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"I just got out of my theatre class and the teacher (Sara Morsey) went into a half hour lecture on how the Satellite is the best source for finding out about what was going on in town. She read parts of Shamrock McShane's article (The Play About the Baby – see: newmoonrising.com) and went on to say that Mr. McShane is a journalistic hero who makes his readers actually think instead of spoon feeding them their news and reviews. She strongly recommended that all her students pick it up this and every month."

– Denise Hank

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Updated: December 25, 2011

Joe Haldeman's Cosmological Adventure

By Shamrock McShane

Here and Now

It's a pleasant afternoon in Gainesville while the northeast is shrouded in snow. Sharp–eyed, wide–browed, compact Joe Haldeman pulls up a chair at the Shamrock Pub alongside his demure and witty mate of 40 years, Gay, and quaffs a Guinness. Joe has already written and painted and cycled today, and now imbibes simple pleasures—talk about books and art in a clean well–lighted place, at least until the sun goes down.

Haldeman is looking forward to July and a two–week residency on Norton Island in Maine. "If all goes well, I'm going to spend a couple weeks free writing, filling pages with words and pictures that I'll mine later for other projects. Might write a short story or two, might start outlining a novel. No preconceptions."

Joe Haldeman, one of the world's preeminent science fiction writers and one of the best writers in this writers' town, has called Gainesville home for at least half the year since the early 80s. The other half he spends teaching science fiction writing at MIT. But his true place is among the stars.

David Brin calls Haldeman "one of the most prophetic writers of our time."

"Haldeman has long been one of our most aware, comprehensive, and necessary writers," wrote Peter Straub. "He speaks from a place deep within the collective psyche, and more importantly, his own. His mastery is informed with a survivor's hard won wisdom."

The Art of Fiction

It was common knowledge to those of us in the creative writing suite at the University of Florida that the worst writers wrote the most. They didn't have what Hemingway called his built–in shit–detector. Haldeman has one, has the thing turned on, all the time. He writes clean hard prose. There's no bullshit.

The simplest rule in writing fiction, which is to say, in writing, is to tell the readers something they don't already know. Ok, so that's easy for Haldeman because he knows so much more than we do.

The trick to fiction writing, we were given to understand, largely lay in point–of–view. That's where and how a writer grabs hold of a story. Through whose eyes is this story being seen? On whose authority is the story being told?

Joe Haldeman plays a sleight of hand game with this principle, a kind of narrative three–card monte. The deception might be apparent in a short story, where only a master like DeMaupassant or Crane or Joyce can subtly shift from one lens to another without the reader being jarred into consciousness of manipulation. Haldeman, however, has ground his lenses with poetry, and the purity of his style turns his prose transparent from short story through novella to novel.

Still, there's no mistaking this moment in The Hemingway Hoax, when the book finally announces that it is having us on.

"From the back of the shop, a third person listened to the conversation with great interest. He, it, wasn't really a person though he could look like one: he had never been born and he would never die. But then he didn't really exist, not in the down–home–pinch–yourself–ouch! way that you and I do. In another way, he did more than exist, since he could slip back and forth between places you and I don't even have words for."

Nevertheless, if you can imagine truly, all bets are off. Haldeman can and does. Hemingway materializes. Haldeman breathes life into Papa. Sort of.

" ' I'm quite real. In a way, I am more real that you are.' As it spoke it aged; the mustachioed leading man handsome Hemingway of the twenties; the slightly corpulent, still magnetic media hero of the thirties and forties; the beard turning white, the features hard and sad and then twisting with impotence and madness, and finally a sudden loud report and the cranial vault exploding, blood and brains splashing the mahogany veneer of the wall. Light glittered off embedded chips of the skull, There was a strong smell of cordite and blood. The almost headless corpse shrugged, spreading its hands, one of which still held a smoking shotgun. 'I can look like anyone I want.' The mess disappeared and it became the young Hemingway again."

1968

"We went to Expo 67," Joe recalls in the Shamrock, and it is instant recall, because that moment in time is not only pivotal in both Joe's and Gay's lives but for, well, the species. 1968 is approaching. "And when we got back my draft notice was waiting for me."

Joe Haldeman's novel 1968 doesn't just take us to Vietnam, it takes us to the world of 1968. It explores cause and effect on a large scale, geo–politically and psychically. It is constructed in fragments. Haldeman was influenced by Dos Passos' USA, which syncopated American themes, created a mosaic. When the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King enter the plot, like Napoleon does in War and Peace, there is what Brecht called the alienation effect.

Spider, the protagonist, is on a far–away planet when the narrative begins in a fire base in Vietnam, having been transported there by Robert Heinlein's Glory Road. Then Haldeman takes us inside his skin.

"Spider was white nominally; like all other white boys and men at the fire base, he was actually red, his unwashed skin deeply stained with ground–in laterite dirt."

So here's Joe in 1968, one minute a college student, like Hamlet, and the next he's jumping out of a helicopter in the jungle, and somebody's, lots of somebodies, shooting at him.

He's in grass over his head, machine guns are strafing from…somewhere. He tumbles over something into a heap of plastic bags, big plastic bags, of dead bodies. This geek who likes scifi and watching the stars.

So Joe must've traveled back to the moment before, when there was still the possibility of the Dream Job, as he calls it in the autobiographical sketch he's written for Contemporary Authors, working with the Naval Observatory.

"The position was taking astrophotos with a small telescope high on a mountain in Argentina. The irresistible part of it, for someone who wanted to be both an astronomer and a writer, was that you actually put in 80 hours a week but then you got the next week off, doing anything you could find to do in the small town at the foot of the mountain, like poetry and fiction."

So, what if Joe had gotten that dream job instead of being blown apart in Vietnam? I would wish that life on Joe Haldeman in another uinverse.

What would have become of him? Would we ever have heard from him as a writer? What would he have written?

Old Twentieth

Old Twentieth, Haldeman's latest novel, unravels from its first sentence. "The smell of death is always with you, like a rotten oily stain in the back of your mouth."

Scene and summary take on a wider dimension in science fiction. Summary can stretch like a bungee cord. Old Twentieth refers to the last century of the prior millennium.

"Old Twentieth, when everybody's life was a rainbow arc of accomplishments and failures, grounded in the peace of darkness at either end."

Back to basics. The principle narrative device of Old Twentieth is a time machine. It beckons to the hero and offers him another self. Turnabout is fair play. What happens if you aim the instrument at the author?

And the man he would have been, the writer he would have become, without Vietnam—who is that guy? Can we find him in some parallel universe? Not without running headlong into Spinoza's inescapable logic.

Is this the best of all possible worlds? No, Spinoza reasoned. This is the only possible world. Things cannot be other than what they are.

Spinoza's logic leads directly to the present moment and radiates. The choice does not devolve to settling on one among many lives the author might have led. The borders between those lives are imaginary anyway, just as is that between life and death. There is only essence, which is why Joe Haldeman is an essential writer.

"Birth and death are both illusions," Haldeman writes revealingly in Old Twentieth. "Your essence simply exists. When conditions are right for your birth, you are born, and you go through life. When conditions are right for you to die, you do. But it's all illusion. Your essence is unchanged by those mundane trivialities."