In my quest to consume as much fiction as I can this year, primarily science fiction and space opera because that’s what I’m most interested in writing, I’ve decided to read some classics. I read Asimov’s Foundation and found myself intrigued, but ultimately underwhelmed. I’ve read two-thirds of Hiroki Marikumi’s 1Q84 and had to take a fatigue break, as the story was interesting and engaging but moved too slowly for such a long work. And now, I’ve read The Forever War by Joe Haldeman.
The book itself has interesting moments and is written in a very clear manner, despite the subject matter and Haldeman’s penchant for going into physics concepts that are difficult to understand. But the way the books discusses sexuality, treats women, and handles homosexuals was distracting. I’m not the only one who feels this way.
The strange thing is that Haldeman hides it well – or perhaps never meant it to be homophobic. He has said somewhat recently that he regrets the way he characterized homosexuals in the book. If anything, the latent homophobia and sexism weaved into the plot feels more like a regrettable byproduct of the era than a real statement on society or gays.
The purpose behind the storytelling decision, it seems, is that Haldeman was trying to come up with ways that the future would be completely foreign to the main character, in order to illustrate the point of the book: You can’t come home again. This doesn’t excuse the blatant sexism throughout the book, or the effeminate and cartoonish way in which he treats homosexuals, but within the theme of the story it’s a decision that makes sense. Mandella’s homophobia is a way to illustrate his discomfort not necessarily with gay people, but with his situation in general.
The question this raised for me, then, was one of perspective. When you’re reading a story, especially a first-person narrative as The Forever War is, the author essentially asks you to take on the main characters point-of-view. You don’t necessarily have to agree with it, but you generally want to understand where it’s coming from. Admittedly, this is difficult with something like homophobia. The problem with Mandella is that his homophobia isn’t really explained outside of an “ew, gross” mentality.
As a writer it’s important to me to avoid this sort of thing, as it distracts from the rest of the narrative. I’ve learned with The Forever War that when tackling hot-button issues (which, in the 1970s, I’m not sure homosexuality was but it certainly is now) you need to do so carefully. Doubly so when you’re exploring those issues from a first-person perspective, where it can lead the reader to the conclusion they’re reading the author’s uncensored thoughts on the topic instead of a character who happens to feel a certain way.