This post was originally published on Outer Places.
Joe Haldeman's guest panel at Escape Velocity 2017 started with a short, sweet introduction from Charles Hildebrant, from the Museum of Science Fiction: "It's not often you get to meet the inventor of a genre, but you are today."
Joe Haldeman established the military science fiction genre with his landmark book The Forever War, which tells the story of William Mandella, who is drafted into an elite interstellar military unit to fight an alien race called the Taurans. In his talk, Haldeman recounted his experiences in Vietnam, his journey as a writer, and the story behind the book.
Cleaning test tubes in Vietnam
Haldeman started with his enlistment in the 1960s. The Vietnam War was in full swing, and Haldeman had been sticking to college to avoid being drafted. "I had this idea that war was something that you absolutely had to stay away from." Still, he decided that he could mitigate the damage of being sent to war if he could get a specific assignment. He went to the recruitment office and signed up to be a scientific assistant, which he imagined would amount to cleaning test tubes in an army lab.
What the recruiter didn't tell him was that he'd have to "go to Vietnam and kill people before they kill you before you get to clean your test tubes."
Strangely enough, the Vietnam War ended up furnishing Haldeman with life experience he'd never had. According to him, "I didn't know what country I was leaving…I learned about physics and astronomy and mathematics…but I never learned about the real world."
Haldeman ended up coming back from the war with 27 wounds and a deep well of memories and experiences, which he poured into his fiction. "I didn't realize what a great existential advantage I was getting," he said. "Basically, all my science fiction buddies helped me recover from all my existential problems…my whole combat experience was completely ameliorated by my science fiction experience."
Even before Haldeman had left for Vietnam, he knew he wanted to be a writer. "I was a science fiction fan before I was an American citizen," he said. "I never lost sight of wanting to write this modern science fiction war novel…I was just the guy who came at the right time."
The Writing of The Forever War
When Haldeman started writing short stories for fantasy and sci-fi magazines, there were 27 publications to choose from. One of the high points in his writing career came when he looked at a newsstand and found that seventeen of those twenty-seven F&SF magazines had one of his stories in them.
After completing the Iowa Writing Workshop, Haldeman walked away with the first chapter of a new novel. After figuring out a title with his brother, the name The Forever War was born. The novel was unique in the fact that it was a war story at heart, but not explicitly right-wing, like most similar works of the time.
The theme of The Forever War became, in the words of Haldeman, "dealing with people who are fundamentally different from you [in terms of] appetites, tastes, philosophies, who still have to work together."
The novel features female characters, addresses the separation of the military from the rest of society, and deals with homosexuality, elements that Haldeman took directly from his time in Vietnam and his thoughts about the war. After meeting two homosexual medics during his tour, he decided that he wanted his writing to feature people from across the spectrum of American military life, commenting "These guys are as real as I am."
When talking about the influences on the book, Haldeman noted that he "grew up in this humanistic, anti-establishment tradition of science fiction writers," and that he was "influenced by his generation's desire to change the world."
The Struggle to Publish
Haldeman notes that at the time he was pitching The Forever War to publishers, science fiction war stories were "very, very right-wing, very masculine, [had] no sex and a very heavy God influence." Instead of trying to fit into that mold, Haldeman decided not to pay attention to what came before. That ended up causing major problems with his publishing prospects — he recalls coming into his agent's office, where he was shown a small index card of all seventeen of the publishers who had rejected The Forever War.
At one point, an editor sat him down and said "Joe, listen, some genres don't mix. Sci-fi does not mix with women," a comment directed at the inclusion of female characters in the book.
After the realization that his book was most likely doomed to failure, Haldeman attended the Nebula Award banquet, where he "pissed and moaned" to the gathered sci-fi and fantasy editors about his struggles. Eventually, he was cornered by Ben Bova, another sci-fi author, who reassured him that the story was worth telling. After some wrangling, the book was picked up by St. Martin's Press.
From there, Haldeman said the book was an "average" commercial success, but met with a big critical response. The Forever War began to pick up momentum, and to this day it has never gone out of print.
Science Fiction and Literary Fiction: Painting Stripes on a Giraffe
After Haldeman had finished speaking at the event, the floor was opened for questions. I stood up and said something like this:
"When I went through college, I got my degree in creative writing, and my professors were adamant that literary and genre fiction existed on opposite sides of a wall. Do you think it's a good thing to subject fantasy and sci-fi to literary, academic standards?"
Haldeman responded with "If you paint a giraffe with stripes, is it a tiger?"
Some folks in the audience laughed. "It seems so artificial," he commented. "You write a book in the hopes that people will read it, and that they'll be affected by it," he went on. "[If you write a book for both a literary and general audience], you end up writing the book for different people, who want different things from it."
From there, he harkened back to the famous Peter Graham quote, which says that the 'Golden Age' of sci-fi is twelve years old: "I'm still a kid sitting in a corner with a book, trying to keep my mother from giving chores to me. I have a World War II jungle tent…I used to hide in there [as a kid]. I would [hang it] between two trees, take armloads of science fiction and read them in the tent. That was my education as a reader, writer, [and] person."
I thought that was a great answer.