JOE Halde­man

Four decades after his master­piece The For­ever War was first pub­lished, Joe Halde­man tells Jonathan Wright how writ­ing helped him find sal­va­tion

SFX: The Sci-Fi and Fantasy Magazine - - Front page - pho­tog­ra­phy by will i re­land

Meet the best­selling SF au­thor who once had to fish out grenades from be­neath corpses in Viet­nam.

In 1967, Joe Halde­man’s life changed ir­re­vo­ca­bly. With Amer­i­can in­volve­ment in Viet­nam es­ca­lat­ing, he was called up to the army. “I was not clever enough to try to fool the gov­ern­ment,” he says, re­call­ing a time when many went to huge lengths to avoid fight­ing. “I thought, ‘ Well if you get drafted you get drafted…’”

Noth­ing in Halde­man’s life had pre­pared him for the re­al­ity of com­bat, ex­pe­ri­ences that played into his most fa­mous novel, The For­ever War, pub­lished 40 years ago. “It’s shock­ing at first,” says Halde­man. “The first time you see peo­ple who are killed in your company, that’s a real les­son in mor­tal­ity that you don’t get go­ing to see granny be­fore she dies and so forth, that civil­ian kind of griev­ing. Sol­diers don’t have time to grieve. If a guy dies, they send his body to the rear – and go on and kill the next one.”

As the Viet­nam con­flict passes into mem­ory, Halde­man’s words serve as a stark re­minder that many vet­er­ans still have vivid mem­o­ries of front line ex­pe­ri­ences. “You are a sol­dier, you just killed a solider, but that’s part of the job de­scrip­tion at the time,” he says. “You ei­ther get along with it or you don’t. We had two peo­ple in my company who had com­plete psy­chi­atric melt­downs just from com­bat stress and I felt close to it a few times my­self.” It was es­pe­cially stress­ful, he says, on those days when the Vi­et­cong at­tacked again and again. “Snipers keep chang­ing po­si­tions and shoot­ing at you, you’re stuck in a trench, it’s like World War One in many ways,” he says.

But even when Halde­man wasn’t un­der fire, there were other risks as­so­ci­ated with his work as a com­bat en­gi­neer. “I had to go check the en­emy dead for booby traps, and that’ll make you very ner­vous,” he says. “In or­der to move on, I would have to put my hand un­der the bod­ies and feel for hand grenades. All you need to do to booby trap a body is pull the pin on a hand grenade and move him so that his weight holds the lever down.”

So can any­one ever truly get over such ex­pe­ri­ences? “Some of it gets to­tally en­closed, like a wound that won’t heal prop­erly, but you don’t have to be an artist to have that kind of a sen­si­bil­ity,” he says. “In many ways… or­di­nary peo­ple have a worse time of it, be­cause they can’t ex­press what’s hap­pened to them, and they can’t tell their fam­ily what they’re go­ing through. And every­body is like, ‘ Oh, there’s John, he never gets up and does any­thing, he just sits around and stares at the wall, what the fuck is wrong with him?’ Well, it’s pretty ob­vi­ous ac­tu­ally.”

the long road

How did Halde­man avoid such pro­found and long- term dam­age? In part, he didn’t. After he got home, he couldn’t sleep and “had vi­sions of ter­ri­ble things that I had seen”. Then came a panic at­tack, which led to Halde­man go­ing to see a shrink. “He was not a very good psy­chi­a­trist, talk­ing to me he’d get all ner­vous, so I helped him a lit­tle bit and he helped me a lit­tle bit, and the VA [ United States Depart­ment of Vet­er­ans Af­fairs] paid for it all,” he laughs. “After a year- and- a- half of that, I got out of the worst symp­toms of panic, seizures and that sort of thing, and I sup­pose most of it’s just liv­ing through it and cop­ing with life.”

As he’s al­ready hinted, Halde­man’s writ­ing helped too. Fa­mously, The For­ever War trans­poses its au­thor’s ex­pe­ri­ences of com­bat to space as it fol­lows Wil­liam Man­della into ac­tion against the alien Tau­rans. The ef­fects of relativity mean the sol­diers grow ever more alien­ated and iso­lated from other hu­mans. It was an in­stant suc­cess, tak­ing the Hugo, Neb­ula and Lo­cus awards. Scat­tered through­out the text are telling par­al­lels with Halde­man’s own life. Man­della, for ex­am­ple, is a physics ma­jor, Halde­man stud­ied physics and as­tron­omy, and might well have be­come a sci­en­tist had things worked out dif­fer­ently.

At the very least, sug­gests SFX, it must be strange that such trau­matic ex­pe­ri­ences played into a book that made his name. “Once I had writ­ten a few sto­ries, and once I had writ­ten po­ems about my com­bat ex­pe­ri­ence, it opened up my imag­i­na­tion in a way that it wasn’t open be­fore,” he says. “I think a lot of my fic­tion that doesn’t have any­thing to do with war is at least metaphor­i­cally or in some un­ob­vi­ous way caused by com­bat.”

A new life

And there has been a lot of fic­tion. Per­haps be­cause The For­ever War looms so large in SF lit­er­ary his­tory, Halde­man’s other books can get over­looked; he’s writ­ten around 30 nov­els and taken a slew of ma­jor awards and, in 2009, he was se­lected as the 27th – and youngest ever – Grand Master of the Sci­ence Fic­tion and Fan­tasy Writ­ers of Amer­ica. He’s a fa­mil­iar and popular fig­ure at con­ven­tions, al­beit per­haps a slightly less ex­pan­sive and gre­gar­i­ous one since a life- threat­en­ing brush with acute pan­cre­ati­tis a cou­ple of years back.

This isn’t the ca­reer he ex­pected. “I never thought I’d make a liv­ing from [ writ­ing] when I was younger,” he says. “I wrote a lot of po­etry, and most po­ets don’t make a liv­ing from their writ­ing. Of all of my life mod­els, only Robert Frost made a liv­ing from his writ­ing. But then, when I was a se­nior in col­lege I took a writ­ing course.” He com­pleted three short sto­ries. On re­turn­ing from Viet­nam, back to civil­ian life with his wife Gay, whom he mar­ried in 1965, he was given 30 days leave.

“To be re­al­is­tic, it was ba­si­cally to let your fam­ily take care of you with the stresses of get­ting back to civil­ian life rather than the army have to deal with you,” he says. Halde­man spent his time re- writ­ing two of his short sto­ries. He sold both, one be­fore he’d even left the army, but still ac­cepted a place in grad­u­ate school to study sci­ence. Then he sold his first novel. “I sud­denly didn’t have any doubt at all about be­ing a writer as a ca­reer,” he says. “The idea of be­ing a sci­en­tist wasn’t ex­cit­ing at all any­more, and I wasn’t that good at sci­ence re­ally. I love and loved physics and as­tron­omy, but I was never bril­liant at math­e­mat­ics and if you aren’t bril­liant at math­e­mat­ics you shouldn’t go into the phys­i­cal sciences.”

He laughs but doesn’t en­tirely dis­agree when SFX sug­gests he’s like a gam­bler who gets hooked for life after his first two horses come in. What­ever the truth of this, it’s worked out. “It would be harder for me not to

“I had to go check the en­emy dead for booby traps”

write a novel than to write a novel, so I don’t worry about it,” he says. Liv­ing com­par­a­tively mod­estly in Florida and sup­ple­ment­ing his writ­ing with teach­ing – lat­terly three months a year at MIT – he’s by and large been able to en­sure th­ese are nov­els he wants to write rather than work­ing to pay the bills.

He’s as fas­ci­nated as ever by his craft, even in his 70s. “I’m most in­ter­ested in study­ing writ­ing at the very small­est quantum, the sen­tence, the qua­train,” he says.

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