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The End of Rationalism:
Human Progress in the Novels of Joe Haldeman

by Don Webb

Robert Frost to God:
“If Thou’lt forgive my little jokes on Thee,
I’ll forgive Thy great big one on me.”

For a quarter of a century now, Joe Haldeman’s novels have been wrestling with God or a surrogate. In Forever Free Mr. Haldeman doesn’t exactly quit and declare victory, but he at least calls a truce, perhaps out of exhaustion.

In almost all of Mr. Haldeman’s novels, religion — or, more properly, a kind of rationalistic mysticism — is a crucial although not exactly a looming presence. A progression is discernible: at the least it involves contact with the superhuman or supernatural; at most, a change in human nature.

I. Ambivalence toward religion

In Worlds Apart, Jeff Hawkings rejects religion and yet is explicitly referred to as having become a kind of Moses figure. In All My Sins Remembered, Otto McGavin’s career as a spy and agent provocateur is a betrayal of his religion, Buddhism, and he is ultimately responsible for the death of a race of innocently humorous, immortal beings.

II. Changing human nature

Starting with the Forever War — which is the Vietnam war’s equivalent to Eric Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, to which it bears strong resemblances — William Mandella returns to Earth and discovers that not only is the war over but that mankind has advanced to a supposedly higher plane by developing a collective group consciousness copied from the alien Taurans. In that way it resembles the finale of Forever Peace, where mankind outgrows war by acquiring universal telepathy.

In Mindbridge, Jacque Lefavre becomes Earth’s prime telepath by linking with the alien L’vrai. On his deathbed he even receives a telepathic message from his late wife, Carol. By calling her both an “angel” and, unaccountably, a “bitch,” Lefavre explicitly rejects Blaise Pascal’s wisdom: L’homme n’est ni ange, ni bête, “Man is neither angel nor animal.” Mr. Haldeman seems to suggest, contrariwise, that if man can be both, man can be either.

III. Superbeings and the supernatural

At least, in Mindbridge, Mr. Haldeman doesn’t tamper much with the afterlife. The reader is free to presume that it will be a more appealing realm than, say, Peter F. Hamilton’s grotesque purgatory called the “beyond” in his Reality Dysfunction.

Not only the superhuman but the supernatural put in a personal appearance at the end of Forever Free. Mandella meets the “Omnis,” superbeings who have inhabited Earth secretly in parallel with humanity. That seems like too good an idea to use as a throw-away, yet the Omnis serve merely as comic relief; Mandella has hardly met them when God appears on the scene. Well, perhaps not the Deity Himself but close enough that no one is inclined to argue.

It’s incongruous but not too surprising that this cosmic conference is held in Disney World, of all places; Mr. Haldeman’s superhuman beings — and now his supernatural one — are often a source of dark and even slapstick humour. Indeed, Mandella has returned to Earth because God has suddenly gotten fed up with him and his plans to travel into the future. In an inexplicable fit of pique, God has started playing practical jokes on Mandella and all of humanity and their Tauran neighbors, for good measure.

IV. The outer darkness

Mr. Haldeman’s superbeings, from the L’vrai of Mindbridge to the galactic bureaucrats in Worlds Enough and Time to God — or a reasonable facsimile Thereof — have one thing in common: indifference to human suffering. In fact, they have a disconcerting habit of casually killing or maiming people out of curiosity or, possibly, for sport.

After 25 years, the theology of Joe Haldeman’s novels has begun to approach that of the dervish at the end of Voltaire’s Candide: does a ship’s captain care whether the rats on board are comfortable or not? In Forever Free, God finally absconds forever; and, in a parody of Candide himself, Mandella returns to cultivate his garden on the frozen world of Middle Finger.

V. Conclusion

Joe Haldeman’s novels contain an undercurrent — no, call it a rip tide — of pessimism. His protagonists, who are all — even Otto McGavin — appealing personalities, struggle to survive amid humanity’s social and political shambles.

In the rationalist tradition, Mr. Haldeman mentions no concept of original sin, yet his novels seem to reinvent it: they depict mankind as definitely Fallen and less than it ought to be. The early rationalists imagined and even sought an Eden in the New World; Mr. Haldeman reflects their bitter disappointment: it is not to be found “out there.” The “garden planet” promised at the end of the Forever War becomes a frozen frontier in Forever Free. The career of Otto McGavin ends tragically in a form of deicide.

And yet Mr. Haldeman suggests that humanity can be redeemed by better communication and empathy. It may be achieved by some man-made mechanism, as in The Coming or Forever Peace or by the accidental discovery of an alien one, as in Mindbridge. Or the opportunity may be lost entirely, as in Forever Free. In Joe Haldeman’s novels, mankind is described as being — to borrow a liturgical phrase — “by nature sinful and unclean.” He shows the rationalist hope of redemption as either coming from without or coming to a dead end. Is this the dark night before the coming of grace?

Copyright © 2002 by Don Webb

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