad of soldiers, each individual soldier has to undergo an operation on their brain so they can "jack in." The procedure doesn't always work, though, with potentially serious consequences if it goes wrong.

(I'm going to re-iterate my spoiler warning here).

This technology, which enables one to jack in, turns out to have an ironic effect. Julian and some of his friends discover that, while it allows soldiers to communicate and literally be inside each other's heads, prolonged exposure to this linking with others can permanently make one more empathetic. And that could make it harder for a person to harm another human being. That makes them realize they may have found a tool that could bring about peace and end war at last.

That makes it a good example of a theme that runs through much of the science fiction genre. A lot ot scientific discoveries and technological innovations aren't necessarily good or evil all by themselves, but how human beings choose to use them is always the vital question.

There's another, parallel plot involving some physics experiments and an attempt to re-create the big bang, but which might have hugely destructive consequences. This threat adds more ugency to the characters' quest to change the world.

Many of the issues Haldeman brings in to this story are very real and relevant today, even though this novel is set in the future. It's a nice example of the way science fiction can show what can happen if we continue on the course we're on. The stark difference between have and have-not nations, highlighted by the way wars are fought is one example. War as a form of entertainment is something all too true - how many people are glued to their T.V. sets when a war is on? It's been that way since the Vietnam war, hasn't it? And the fact is, there is technology available today that is coming closer to making remote control war possible. Or even beyond that, automated war - there have been stories in the news recently about the use of armed robot drones in Iraq.

That's the sign of a good novel - no matter where or when it takes place, it shows us something relevant to the world today.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

"The Snow Queen" by Joan D. Vinge (Science Fiction, some spoilers)

This book won the best novel Hugo award in 1981.

It's certainly science fiction, and discusses a number of scientific points in the setting. At the same time, the style of the writing and story is kind of like a fantasy novel, and according to some sources, the novel was in fact influenced by the fairy tale of the same title by Hans Christian Andersen.

The story starts on a planet called Tiamat. This planet's culture is divided into two main groups, Summers and Winters. The planet's orbit causes dramatic changes in climate to occur every 150 years, and when that happens, the Summers and Winters trade places as the ruling group, so they take turns. A queen rules the world, so there is always either a Summer Queen or a Snow Queen.

The Snow Queen, Arienrhod has some of her genetic material used to impregnate a number of Summer women. By doing so, she hopes to orchestrate the rise to power of a Summer Queen who will be her clone, not just physically but also in spirit. This is, however, done in secret, since it would be considered unethical even for the Snow Queen.

The story follows Moon, a girl, and her cousin Sparks, a boy, both Summers. The Summers are less interested in technology and progress than the Winters, and tend to live in a way more based on old traditions. Moon and Sparks are lovers. But, when Moon starts training to be a sybil, it separates her from Sparks. A sybil is someone who can enter a trance-like state that allows them to access information accumulated throughout the galaxy, and answer questions.

Sparks goes to Carbuncle, Tiamat's capital, where he ends up being found by Arienhrod - not entirely by accident - and becomes the "Starbuck," the Queen's lover. He first has to fight the old Starbuck, and win. He also has to lead the hunt for mers, creatures whose blood hold a chemical that can hold off the effects of growing old and extend life for decades.

Moon, not knowing that she is a clone of Arienrhod, finds out more about how Tiamat is being manipulated by other worlds in the galactic Hegemony. She realizes this has harmed Tiamat and wants to change it.

One thing I liked about this novel was the prose, I found it very vivid, and it made me feel like I was right there with the characters, seeing and hearing and feeling everything they did.

I found it fascinating to see how of the two characters, Moon and the Snow Queen turn out to be very different people, despite Moon being a genetic clone of Arienrhod. Raised in the summer culture, Moon has different values and does not think the same way as Arienrhod. Maybe Vinge was trying to venture an opinion on the the nature versus nurture debate, a question that's never been definitively answered.

Arienrhod seems to come across as far more selfish and manipulative. Moon seems like a person more sincerely interested in helping others and doing what she can for the greater good of everyone.

Although, there's an ironic twist in what does happen to Moon in the end - spoiler warning - just as Arienrhod wanted, Moon does become the Summer Queen. So despite their differences and Airenrhod's realization that Moon isn't the same as her, part of Airenrhod's plan does come to pass.

I also noticed how much of the behavior of the characters was defined by the setting and culture, to the point where some people are expected to make considerable sacrifices in the name of their culture. This is especially true of people who work in government, which is ironic as well because such people are often perceived as having a lot of power. But in this book, many of them come across as being very bound by customs and rules, and what the public perception of their actions will be.

This novel certainly has some strong themes, but they're explored subtly, which makes it a good read. Intelligent and thoughtful, with good characters. I found the pace to be a little bit slow, which isn't a criticism - but if you prefer more intense, fast-paced material, this might not be your favorite type of book.

There were a few things that made it seemed little dated - some things about the characters' attitudes and interactions seemed like they were influenced by the late seventies type of thinking, but not too much.

All in all, a good read.