Books

Sci-fi author Haldeman on whether a ‘Forever War’ movie will happen

Joe Haldeman won a Hugo Award, and praise from sci-fi legend Robert A. Heinlein, for his novel “The Forever War,” based in part on his service in the Vietnam War. Haldeman is in Kansas City for MidAmeriCon II.
Joe Haldeman won a Hugo Award, and praise from sci-fi legend Robert A. Heinlein, for his novel “The Forever War,” based in part on his service in the Vietnam War. Haldeman is in Kansas City for MidAmeriCon II.

Writer Joe Haldeman received his first Hugo Award in 1976 in Kansas City at MidAmeriCon, but it may have paled next to what came after.

Robert A. Heinlein, the Butler, Mo., native who is considered the dean of science fiction, wrote the young Haldeman a letter telling him how he appreciated his award-winning sci-fi book, “The Forever War.”

“He was very complimentary in various circumstances,” Haldeman said from his home in Gainesville, Fla. “He since told me he had read the book three times, which I think is very generous.”

“The Forever War,” which is partially set in Missouri, follows a soldier sent off to war on another planet only to return to an Earth vastly different from the one he left. Haldeman based it in part on his experiences in the Vietnam War. At one point, Channing Tatum was set to star in a film adaptation.

Haldeman and his wife, Gay, are in Kansas City this week to attend Worldcon’s MidAmeriCon II, where he will talk at several panels and workshops. Here, he talks about the possibility of a movie based on “The Forever War,” his next book and how the future isn’t what it used to be.

Q: Whatever happened to the “Forever War” movie?

A: Well, it’s still flitting around. Every now and then you see something. The money has been invested at this very preliminary level, which is to say I’ve made plenty of money off of it by people buying the rights.

But that doesn’t make a movie happen. We have seven scripts, I understand, but that doesn’t mean much. I can write a script in two months — and I’m slow. I have a pile of scripts in my office here, but nobody’s beating down the door to get to them.

Q: “Forever War” was published in 1974 and you set some of it in 1997. Did you think we’d be farther along with space travel by now?

A: I’m not a true believer about that. I’ve seen the space program — which I love — taken hostage by politics many times. I’ve seen things NASA planned very well and very carefully suddenly get deep-sixed by one political party or the other.

I don’t even have favorites there. I don’t trust politicians, but I do trust scientists to come up with the answers and to be honest about what they’ve done.

Q: What other aspects of the future haven’t met your expectations?

A: It seems we should be well on our way to colonizing Mars by now. Which is what we thought back in the ’70s. What went wrong? Well, the world went wrong. I have to face the fact that space travel is not the most important thing on everybody’s agenda, and most people hardly ever think about it. That’s just reality.

Q: What has exceeded your expectations of the future?

A: I never thought there’d be a black president. I didn’t see that coming in my lifetime. So there’s one good thing that happened. There’s a demonstration that America isn’t a totally racist, backward country.

In fact, I think we’re all pretty good people, and it’s nice when we do something as a group that demonstrates that to people outside the United States.

Q: Why do you think Robert A. Heinlein wrote to you about “The Forever War”?

A: I think he was proud that an actual combat veteran became a well-known science fiction writer. He liked the fact that I had actually gone through combat and gone through PTSD and came out a successful professional. Not just a writer, but I’ve been a professor and this and that and done all right.

Q: Did your military service help you become a writer?

A: It introduced me to a lot of people I would not have met in the normal course of things. I was set up to be an astronomer. And that’s what I was going to be until I was drafted.

I was just going through the academic program. And I would have been a pretty ordinary astronomer — if that. My math was not excellent, it’s very ordinary. I’ve come to realize that to be a really outstanding astronomer you have to be a really outstanding mathematician.

Q: Did it teach you discipline?

A: Oh, possibly. I think I learned more about discipline from physics than I did in the Army. … Mostly, I learned how to keep my mouth shut and stay out of trouble.

Q: If you were starting out as a 22-year-old writer today, what would you do differently?

A: Maybe I would read more broadly than I had. I’d read almost nothing but science fiction. I think the people I’ve met who are good and successful and happy writers tend to have read more broadly and know something about other kinds of writing.

Q: What do you think of when you think of the future now?

A: Well, other than apprehension? I’ve developed a kind of patience about technological progress. It seems to happen independently of political lack of progress.

Technology doesn’t have agendas. Technology has talented people whose education and enthusiasm is something like an autonomical function. It’s not going to be stopped. It’s not going to be derailed by some small personal decision or personal tragedy. Or even by triumphs. I think scientific and technological progress is a function of a person’s actual passionate curiosity about the universe. It’s the kind of guy or gal you are. That’s just something that you either have or you don’t.

I know there are people who don’t understand it and have no curiosity about how the universe works and don’t even want to hear about it. But I like the basic scientific attitude: Prove it to me. And then once you’ve proved it, look for ways to disprove it. Be sensitive to the notion that you might be just wrong and be prepared to recalibrate your worldview according to data as it comes in. Data is king. And faith is only faith, it’s not observation.

Q: What are you working on?

A: A novel called “Phobos Means Fear.” That will be my next novel.

It’s about the first flight to Mars and it’s also about a woman growing up as a senior scientist in a world where that’s not that simple. At the center of it, they are making routine observations of Phobos, one of two moons of Mars, and a disaster happens while scientific measurements are going on. So suddenly it becomes a very important thing, because it’s proof not only of life on Mars but life with some hostile intent.

It’s a decent Hollywood-type movie idea. I don’t know why Hollywood isn’t knocking down my door trying to run away with it. That’s the way it goes.

David Frese: 816-234-4463; dfrese@kcstar.com; @DavidFrese

Through Sunday

Author Joe Haldeman will be on several panels at MidAmeriCon II at Bartle Hall. For a full schedule, go to MidAmeriCon2.org. Single-day admission ranges from $40 to $70.

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