by Joe Haldeman, published in 2010
This one is fairly dire. An unnecessary sequel to the arguably unnecessary Marsbound, and one of the most incoherent recent genre works I've read. No single element within the story is entirely bad, but it keeps retolling the type of story it's focusing on, with some very haphazard plot developments. What’s more, the unfolding of events prove to repeatedly make make large elements of the preceding irrelevant. More than anything such moments-make it seem the book is just killing time and padding itself to fulfill an arbitrary quota.
It begins with an extended psychological study of a small group with interstellar transit--then once they arrive that element becomes irrelevant, and a lot of half-baked revelations of alien backstory ensue. Along the way the psychology becomes irrelevant, the momentum moves to high-staked diplomatic talks and political tension--and then human aggression emerges again, and the alien retaliation dooms everyone on the last page. It's a fundmaentally strange novel, and not in a good way. I was reminded at several points of Macleod's incomparably better Engines of Light trilogy, and Haldeman's aliens as well as dystopian politics look particularly flat by comparison.
What's even more discouraging is that all of this feels derivative for Haldeman---the interstellar journey, resulting internal tensions and mysterious alien intervention are very familiar from the Worlds trilogy and Forever Free. I’ve talked about ambitious failures several points in earlier reviews, books that for some reason don’t fully work but nevertheless show an ambition and creativity in the intent. It might be awkward to read through the sylistic shift of The Snow or the morose characterization of Jane Eyre, but at some level the failure is still a failure of overaching, of trying to engage with major literary forms in a unique and worthwhile way. There might be some boredom or frustration in the account, and that’s not a negligable factor, but a frustrating reading experience can still be worthwhile to have done at the end of the day, for the big picture delivered. What we have here is rather different, it’s a failure in large part from lack of ambition. It’s a story that depends on being a sequel while not carrying through any of the main charms, such as they were, of Marsbound. It’s a book that throws in lots of random ideas and major plot points, but doesn’t even stir them together enough to make it feel like a coherent book. What’s more, the extent to which the ideas in themselves are under-developed and derivative on earlier ideas by the same author make it seem Haldeman is a repeating record that’s skipping tracks through the overuse. It’s not an encouraging thing to report of an author whose delivered some classic fiction in the past, but this book is a thorough failure, and it makes me question whether I’ll invest my time in reading Haldeman’s forthcoming material.
This work doesn't start off my 2010 SF reading on a high note.
Worse than: Marsbound by Joe Haldeman
Better than: Hylozoic by Rudy Rucker. And when I have to make a point of saying something is better than Hylozoic that's generally a very bad sign.