Interviews With The Fantastic
InterGalactic Interview With Joe Haldeman
by Darrell Schweitzer
Joe Haldeman will very likely always be best-known as the author of The Forever
War (1974), a science fiction classic which reflects his experiences in the Vietnam
War, 1968-69, during which he was severely wounded, receiving a Purple Heart.
His first book was War Year, a non-science fiction novel about Vietnam. He has
published numerous books since, including Mindbridge, Worlds, Worlds Apart,
Worlds Enough and Time, Tool of the Trade, Buying Time, Forever Peace, The
Hemingway Hoax, The Accidental Time Machine, Old Twentieth, Guardian, The
Coming, Forever Free, and, quite recently, Marsbound. His one other non-SF
novel is 1968. He has won five Hugo Awards, five Nebula Awards, a World
Fantasy Award, one Tiptree Award, three Rhyslings (for poetry), a Galaxy Award,
and a Ditmar (Australia). Since 1983, he has been a part-time professor at M.I.T.
SCHWEITZER: I don't know if this has occurred to you, but you're now an elder
statesman of science fiction. It has been something like forty years since your first
HALDEMAN: Not quite forty . . .
SCHWEITZER: 1969, wasn't it? It will be forty years by the time this interview
comes out. It must have been a long, strange trip for you. How has science fiction
changed your life?
HALDEMAN: It has been my life. Science fiction has changed a lot, so my life
has changed with science fiction. I wish it were the way it used to be. I liked it
when there were lots of magazines and no so many writers, and when you could
write a book in 65,000 words and it would be unremarkable. Today they say, "It's
a stand-alone novel!" as if that were some sort of remarkable feat." [Laughs.]
SCHWEITZER: I once organized a panel at a convention called "Your Book Is
Short, You Must Have Clout."
HALDEMAN: Maybe so.
SCHWEITZER: Well, you probably do have clout by now. Do you find that
publishers want you to write multi-volume big-crushers, or that they just want a
HALDEMAN: I never read them, so I wouldn't write one. I have written a trilogy,
which was three related books, and each book was approximately 75,000 words. I
am doing one now, which is the same thing. It's about the same people.
SCHWEITZER: I wonder if this insistence on long series is less of a problem in
science fiction than in fantasy, where they want a McTolkien. A big McTolkien.
You've never been moved to write in that direction.
HALDEMAN: I just write what I would like to read, and I would never pick up
one of those. It just looks like too much work.
SCHWEITZER: Your career must have given you the perspective that we're now
living in "the future." You can remember, as I can, when the near future in SF was
about 1970, and the far future was 2000. Think of Heinlein's The Door into
Summer. Well, now that we're living in the future, it's not the way science fiction
depicted it, is it?
HALDEMAN: No, in fact science fiction missed some of the most important
factors of the future. The internet sucks up one or two hours of my day. That was
only hinted at in very few stories.
SCHWEITZER: I confess that as late as 1976 I wrote a story in which someone a
hundred years in the future is using a typewriter.
HALDEMAN: [Laughs.] Mindbridge has a guy trying out one of these new voice-operated typewriters and talks about the trouble he is having with it. I didn't get
that right at all.
SCHWEITZER: But then, in a sense science fiction isn't predictive, is it?
HALDEMAN: No, it's not. It's about the present. It's not about the future.
SCHWEITZER: Who was it - was it John Clute? - who observed that every
science fiction novel has a real date, in the sense that The Space Merchants is
really about 1952? Isn't science fiction also about the process of the future? That
is, what change feels like, rather than the specific details. I am sure you could write
a story about someone like yourself, a hundred years hence, wishing for the good
old days of 2050.
HALDEMAN: Yes, you can. But it seems to me it's all about creative refraction,
or whatever you want to call it. We write about our own lives and our own
perceptions. We warp them around to make them interesting. Nobody would write
science fiction if it wasn't more interesting than just plain fiction to them.
SCHWEITZER: You have written two mainstream, realistic novels, which were
both about vital things in your life. But I take it you don't feel a general urge to
write realistic, non-speculative fiction.
HALDEMAN: I wouldn't mind. If there was a market that is a solid as the market
for my science fiction, I would probably write a lot of mainstream novels. Not all
of them. I think a lot of what I would write would still be science fiction, but I've
got one I am working on now, sort of in my spare time, that's only borderline SF.
It's set a little in the future, but it's mostly about being a writer and slowly
recovering from wartime experience.
SCHWEITZER: Is this because you got established as a science fiction writer,
that you don't have a steady market for mainstream books? I am thinking of that
paperback of War Year which was made to look like science fiction.
HALDEMAN: [Laughs.] Yeah, that was interesting. You rarely saw it in the
mainstream section of the bookstore. It was always in science fiction. But they
admitted to me when 1968 came out that they didn't have any idea what to do with
a mainstream novel by a science fiction writer. It's not a problem in Britain where
this happens all the time. I said, "Why don't I make up a new name? That will be
my mainstream name." They said, "No, we want to get your regular readers,"
which would evidently make the book profitable even if it didn't sell an awful lot
of copies. So I don't know even now if it was a good decision. I'd sort of like to
have a mainstream persona, so I could write plain novels.
SCHWEITZER: You could possibly do what Iain Banks did. Fool around with
initials. He has a code. If the byline is Iain M. Banks, it is science fiction; if it's
Iain Banks, it is mainstream - sort of.
HALDEMAN: That's a good idea. My first mainstream novel appeared as by Joe
W. Haldeman. When my brother was writing, he asked me to change my name to
Joe Haldeman, because he was Jack C. Haldeman II, and so he didn't want my
middle initial to confuse people. That's why I became Joe Haldeman.
SCHWEITZER: Don't you think that out of natural inclination, most of your
books would have been science fiction anyway? You mentioned once that you
initially wanted to be an astronaut.
HALDEMAN: Yes. Probably they would be science fiction because that's what I
grew up reading.
SCHWEITZER: Have you ever speculated on how your life would have worked
out if you'd been an astronaut?
HALDEMAN: [Laughs.] No, I just wonder. The people who were astronauts seem
to live in this strange, public-relations universe. They were astronauts for a few
years, and then they were sort of spokesmen for technology, for government, for
democracy. That's not what they signed up for. They wanted to keep being
astronauts and go to Mars. It wasn't in the cards. So I don't know. I probably
would have gotten out of it soon enough. I would have had a Ph.D in astronomy. I
probably would have gone and become an astronomer.
SCHWEITZER: Or like Fred Hoyle, you could be a Ph. D. astronomer and write
HALDEMAN: Right. It could have happened.
SCHWEITZER: The real science fiction writer will come out.
HALDEMAN: Also if I'd been an astronaut I'd also be a celebrity, so I would
have had best-sellers all the way.
SCHWEITZER: How does The Forever War look to you after all this time?
HALDEMAN: Well, I just reread it last week, because I got the page-proofs for
the new edition. It holds up okay. I would write it much differently now. But I
think anybody who is sixty-five would say that of a novel he wrote thirty years
SCHWEITZER: I am reminded of something Jack Williamson said. I asked him
how it felt to have written the books for which he is most famous some decades
ago. He replied that it was great to have written a classic at any time.
HALDEMAN: That's true. I'd go along with him on that. It's nice to have a book
or two that stays in print, no matter what. That's real security.
SCHWEITZER: Has The Forever War been solidly in print all this time?
HALDEMAN: It's been out of print for about three months, and it will be out of
print until January [2009 - so it is back in print as you read this. -DS] while the
new publisher takes over. The paperback had been a five-year license thing for the
past 25 years, and the hardback publisher, St. Martin's, decided that this time they
would keep the rights to publish an edition themselves. In the interim the old
license to Ace ran out, which caused me a certain amount of trouble because I'm a
college professor and a lot of other professors teach that book. So they're saying.
"Where is the book?" I say, "You have to go to a used book store."
SCHWEITZER: Do you ever wonder why that one of all your works has endured
so well, or isn't it actually pretty obvious?
HALDEMAN: I think that it was a book whose time had come right when it came
out. It impressed a lot of people who became teachers, and right away they started
teaching it to their students. That's a way to, not immortality, but longevity.
SCHWEITZER: It's also a book which is very viscerally about things that had
happened to you not all that long before you wrote it. It wasn't a book you had to
HALDEMAN: Right. I was lucky about that. But you know, in generations
preceding mine, almost every male writer wrote a war novel among his early works
because he was a soldier. Everybody was a soldier back then. Nowadays it's a
more rare thing.
SCHWEITZER: Other than Starship Troopers, I can't think of very many other
great science fiction war novels. And of course Robert Heinlein was never in
HALDEMAN: No, that's true. Neither was Stephen Crane. In fact, there are so
many bad books written by combat veterans that you could almost say that the best
preparation for writing a war novel is not to become a soldier.
SCHWEITZER: I should think that the problem of writing a science fiction war
novel would be how to make it genuinely speculative, rather than making it a
costumed account of what you experienced.
HALDEMAN: And to be truly inventive rather than just doing war tropes over
SCHWEITZER: It might be that because you wrote a straight war novel too, that
you could stand aside from the material and write a science fiction one.
HALDEMAN: Yeah. That's quite possible.
SCHWEITZER: Do you think that there is an actual science fiction method, in the
sense that science fiction is almost a specialized language for dealing with fictional
materials? Whose idea am I stealing here? Probably Clute.
HALDEMAN: I think it probably is Clute. I agree completely. Teaching gives
you some perspective on this. You tell the people, "A book can be a good science
fiction book without being a good book." We all have read these things, books
which have neat ideas or characters, but which you would be embarrassed to hand
to someone who is not a science fiction reader, because science fiction is a way of
thinking as well as a way of writing. If you look at science fiction novels written
by people who have not read a lot of science fiction, you get this kind of hollow
feeling. They don't have that way of thinking. They just have spaceships and
robots. It's a very strange world we inhabit, but it's our own world.
SCHWEITZER: Sometimes I wonder if we are living in Philip K. Dick's future.
HALDEMAN: [Laughs.] I don't take that many drugs. I don't know.
SCHWEITZER: I remember something Alfred Bester said in an interview I did
with him, that the limitation of science fiction was that it is inherently made up. Is
it, or is it really transmogrified life?
HALDEMAN: Well, I can see what Bester was talking about. But Bester had such
a low opinion of science fiction in the first place. I don't know. I think good novels
are all made up anyway. If you don't want to make stuff up, you ought to write
non-fiction. Yeah, science fiction is made up in a special way. It is reality re-invented.
SCHWEITZER: So why don't you tell me something about the novel you are
HALDEMAN: I wrote a book called Marsbound, which is just out in paperback
now, and when I came to the end of it I realized, "Oh, you know there is a sequel
here." I really was about twenty pages from the end when I realized that my next
book would be a sequel to it. Then when I wrote up the proposal for it, I realized
there had to be a third book. It became a trilogy in the space of a few months. I
have just signed the contract for the next two, so that's what I will be doing for the
next three years or so. I am trying a fairly obvious experiment, that is to say, the
three books have the same characters, but they are each different kinds of books.
The first one is pretty much a Heinlein type science fiction novel. The second one
is more Twenty-First Century space opera. It obeys all the physical laws that apply,
etc. but the characters go out to another star, and they have good reasons for doing
it. The third one is a kind of post-modern look at the limits of civilization. It takes
place back on Earth, and it's a different look at the Singularity. I have issues with
it. Although I enjoy the books, I am going to do my own take on it. So the three
books, although they're a single plotline and they have the same characters, they
are three different kinds of novels.
SCHWEITZER: Would you care to describe some of your issues with the
Singularity? Terry Bisson has suggested that it already happened and we missed it.
HALDEMAN: [Laughs.] That's part of my thing. I think that it is a spread-out
phenomenon, and yes, it started quite a while ago. I don't have any problem the
way Vernor Vinge does it. I think his initial essay was brilliant, defining it. I just
think the time-scale is wrong. I think it started about the time the Internet started. I
don't think it will be completely in place until after about a generation. Then, yes,
human nature will have changed profoundly, but people won't be able to point to a
year or a month in which it happened.
SCHWEITZER: It seems to me that maybe human nature will have changed
profoundly in some parts of the world, but in other parts there will still be
subsistence farmers who have never heard of any of this because they haven't
learned to read.
HALDEMAN: As Heinlein said, "When men first walk on the Moon, there will
still be outhouses in upstate New York." He was right about that. I think that
principle is certainly going to be true whenever the Singularity happens, or
whatever its name is.
SCHWEITZER: I might suggest that by the time some of us have bioengineered
and enhanced ourselves into something that is post-human, there will also still be
HALDEMAN: Yes, that's true. And probably people who have had the choice
between being post-human and hunter-gatherers and would rather be hunter-gatherers.
SCHWEITZER: There may be some people who just haven't heard of it either.
Recall that Isaac Asimov wrote a series of stories - this is the background if The
Caves of Steel - in which he suggested that the human race would divide into two
species, one technically and medically enhanced, and one not.
HALDEMAN: I think there are any number of ways to divide the human race into
two groups, including the ones who are sensitive to science fiction and the ones
who are "straight."
SCHWEITZER: I am sure that in a university setting you must have encountered
professors who can't understand what this science fiction "nonsense" is about.
Thackeray didn't write it so it can't be any good. You know.
HALDEMAN: That doesn't happen at M.I.T., fortunately. I meet people like that
in academia outside of my own institution, but people at M.I.T. are pretty hep to
science fiction. Whenever a Neal Stephenson novel comes out, they have to close
down the school while people go out and buy it and read it.
SCHWEITZER: I can certainly remember having professors say, "This isn't
literature" in tones of stern disapproval.
HALDEMAN: I got that when I was getting my Master's degree. In fact I had one
professor who absolutely forbade me to write science fiction, Stanley Elkin, who's
quite a good writer, and he writes fantastic fiction himself. But he couldn't see any
connection between his literary fantasies and the type of fantasy that I call science
fiction. So I went along with him. In fact that was when I wrote the first part of
1968, which I called Spider's Web at that time. He liked that. He said, "Yeah, get
out of this science fiction crap."
SCHWEITZER: I've always suspected there is a double-standard in academia,
which is that fantastic literature us okay up to about 1900, as long as it has some
moralistic or satirical edge. So perhaps the last respectable fantasy writer would be
Mark Twain. After that, Realism equals Literature. It's kind of a Protestant work-ethic.
HALDEMAN: I think it is a misconstruing of the uses of realism. Science fiction
loves realism, but it's a different kind. Heinlein is a great realistic writer, even
within his strangely romantic view of the world.
SCHWEITZER: Heinlein may transcend all of this. There could come a time
when he is seen as the leading 20th century American writer. In your work, you are
still talking to Heinlein.
HALDEMAN: True. I think Heinlein will be forgiven his literary sins in another
thirty, forty, fifty years. He will be seen as a very important 20th century writer.
People will say, "Isn't that cute what he did with dialogue?" and "His
characterizations are so amusingly sexist," and so on but he will be acceptable
SCHWEITZER: Maybe he will have an up-and-down career like Kipling. . . . It's
interesting to speculate if the people 50 years from now will still be reading you. I
am sure every writer speculates about this.
HALDEMAN: I assume they will be, and I am trying to affect that outcome. I am
giving my papers to a university, and I am leaving behind all kinds of things that
will let people do cheap master's degrees and have all the source material. I write
my books in longhand for the first draft, so there is no question of it actually being
a first draft, which gives me a couple of points over all my contemporaries who
just write on a computer, because the provenance of something on a computer disk
is just your word against someone else's.
SCHWEITZER: But a writer has to write for the present, not for the hope-for
HALDEMAN: It's a thing I became aware of, actually, mostly when I wrote The
Hemingway Hoax and had to go sorting through all those attics of literature and
finding writers who leave a big paper trail.
SCHWEITZER: I am reminded of a story called "The Best-Known Man in the
World" by Daniel Pearlman, which is about a would-be poet so obsessed with
future scholarship of himself that he leaves this amazing paper trail, carefully files
and catalogues his every draft, laundry lists, diaries, and notes, keeping careful
records of what he wrote when, and when he had this or that thought for the first
time. In time he actually does publish some poetry and become somewhat well-known, but his poetry is seen as only a minor sideline of the man who created this
amazing archive. It becomes like the Winchester Mystery House of literature.
HALDEMAN: I haven't read that. It sounds interesting.
SCHWEITZER: Any last thoughts? Anything beyond the trilogy?
HALDEMAN: I have a couple books on the back-burner. I always have. That is
never a problem.
SCHWEITZER: Thanks, Joe.