The Forever Awarded:
An Interview with Joe Haldeman
© 2002 by Geoff
Joe Haldeman is a charming and gracious gentleman. He happily consented to an interview in between his "official" duties as Guest of Honour at Convergence (the 41st Australian National Science Fiction Convention), freely profferring wine and conversation. He even helped out when my portable cassette recorder played up, allowing me to use his own for this interview.
Geoff: Can you give us an autobiography, particularly in relation to, "The Forever War"?
Joe: I was a foot soldier in Vietnam; I was drafted, against my will. I was a pacifist, but I was drafted anyhow. I'm an atheist - I was then, too - and the only way to get out was to get a letter from your minister, so that was not available.
Anyhow, I was a soldier. I turned that into my first novel, "War Year", and then wrote a couple of other books. "The Forever War" was always in the back of my mind. I've just re-read a story of mine called, "Timepiece", which I believe was the third story I had published. It has almost all of the elements of, "The Forever War" in a short story.
But I sat down, literally - I just sat down, put a piece of paper in the typewriter, and wrote the first line of the novel: tonight we're going to show you eight silent ways to kill a man. And I kept going with that. After about twenty pages, I realised that here was 'the Vietnam science fiction novel' that I could write.
I think that the title of the novel originally was, "Hero" - my editor said, "That's not science fictional enough". I was driving along with my brother, brainstorming, and he said, "What about, 'The War That Went Forever'?" I said, " 'The Forever War'!" and he said, "Yeah, that's it."
Geoff: You wrote that in the early 1970s?
Joe: I wrote it between 1970 and 1974. It came out in December of 1975.
Geoff: And it was obviously a great success.
Joe: Yes, but you wouldn't have thought so, because it was rejected by eighteen publishers before the nineteenth one bought it. If I hadn't had an agent, I would probably have got discouraged and moved onto some other book.
Geoff: Why do you think it was so successful?
Joe: I guess it was time for a science fiction war novel that was anti-war but not anti-soldier. That's all I can figure. It's a well enough written book - I feel that I've written many better books - but it's the one that keeps in print. So I don't know - war novels were popular - but that doesn't explain it all. It's also a love story, and I think - although I didn't plan it this way - the fact that it has a strong female character and a love story, as well as a strong male character and a war story, I think gives it twice the possible population of readers.
Geoff: How much of William Mandella is Joe Haldeman, or vice versa?
Joe: The basic description of his life would be pretty much me, because he had a Degree in Physics, he was my age when I was drafted, and he was drafted against his will and went out to fight an unknown enemy, being incredibly distant from his home. And his homeland was not affected by the war, except financially. All those things are a reflection of the reality that I lived through. But I didn't pattern him after myself; I didn't try to stay true to any image I had of myself. He was just a character in a book. My name is Joe William Haldeman, so William Mandella is an anagram of my name.
Geoff: I remember that, on a previous visit to Melbourne in 1980, you discussed the name Mary Gay Potter.
Joe: Yes, that's my wife's maiden name. But this was just a book I was writing. I didn't pattern the character on her, either.
Geoff: One of the things that, "The Forever War" is known for, these days, is the fact that you included homosexual characters.
Joe: Yes, and they were all okay guys.
Geoff: Why did you do that back in...the early 1970s?
Joe: I guess it was 1970 or '71 when I wrote that part. I think I wrote it just to isolate the main character. He was the only straight guy in a gay Universe. And so they called him, "the old queer" because he was the only queer character. I wanted to isolate him. That is what it was about. There's not much there about sexuality, or about real homosexuality, which is to me just another way of going about it.
I have - I had; he died of AIDS - I had a great friend. He read the book, and he was annoyed at the feminine characteristics of the homosexuals. He said, "We aren't like that; we're just regular people". I said, "Well, okay, it's a cartoon, it's meant satirically. If you're offended, I'm sorry". But he just wanted it to be more realistic.
I'm certain that if I wrote it today, I wouldn't have this feminisation of the gay people.
Geoff: If you wrote it now, are there other things you would change?
Joe: Well, I'd write a very different book. I'm not 27 any more. I was 27 to 29 years of age when I wrote it. I think I would write a better book, but it might not be as popular a book. In a way, I think, "Forever Peace" is a better book, but I have different standards now. Other people seem to like "The Forever War", but then, the people who buy "The Forever War" are closer to the age I was when I wrote it. Maybe it speaks to them.
Geoff: In 1970, just to mention gay people, in a way that was not completely derogatory, must have been a brave move?
Joe: Yes, it got some interesting reviews in that regard. I didn't think the issue was that unusual, because I knew a lot of gay people. When you have friends who are straight, you don't enquire as to details of their sexual behaviour, and so why does that make any difference if they're not straight?
I've had friends who were a lesbian couple, who were the DJ and Bouncer at a transvestite bar. All their pals were were going through gender reassignment, sex change operations and so forth, and that is a terribly profound problem to have - you 'gotta say that's a problem. They were really interesting people
I was born the way I am, and never wanted to change. So there's a whole Universe of stuff that they have to deal with, that I don't have to deal with. It's worse than being black; it's worse than being something that you couldn't help, that other people can see. Because you can look at the person and not understand the storm that's going on inside him or her; because they want to be someone completely different.
To me, it's profound and I've never written directly about it. I've had transitional gender people in my novels occasionally, but they're there as: "Look at us up here in the future, how we can change genders."
Geoff: The main character in "The Forever War" is trying to make sense of his identity in a world where he doesn't fit in, where everyone is expecting him to be one thing - but he's another. You've never directly written about transgender people - maybe you've written indirectly about them?
Joe: I guess so, because he is the only queer in the Universe. But what is interesting to me, in retrospect, is why he didn't even think about going over and being homosexual himself. I think if I were in that situation, I would just do it, if there was no female around who was going to be interested in me.
Twenty years later, I came to write the female version of it, in a novelette called, "A Separate War". It takes the female character who was ignored in the original book. And she's in a Universe full of lesbian woman and gay men. She says, "Oh well, I'm never going to get back to the Universe I left, so I'll just find a woman I love." And she gets on with it. Which I think is, psychologically, fairly realistic.
Geoff: "The Forever War" was adapted into a play by a gay theatre troupe?
Joe: Yes, that was interesting. They were a wonderful troupe of experimental theatre. When the casting call went up for "The Forever War", the line was around the block. This was one time I realised how popular the novel was, especially in the gay community.
They did a fine job. I really enjoyed working with them, because no-one does experimental theatre for money, you just do it for love. They would get together every week, and go over the lines, go over the parts and argue about what to do. It was just marvellous. None of us made a nickel out of it (laughs).
Geoff: How was the play received?
Joe: It was received pretty well, except by the gay press! The gay press panned it - not universally, but most of them panned it, because the homosexuals were not like real homosexuals. But I had already worked that out with the actors. I mean, the play was not about homosexuality; it was about isolation. The main character, who was straight, was surrounded by gay people. And the gay actors...they said that was cool, it was no problem with them. But the gay press, who was used to seeing pro-homosexual plays by this company, wondered why they put on a blatantly heterosexual play.
Geoff: "The Forever War" has been purchased for TV?
Joe: Yes, they're going to do a mini-series next year. I'm looking forward to that. I've been in contact with the writer and he seems like a nice guy. He wrote the movie, "Tombstone", which I liked very much.
Geoff: Have you ever had "The Forever War" compared to other science fiction novels, for example, "Starship Troopers"?
Joe: Yes, always "Starship Troopers". And I think it's a simplistic comparison to say that it's an answer to "Starship Troopers". When I wrote it, "Starship Troopers" had been adequately answered by other people. If there were any books "Forever War" was related to, it was my own war novel, "War Year", and Stephen Crane's, "The Red Badge of Courage". I hadn't thought about "Starship Troopers", though I had read it, of course.
Robert Heinlein, that gracious gentleman, said he loved "The Forever War". He said, "You and I will never agree on politics", but he liked the book a lot - he said he read it three times. So I can subtract one time for his being a gentleman, but it's a wonderful compliment.
Geoff: You wrote "Forever Peace" after that, but it was a companion, not a sequel.
Joe: Right, but that was twenty years later. I wrote it as a sort of "The Forever War" twenty years later, and because the face of war had changed so much in twenty years. I was essentially writing about America's attitude towards war: the idea of expending a lot of enemy lives and no American ones if at all possible, which is practical politically. It seems like an impractical way to fight wars, although if I were a soldier, I'd be all in favour of it. But I took it to a logical science fictional extreme.
Geoff: So you've written three now in that series?
Joe: "Forever Free" was an actual sequel for, "Forever War". It picks up the same characters.
Geoff: You've just published that recently?
Joe: Yes, and that was an oddity. I'd always wanted to write a novella, or a novelette, about the things that happened after, "The Forever War". It wound up being a novel. Curious.
Geoff: The theme in "Forever Free" is quite different.
Joe: I like it.
Geoff: How would you describe it?
Joe: Theological...or ontological. To me, it's consistent with "The Forever War", but almost in a trivial way. At the end of "Forever Free", you have a whole different idea of the laws of physics and the nature of causality, and why people do things and why the Universe does things. In "The Forever War", the Universe - that is to say, the life of soldiers - is capricious and is ruled by forces that they don't understand. In "Forever Free", that becomes true of all humanity, and of reality in general. Some people say, 'What does this have to do with anything? It's a deux ex machina device." I say it's completely consistent with the first novel.
Geoff: You've said that you're an atheist, but you've got theological themes in this novel.
Joe: (amused) Atheism has a need for theology too! (laughs)
Geoff: Are there any more books planned in the series?
Joe: I couldn't imagine writing another one, but then, I never thought I'd write a sequel to, "The Forever War". People offered me lots of money to write a sequel, but I kept saying, "No". And then I wrote one - it was just one of these things that happens.
I was ready to write another novel anyhow, so I just did the outline for that and sent it in. Actually, I wrote one paragraph. It was accepted just on the statement: "This is the sequel to 'The Forever War'."
Geoff: You also edited "Study War No More".
Joe: Yes. It's way out of print now. That was the first book of mine that was translated into French. And it was interesting. I can't speak French well enough to remember the title, but it was, "The Third World War Is Not Going To Happen" and it had an introduction by Margarite Yourcenar, a wonderful, scholarly lady. That was a real 'first' for me; it was wonderful.
I had edited a collection of science fiction humour. That was pretty easy. So I thought, "Why not try one about anti-war stories?" and I wrote everybody whose work I admired, and asked if they either had something, or could write something for me. I wound up with some stories, and I think it was pretty successful. Didn't make a lot of money. It's been out of print for twenty-five years, I guess.
Geoff: Would you say that war has been a large inspiration for you?
Joe: Not all of it. I wouldn't say even half of it. I wouldn't want to be typecast as a Vietnam novelist, or a war novelist. Nobody wants to be typed. But I often come back to war, at least as a minor chord in my books. In the books that aren't about fighting war, often there is a war going on in the background. But that's like life; that's like now.
The book I'm doing now goes back to World War Two in places. It's a novel that has two threads: one in the past, and one in the future.
Geoff: In the "Forever Taboo" panel at Convergence, you stated that "The Forever War" is not so much about homosexuality as about isolation and being different. You said that, "Everyone is queer in someone else's eyes." Is that a personal philosophy?
Joe: It's just an observation. I think we're all very much alone. I come from a small family, and none of them is alive any more - except for me. Even before that, I had a sense that I was an isolate. I think a lot of my friends have it - you know, at three o'clock in the morning, you're sitting around, and there's nobody else but you. You just have to get through life. William Mandella had that in spades. There was demonstrably nobody else like him in the Universe.
But just as a simple statement, it's true. Of course everybody is unique; of course nobody is like you. But whether that should lead to isolation or enjoyment of variation, may be just a matter of attitude. I think that whatever person doesn't have that kind of aloneness is probably kidding himself. I'm not bothered by it. I like being alone. I just spend so much time in front of cameras and in front of audiences, and so forth. I think it's pretty obvious that a person like that will relish times when they can just sit and look at the stars, or sit on the beach. That's what I am; that's where I'm happiest.
I was just thinking, this morning, that I write best - or I most enjoy writing - when I'm camping and tramping. When there's a campfire, a log to sit on, a notebook to write in, and nobody can find me at all. I'm totally alone. I enjoy that.
Haldeman's books include:
War Year, 1972
The Forever War, 1975
Study War No More, 1977
Planet of Judgment & World Without End (Star Trek novels) 1977 & 1979
Worlds Apart, 1983
Forever Peace, 1997
Forever Free, 1999
His awards include:
Hugo Awards: The Forever War (1976) and Forever Peace (1998)
Nebula Awards: The Forever War (1976) and Forever Peace (1998)
Galaxy Award: Mindbridge
Ditmar Award: The Forever War.
Further information on Joe Haldeman can be found on his web site at http://home.earthlink.net/~haldeman