Joe Haldeman, Phones & Speculation

I’ve been working through the works of Joe Haldeman.  Just got through Camouflage, which is his 2004 novel about ancient aliens.  Everything Joe writes is in one way or another about the wars of the twentieth century; and I guess he is trying to teach us about the pointlessness of mass brutality by illustrating it in particularly graphic ways.  This particular novel, though, has aliens that have to learn how to look and act human, and is therefore a lesson about what it means to be human.  One thing that is off is that the aliens don’t have cell phones.  In this country at least, a person’s relationship to their phone is a big part of how we relate to the world as human beings.  Scary thought.

Joe’s aliens don’t live off of their phones.  They don’t do anything on them at all. The main character at one point has to establish himself as contemporary human, and doesn’t even get a phone.  Lord knows you can’ t travel through an airport, make any dinner reservations with friends, find stores near you, get the current temperature, or keep up with late breaking news without one.  Joe’s alien characters have sophisticated public personae and have to move through the world at a rapid pace, juggling multiple identities and relationships to keep their charades up.  Sounds just like my life.  And how can you do that without a good data plan?

I wonder: can you be too old to write science fiction?  I’m not young and I’m trying to write sf too, so I’m nervous about this.  Maybe you have to be living and breathing the technology of your time to be able to speculate properly in speculative fiction.  And we all tend to get trapped in a decade.  My dad is trapped in the seventies.  I’m probably trapped in the nineties.  Science fiction always takes the technology of the moment and extrapolates that out into the future, often in hilarious ways that can seem so dated to later readers.  So when you read a Philip K. Dick novel written in 1960 about 2050 and it has people talking on rotary phones, it’s a crazy anachronism to the modern reader.   But Dick also wrote alot about designer drugs, and for 40 years his speculations rang true about the meaning of designer drugs in our lives.  He got it right for a long time.

William Gibson also got it right at first, especially since in Neuromancer he predicted the freaking internet, ahead of it by fifteen years.  He had that spark of intuition that was so in tune with the current technological elan that he elegantly traced where it was all going to end up, much like a historian would weave together threads of past events into a coherent and teleological narrative of history.  Things happened as they should have, as only they could have, for these specific reasons.  But one of Gibson’s more recent works, Pattern Recognition, just feels like a brand name roll call of the current products we all use.  Feels self conscious. Has he lost it?

Maybe the tech is moving so fast no one can keep up.  We are living in the future. Google’s cars that drive themselves and Xbox Kinect – how very Minority Report.  Or maybe you just have to read this speculative fiction stuff fresh out of the oven.

So now I’m on a search for the best science fiction novel written in 2009 or 2010.  Suggestions welcome.  I’ll be reading it on my Kindle reader for the iPhone.


  1. So you should really check out Daemon by Suarez, its good scifi using today’s tech. A lot of the things he extrapolates are going to be super familiar to you from work and personal, like AR, gray markets, social currency, etc. I think you will find that you aren’t too old, anyhow, do your new rules preclude you from using a kindle? If not, then I can share with you when we meet up in LA….

  2. I just read Camouflage, too! It was a nice, quick read but yeah, didn’t feel like it connected with the era of now. Pattern Recognition I think you got wrong; it was about the transience of culture, if I remember correctly. Ennui may be a sign that an author is slipping, but writing about cultural ennui is not necessarily indicative of the slippage.

    If you get a chance in your travels, spend a weekend or a week in Charleston, SC.

      1. I see the eangrmece of non humoind aliens in sci fi movies. I bases this on the discoveries scientist have made on new life forms on earth. Like the extremophiles that can survive in scalding hot temperatures and the ones that can live freezing below zero temperatures. And scientist have discovred organisms that do not breath oxygen. And there are the tube worms that live in the deep oceans which can live without sunlight. These discoveries should prompt hollywood to develope life forms that live on hot planets like venus and cold moons like Europoa.

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