A staple of YA science fiction is the story of the Young Person who begins quite normal and average and through circumstance becomes entangled in Epic Events and ends up an Important Person. Yes, it’s a coming-of-age arc because the plot requires maturation. In the best of them (from Heinlein to the present) the protagonist isn’t the only one maturing, but the society/culture of which he or she is a part. The events of the story perforce drag the whole civilization along, sometimes kicking and screaming, to a new level in order to deal with the New Thing that must be dealt with. And of course at the end of the novel or trilogy, rapprochement of some kind is achieved, balance gained, and good things are in the offing as a result of the timely, clever, and ultimately mature intervention of the newly-minted adult at the center of the story.
(Of course this is not limited to science fiction, but in all honesty, in what other genre are the stakes regularly so incredibly high?)
In the last decade, with the steady resurgence of YA science fiction, good examples of this abound. (In particular, I’m thinking of Nini Kiriki Hoffman’s Catalyst, a short, elegantly efficient novel about exactly this kind of growth arc.) It’s a reliable form, even in the dystopic vein of The Hunger Games. One thing essential in these is success. Success for the protagonist, successful resolution of the conflict driving the story, success for the universe in which it’s set.
Which makes Joe Haldeman’s trilogy beginning with Marsbound a bit of a shock.
We begin in the mid 21st Century with the Dula family, who have won a lottery ticket to go join a small experimental colony on Mars. Carmen, the protagonist, is 17 going on 27, and while certainly curious about Mars is less than thrilled at the idea of leaving everything behind for five years on a world where going outside without an environmental suit will kill her. Her mother, father, and younger brother, Card, also go along. On the beach near the space elevator they will ascend to orbit and their waiting ship, Carmen meets Paul, an astronaut and the pilot of their transit ship. He’s 31. Nevertheless, the two of them start up an affair on the space elevator, which leads ultimately to their marriage by the end of the novel.
On Mars, through a maze of set pieces whereby Carmen runs afoul of the colony authority figure, she discovers—or is discovered by—a colony of heretofore unexpected neighbors. These aliens are not native to Mars but have been planted there millennia in the past to serve as eyes and ears for the Others, tremendously old beings of unimaginable power who are absolutely paranoid of budding civilizations that might threaten them. Carmen becomes a de facto ambassador first to the local group and then, by extension, to The Others, although this latter position is problematic at best as it presumes a cultural and intellectual equivalency that does not exist.
The second novel, Starbound, chronicles the “diplomatic” mission sent the 25 light years to The Others’ homeworld, a mission that includes Carmen, her husband Paul, two other scientists from the Mars colony, and a triad marriage of spies from the U.N., two husbands and their wife.
Things begin to deviate here from the expected arc of a traditional YA. The interpersonal relations among these people, stuck together on a cramped starship for a very long journey, and the background stories that emerge even as the relationships, both personally and professionally, complicate paint a world that is much darker, much more byzantine, and much more ambiguous both morally and historically than might be expected. The Earth from which these people matriculate, in other words, is very like our own with all the inconvenient, illogical, ugly wrinkles of detail implied.
Nor does the meeting with The Others unfold as one might expect. Humanity is not triumphing here. Carmen does not “save the day” through some particular of personal intuition, charm, or insight. They find themselves confronted with a Fact that cannot be comprehended and has no reason at all for mutuality with humanity. Because human nature is, collectively, what it is, Earth makes decisions that lead The Others to simply shut them down. At the end of the second novel, they have simply turned off the power on Earth, instantly sending humanity back to an 18th Century existence—except, of course, all the guns that use powder and shot still work.
Nor is this effectively redressed in the final volume, Earthbound, which title works ironically in opposition to the first two, which are both about voyages, expansion, growth. Here it is about surviving in prison.
What interests me about this trilogy is Haldeman’s decision to present, in YA fashion, an implacable universe. In contrast to, say, Heinlein’s Have Space Suit, Will Travel, the “trial” humanity faces is not won by the plucky, sharp-witted young hero, because winning isn’t even an option. Placation, perhaps, but humanity has nothing with which to claim even a seat at the table. Haldeman gives us dispassionate aliens whose only concern is whether or not humanity might try to hurt them several thousand years hence. (The similarities between the two works, while largely superficial, are intriguing.) Haldeman has decided to throw a bucket of ice water in the face of the kind of aspirational SF we’ve grown accustomed to. The last book of his trilogy is a thorough-going downer. Carmen survives, yes, but one gets the feeling this is only because someone needs to tell this story from beginning to end.
Haldeman is a very careful, meticulous craftsman, and he’s done something very interesting with the character of Carmen Dula. Marsbound begins sounding very like YA. Carmen is 17 and her first-person narration sounds like an adolescent. As the novel progresses, though, she grows up, and, almost unnoticeably, so does her voice. This is an impressive feat, make no mistake. She reaches adulthood, even a kind of motherhood, without any of the false notes of jarring transition one might expect, and the voice, within the context of the story, remains strong and convincing. Artistically, this may be Haldeman’s best achievement here.
But it does serve well as a dialogue between the personal and the problematic. The choices Carmen makes in her own life are set in contrast to the choices she and the rest of humankind must make faced with a situation of which there is no textbook, no precedence, and therefore no obvious answers. The notion that the traditional cataclysms of mismatched cultural encounter provide guides is subverted by the supreme disinterest The Others have in any kind of imperial ambition. They don’t want what we have, which has been the basis for all our past clashes like this. They don’t want anything, except perhaps to guarantee that another race—ours, for instance—never brings its wanting to their doorstep.
What they have in aide of this disinterest is the ability to yank any carpet we may have out from under us. Instantly.
Which brings Carmen and her band of above-average-companions face to face with that thin veneer of oh so fragile civilization we’ve all heard about.
At a guess, I suspect Haldeman has, on one level, decided to puncture the Heinlein myth in science fiction, that myth which is admirably summed up in the first few pages of his Time Enough For Love:
Our race could now lose fifty planets, close ranks, and move on. Our gallant women could replace the casualties in a single generation. Not that it appears likely that this will happen; thus far we have encountered not one race as mean, as nasty, as deadly as our own.
Haldeman’s response, in a word, is “bullshit.” That he has chosen to do this in YA, I think, is both interesting and laudable. Optimism and confidence are well and good, but should be grounded on some notion of reality based in experience. Science fiction has always been a kind of quasi-philosophical test bed for experiences we’re unlikely to have but which may occur in some form for humanity eventually. It behooves us, therefore, to occasionally eschew the fist-pumping self-congratulatory delusions of our own imagined greatness and deal with the Unknown as it is likely to be and, at least at the outset, really is—namely Unknown.
Within that larger context, however, Haldeman has presented an interesting arc of maturity for his characters. Fully human, recognizably flawed, they are nevertheless intelligent and thoughtful and manage themselves and their relations with a degree of forethought that I think is a fine model for young readers to encounter. Yes, they do stupid things, but then learn from them and don’t continually do them. Yes, they try things out, because experience, sensation, curiosity are essential to living full lives, but they don’t (usually) charge into things without some idea of responsibility. They tell themselves No as often as they indulge themselves, and they seem to realize that how they conduct themselves personally, with each other, is just as important as how they meet the larger, almost incomprehensible challenges beyond.
When I finished Earthbound I tried to think of a better way he might have done it that would not have transformed the whole thing into a flight of fantasy, a puff-piece for fragile egos, and I thought to be true to the premise, there was no other way. He’s giving us the universe as it, at least philosophically, is—which cares not a fig for our concerns or even that we’re here, and which, if we make trouble on too big a scale, is as likely to swat us like a bug as yield to our demands. It’s not so much a downer ending as it is sobering.
Sobriety is a good thing, especially when one doesn’t know what one is doing.