The U.S.A Trilogy

If you’re a regular reader of science fiction reviews and criticism, you may have heard of the “Dos Passos technique”.

John Brunner was the first to use it in science fiction in 1968’s Stand on Zanzibar. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction describes them as “modernist.

Other writers followed. Of the top of my head, I can think of Joe Haldeman’s “To Howard Hughes: A Modest Proposal” and David Brin’s Earth as using it. Some recent works by Kim Stanley Robinson, which I haven’t read yet, have been said to use it.

I’m a fan of the technique and think it quite effective, so, in 1997, I decided to let Dos Passos show me what his technique was.

The John Dos Passos memorial website says

Dos Passos considered himself foremost a writer of contemporary chronicles. He chose the moniker of “chronicler” because he was happiest working at the edge of fiction and nonfiction.

Both genres benefited from his mastery of observation—his “camera eye”— and his sense of historical context. Dos Passos sought to ground fiction in historic detail and working-class, realistic dialogue. He invented a multimedia format of newsreels, songs, biographies, and autobiography to convey the frenzy of 20th century America’s industrialism and urbanism.

Dos Passos, incidentally, sort of fell out of favor with American literati because he stopped, unlike many of them, being a dupe of communist propaganda.

Dos Passos himself may have disagreed with my wish that more writers take up his style. In a 1918 letter, he said:

“About style—I think that reading people in order to get ‘style’ from them is rather soft-headed. Your style is like the color of your hair or the cut of your pants—half accident, half act of God—to take thought to change or improve it results usually in rank affectation.”

Raw Feed (1997): The U.S.A. Trilogy, John Dos Passos, 1930, 1960.USA

I read this trilogy — The 42nd Parallel (1930), Nineteen Nineteen (1932), and The Big Money (1936) — to get some appreciation of the style so successfully used by John Brunner and Joe Haldeman, and I found that style interesting.

I liked the Camera Eye sections – impressionistic vignettes sometimes told from the point of view of some of the characters and sometimes they seem to feature viewpoint characters never seen elsewhere in the trilogy.

The Newsreel sections were compelling, and the very best thing about the trilogy is a series of biographies of historical personages. Told in a variety of styles, a variety of tones, they sometimes approach prose-poems and are always interesting and very revealing in the large and small details of the people’s lives (cultural, political, scientific, and business figures).

These techniques, together with straight fictional prose, create, as they do in sf novels, a definite sense of place and time – here America in the first approximately 25 years of the 20th Century.

Unfortunately, while this book evokes a time and place (I was particularly interested in the accounts of labor agitation and Wilson’s Versailles negotiations), it doesn’t work as drama.

Many of the characters blurred together in my mind. (The most memorable was Charley Anderson from Fargo, and Minnesota’s Twin Cities is a setting of some of the story). All were on the make – at least in The Big Money.

Unplanned pregnancies play a major part in the plot as they probably did in the real lives of people during the time of this trilogy since artificial contraception was often illegal, and, for that reason, I probably confused the female characters more often than the male, but all the fictional characters suffered from lack of memorable distinctions.

I’m glad I read this book to examine Dos Passos’ wonderful, groundbreaking, influential style and the history I learned. However, the trilogy didn’t work as drama.

Countdown to Midnight

It’s Bobbie Burns’ birthday. Grandpa MacDowall would not be happy I’m not doing anything to celebrate it.

Sorry, instead of something Burns related material, you get this, a continuation of the Norman Spinrad series.

Raw Feed (1991): Countdown to Midnight: Twelve Great Stories About Nuclear War, ed. H. Bruce Franklin, 1984.countdown-to-midnight

Nuclear War and Science Fiction“, H. Bruce Franklin — I read this book after reading Peter Collier and David Horowitz’s Destructive Generation which included a perhaps apocryphal story about leftist Franklin saying he was taking up scuba diving because the revolution will need frogmen. I wanted to read it when I’d be most sensitive to Franklin’s insinuation of politics into the collection. Franklin talks about the early (pre-1945) sf depiction of nuclear weapons and the feedback between sf and science, and vice versa, in the development of these weapons. (Franklin has also written an entire written book on this subject.) That part’s interesting, but Franklin’s politics began to show. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg become “alleged” spies. Franklin makes the patently false claim that the U.S. did not warn Japan prior to using the first A-Bombs. In fact a warning and appeal to surrender were given before each of the two detonations. Various military officials, including Eisenhower, are quoted as stating that the A-Bombs were unnecessary. Their saying this does not automatically make it true. The claim, probably partly true, that A-Bombs were used to have a better bargaining position with Russia is made. The tacit assumption here is that Russia was no real threat to U.S. or world freedom when the opposite was proved true before and after WWII. It is alleged that the U.S. could have ended nuclear terror by destroying its bombs when only it had some. This ignores other nations’ research efforts which had, or would have, started and the effect of spies like the Rosenbergs. [To say nothing of all the other Soviet agents who had penetrated the Manhattan Project.] Franklin sees no difference between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. The U.S. is chastened for its efforts to maintain superiority in nuclear weapons. Franklin apparently choses to ignore Soviet post-WWII belligerent imperialism. Its disarmament efforts are sincere while evil America threatens the whole world, in Franklin’s eyes, by not capitulating. Franklin also cites the hard to believe assertion that American military thinkers were convinced each technological advance in nuclear weapons systems would lead to permanent superiority. I doubt they were ever that naïve.

To Still the Drums“, Chandler Davis — This very political story (circa 1946, I suppose the title’s “drums” are war drums) has not dated well. It involves a soldier stopping a military plot to involve the U.S. in a war — with atomic weapons much like ICBMS — against Congressional wishes. This story cites the old chestnut that preparing for war and building weapons ultimately leads to war and the use of the weapons, not necessarily consciously but almost as an inevitable social dynamic and metaphysical precipitation. More than forty years of atomic cold war has proven this supposition wrong as has the almost universal restraint in the use of chemical and biological weapons. As for Congress being a naïve dupe of alleged militaristic technophilia for nuclear weapons, that most definitely is not true. Congress has often said no to new nuclear weapons systems. Continue reading

Year’s Best SF

Yes, I am well aware that the countdown is going backwards on all these Hartwell anthologies I’ve been posting reviews of. Like the previous ones, this has alternate history material.

Raw Feed (2001): Year’s Best SF, ed. David G. Hartwell, 1996.years-best-sf

Think Like a Dinosaur“, James Patrick Kelly — Hartwell, in his introductory notes, says this story is part of a dialogue about Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations”. That’s true. It does involve the killing of an innocent to balance some equations, here the obscure equations involved in quantum teleportation of humans to an alien world. However, the story, in its plot of birth and death via teleportation, has echoes of Algis Budrys’ Rogue Moon. This story is more emotional than Godwin’s tale. The narrator, a person counseling skittish people on how to handle the teleportation process, kills, rather gleefully, one of his charges. He learns to “think like a dinosaur”, like the alien Gendians who are the ones who insist on the equations being balanced in their teleportation process.

Wonders of the Invisible World“, Patricia A. McKillip — I’m not really sure what the point of this story was. Most of it concerns the narrator’s interaction, as a time traveling researcher, with Cotton Mather (the story’s title is an allusion to a work of Mather’s) as part of a project to investigate the imagery of primitive, “Pre-Real” (presumably as in “virtual reality”) peoples’ mind. At first, the narrator seems appalled by both the poisonous uses that Mather puts his rather impoverished imagination to yet sad by the lack of imagination by most adults in her world. Yet, she’s appalled by the atavistic imagination of her boss. The narrator seems to reach the conclusion, at story’s end, that the powerful computer tools of her age enable a much healthier imagination for her son — though that imagination may be lost when he gets older. Why a library of pre-conceived icons and notions should necessarily mean greater imagination among the youth is not really explored — though it probably would. And McKillip definitely doesn’t explain why this imagination should suddenly be lost in the narrator’s society when people reach adulthood. It seemed like more of an excuse to comment and criticize Mather than anything else.

Hot Times in Magma City“, Robert Silverberg — Once again Silverberg proves why he’s a master. He takes a rather hackneyed idea, Los Angeles threatened by volcanic eruptions, and breaths new life into by sheer technical skill and a little technological extrapolation. (To show what a hackneyed idea this is, about two years after this story was published, the movie Volcano came about — about Los Angeles threatened by an eruption.) Silverberg has the great metropolis threatened by a whole series of magma eruptions. The technical skill of the story comes in telling it in a chatty, present-tense style and, perhaps even more importantly, who he selects as the heroes: a bunch of drug addicts sentenced to mandatory community service. They fight the magma upwellings in special suits. Silverberg handles those action details well. But it’s the addition of their interactions, the flaws and quirks that made them addicts, and their attempts at self-rehabilitation through their work fighting magma, that make the story special. Continue reading


I’m ending the weird western series with some borderline cases.
Raw Feed (2004): Guardian, Joe Haldeman, 2002.Guardian
In some ways this is a slight novel; in some ways it’s a typical Joe Haldeman novel; in some ways it’s a disappointing novel.
Haldeman has almost written a weird western here. He gives us a novel mostly set in the 1890s about a woman and her son fleeing the husband who has horribly abused them both. At crucial moments, they meet a talking raven who offers them good advice or ominous warnings. She flees from Philadelphia to Alaska. Her son meets a sudden, violent end when he is murdered in the Klondike gold rush. At the moment of hearing the news and about to commit suicide, the raven is revealed to be a shapeshifting alien who also wears the guise of a Indian shaman who has been teaching her Tlingit in Sitka, Alaska. The raven takes her on a shapeshifting tour of alternate universes and time itself. He is a guardian of life and is worried that not only will the narrator kill herself but that humanity, like many intelligent species, will kill itself.
Ultimately, he moves her to another dimension where her son lives. More importantly, the man killed with her son, who she has promised to marry, does not die, and the two have a son who works on the Manhattan Project and figures out a way of building a third atomic bomb which is demonstrated for the Japanese in Tokyo Bay. In some unexplained way, that saves humanity from annihilation in the 1990s.

Continue reading

West of Honor

The Raw Feeds on Jerry Pournelle’s Co-Dominium series continue while I work on new stuff.

Raw Feed (1990): West of Honor, Jerry Pournelle, 1976.West of Honor

Pournelle is a master of deftly creating a plausible society, exploring the interaction between politics, the military, economics, and human psychology — in short, Pournelle explores the ecology of human society. Pournelle’s ideas are much like Robert Heinlein who he admires very much: rugged individualism, little government interference, the importance of honor and the military, and a hard headed realization that life must be lead according to pragmatic truths rather than pleasant fictions.

But I think Pournelle is a better, in some ways, propagandist for those values, better because his prose incorporates the moral and philosophical statements into the story better, and, while Heinlein is given to lecturing, Pournelle shows the human consequences of the argument. Pournelle is not given to straw men for the opposing side. Nor are the solutions to problems in Pournelle’s stories entirely good with no moral taint or bad consequences.

Often the solutions pose their own problems — they are just better than not solving the problems. In this story, Governor Swale is seen as corrupt, cooperating with the convict gangs to terrorize Arrarat and destroy the CoDominium forces and a client of Grand Senator Bronson. (Pournelle, in taking a lead from the Roman Empire, mentions clientage as a corrupting influence in the CoDominium). Yet, Falkenberg says he is right in saying the convicts must be cared for and that Arrarat, despite the religious colonists’ wishes, must be industrialized. The River Pack gang, defeated by John Christian Falkenberg, is seen as not just convicts but involuntary colonists forced to survive, and they are not the most brutal of the convict gangs. The colonists, when the convicts are defeated, institute a tyrannical commission on morals and conduct brutal reprisals against other colonists suspected of helping the convicts. Continue reading

The 5th Division, Jason’s Story

Another retro review, from November 1, 2011, of another self-published work.

I don’t have anything automatically against self-published work. I’ve enjoyed some.

This was not one of them.

It’s also another story that has no Smashword or Amazon distribution.

Review: The 5th Division, Jason’s Story, Rami Najib, 2011.The 5th Division

This story doesn’t really work on any level.

I don’t want to harp on minor issues, but the story is badly punctuated as far as commas go. While I’ve seen plenty of native English speakers punctuate their writing badly, there are also some odd word choices which make me think English is not the writer’s first language.

Those are minor problems, something that can be fixed with the help of an editor.

Conceptually, though, this story has problems. It really is sort of four stories crammed together in an unbalanced way. The title implies that this may be set in a universe of other stories about the 5th Division, but I could find no evidence of that. The interstellar empire of Earth sends the 5th Division to Sica29 because it has the militarily strategic metals of aluminum, gold, copper. While that reason may satisfy many viewers of a science fiction action movie, it’s too dumb to satisfy a lot of science fiction readers. They rightly suspect that either future weapons will rely on other materials or that there are easier ways to get those materials than invasion. Continue reading

Forever Free

This retro review of the very disappointing sequel to Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War is from September 19, 2000.

Review: Forever Free, Joe Haldeman, 1999.

Forever FreeIt’s been twenty-some years since the last survivors of the Forever War set up home on Middle Finger which serves as sort of a genetic preserve run by the smug and superior clone groupmind known as Man. William Mandella, wife Marygay, and many of the other old veterans are getting tired of their relatively primitive life on that planet. And they find Man disconcertingly alien and fear that the clones will someday decide to rid themselves of their inferiors. They hatch a plan to fly a starship fast enough to take advantage of relativistic effects and return to Middle Finger 40,000 years in its future. A future where they hope Man will be absent or have evolved to the point of leaving them alone.

Tauran representatives and Man put obstacles in their way, but old human cunning wins out, and they embark for the future. But things are just getting under way when very odd things began to happen. Antimatter begins inexplicably disappearing from their ship. And even odder things have happened to the people back on Middle Finger and Earth . . . Continue reading

Dealing in Futures

Another retro-review (with no Nazis), this time from September 18, 2000.

Review: Dealing in Futures, Joe Haldeman, 1985.

Haldeman’s second short story collection has not only science fiction but also horror, poetry, and Haldeman’s only sword-and-sorcery tale.Dealing in Futures

It starts off strong with two stories set in Haldeman’s Confederacion universe, most notably used in his novel All My Sins Remembered. A team of anthropologists are unpleasantly surprised when their seemingly peaceful alien subjects become murderous. Haldeman constructs a grim, suspenseful story from the first person narratives of people fleeing for their lives across an alien world. Much less serious is “A !Tangled Web” about linguistic and cultural confusions during a trade negotiation with aliens. These aliens have an elaborate and hilarious repertoire of self-deprecating phrases.

Haldeman’s prose often has wit and irony in even his most serious novels but that aspect of his work really livens up “Seven and the Stars” despite its worn plot of a science fiction writer meeting a real alien.

Horror of the traditional and supernatural sort is featured in “Manifest Destiny”, an interesting tale mostly set in Mexico during the Mexican-American War, and “Lindsay and the Red City Cross”. The latter is set in the unpleasant, sinister bazaar of Djemaa El Fna in Marrakesh. The story was inspired by an unpleasant trip Haldeman took to Morocco though his luck there was obviously better than his protagonist. Continue reading


Another retro review and another Vietnam book.

This one is from July 31, 2000.

I’m not sure how well it’s sold since 2000, but Haldeman told me, in a brief email exchange we had, that it’s original sales were not that good.

Review: 1968, Joe Haldeman, 1994.1968

Fans of Haldeman’s science fiction might be expecting an autobiographical novel when they find out that this is the story of a nineteen year old draftee who serves as a combat engineer in the Vietnam of 1968. That was the year Haldeman was a combat engineer there, and, like protagonist Spider, he was wounded then. But much of the novel doesn’t seem specifically autobiographical though Haldeman’s lean prose certainly uses his own experiences to recreate everything from the details of Vietnam’s red soil, the contents of an engineer’s demolition pack while on patrol, boobytraps, and the workings and non-workings of various weapons. Haldeman’s dry, ironic prose has the right air of understatement for horrors that need no exaggeration. Science fiction fans will also be interested to see how the horrors that drove Spider psychotic are worked into the genre fiction he writes at his therapist’s request.

Haldeman’s most famous work, The Forever War, was a metaphoric look at Vietnam. Here he shuns obliqueness to recreate an America at war. Using the novelistic techniques of Dos Passos, we learn about the persons and events of the time in documentary sections interspersed between accounts of Spider and his one time girlfriend, Beverly, whose journey skims the oceans of political dissent and counterculture existing on the home front. Spider’s troubles are only beginning when he’s evacuated back home after being wounded in an ambush that wipes out most of his patrol. The entropic workings of bureaucracy and malfunctioning machinery coincide to strip him of home, family, friends, and gainful employment. Only rarely does coincidence — and Haldeman’s coincidences are always plausible — work in his favor. Continue reading

They Don’t Nuke’em Like They Used To

Reading I. F. Clarke’s Voices Prophesying War got me thinking. Does anyone write nuclear war stories now?

The bottom seemed to have fallen out of that particular literary market when the USSR’s flag was lowered for the last time on December 25, 1991. No more USSR, no more nuclear war seemed to be the popular thought.

It’s not that nukes went away. Continue reading