Category Archives: Books – 2 stars

J.K. Rowling – Harry Potter and the Order Of The Phoenix

If you are expecting more of the traditional “Harry Potter Magic”, you won’t be disappointed. There is lots and lots of it. But I found it very frustrating because it just doesn’t go anywhere. Every chapter has its little ups and downs, but the book as a whole is a long, slow climb to a single climax around page 700. It doesn’t read like a novel, it reads like a magazine serialization, where it’s important to have a self-contained, entertaining episode each week. That’s great if you’re reading it to your children, or if you want to maximise the time you spend luxuriating in cuddly, escapist fantasy. It’s severely annoying if you like a book to have a point.

Also, although Rowling plants the seeds for characters with depth, she falls back on Scooby-Doo stereotypes, where sinister behaviour is just a mask for underlying incompetence. She sets up situations with the potential for exploring important social and personal issues, but then turns them into comic sketches, or brushes them quickly aside to make way for cozy normality. It’s like she’s afraid to make any hard choices about where her heroes and her literary world are going, and is making up for this by just keeping on writing. It may be fun, but it’s only filler. There’s no meat in this pie, only gravy.

Greg Bear – Vitals

Vitals starts out well as a science fiction bio-techno-thriller. Hal Cousins is a freelance scientist doing research into longevity. He raises private funding from extremely rich people with an interest in living a long, long time. He thinks he is very close to cracking the problem. But then he gets some mysterious phone calls from his brother, the scientific expedition he is on is sabotaged, and his submarine pilot tries to kill him. When he makes it back to dry land, his funding is cut off, his lab is shut down, and he finds himself on the run from shadowy forces he doesn’t understand. Where the book goes wrong, though, is that this isn’t Hal Cousins’ story. About half-way through, we’re introduced to another character in an attempt to provide a different perspective on events, but it isn’t his story either. There’s a mysterious conspiracy happening, and there are attempts to unravel it. But too many important events appear to happen behind the scenes, far out of Cousins’ reach, with the end result that he is powerless to change anything. He doesn’t drive the plot–he’s just a passenger. That’s a pity, because the real story would have been very interesting.

Joe Haldeman – Forever Free

When Joe Haldeman won the Hugo award for his novel Forever Peace in 1998, a lot of people were disappointed that the book wasn’t a sequel to his 1974 Hugo and Nebula award-winning classic, The Forever War. Both books have a similar thematic underpinning, though, and put across a strong anti-war message; as a Vietnam veteran, Haldeman is always at his best when he writes about his “core values”.

Now, in Forever Free, he does return to the world and the same characters he left behind in The Forever War, in particular William Mandella and his wife Marygay. In The Forever War, the main characters were soldiers, fighting battles on distant worlds, and hopping forward through time in the process (relativity still being in effect). Each time they returned to Earth, they would find society changed almost beyond recognition. Eventually, human society evolved into a group mind known as “Man”, and the war ended.

Some twenty-odd years have now passed, and Mandella and Marygay have settled down on the planet Middle Finger. They have a family, and live in a peaceful farming community. Life is hard (the planet spends most of its 6-year “year” in deep winter), but peaceful. Mandella and his fellow veterans, though, believe that Man is keeping the old humans around as a genetic backup for the human race, in case something goes wrong with “Man” as a species.

To Mandella, the society is stale. His life is stale. He doesn’t have confidence in the future of Man, and wants to do something about it–if he can’t change the society itself, he will escape from it. Using a combination of hibernation and an ancient spaceship cranked up to relativistic speeds, he and a group of other veterans plan to take a short-cut to the future, and come back in 40,000 years’ time.

So far, so reasonable. This is a fairly logical extension to the first book, and takes the ideas forward at a gentle pace. Haldeman sets up some interesting conflicts between Mandella and Marygay, who considers the society a dystopia, and his children who think the opposite. Man is initially willing to go along with the whole expedition idea, but puts up resistance later; this ultimately leads to a showdown in which the veterans steal the spaceship.

…And then it all goes a bit strange.

I don’t want to give too much away about the second half of the book, but it is like Haldeman decided he’d had enough of the original plot, and threw it away in favour of something completely different. All of the interesting questions he sets up in the first half get dropped unanswered, and the emotional conflicts get rolled back to a previous state, as if they hadn’t happened at all. The characters are the same, but they’re in the middle of a bizarre and completely unexpected adventure. This new story doesn’t depend on the original characters in any way, and could have been set in any generic SF world–no need to place it in an established and well-loved environment. He introduces not one but two dei ex machina, and then doesn’t do anything with them!

I’m baffled. It’s like a head-on collision between two different novels, and the characters ultimately end up walking around in a bit of a daze.

What bothers me most is that Mandella and his fellow veterans to have no apparent stake in the outcome of the second part of the book; why did Haldeman not choose characters upon whom the outcome would have a deeper (read: “any”) impact?

I feel like this is a waste of a sequel, and I can’t help wondering if this book is more inspired by marketing forces than a genuine desire to explore the further story of William Mandella. Haldeman is a master writer, and he has written some of the best SF in the last quarter century (in addition to his novel Hugos, he has also won numerous awards for his short fiction), but although this book is unquestionably well written, I found the story terribly disappointing. Perhaps I had my hopes up too high.

The Forever War is a hard act to follow, and much though I hate to say it, I wish Haldeman had left it to stand on its own.