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Joe Haldeman
Ace Books, 231 pages

Joe Haldeman
Joe Haldeman's awards include the Hugo, the Nebula, and the World Fantasy Award. His SF classic, The Forever War, along with The Hemingway Hoax, and the Worlds trilogy are just a few of the titles that have made him a household name in the realm of SF. A Vietnam veteran, he is currently an adjunct professor teaching writing at MIT.

Joe Haldeman Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Forever Peace
SF Site Review: The Forever War
SF Site Review: The Coming
SF Site Review: Forever Free
SF Site Review: Forever Peace
SF Site Review: Forever Peace
SF Site Review: Saul's Death & other poems

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Greg L. Johnson

Taking a break from matters of war and peace, Joe Haldeman's latest novel, Guardian, tells the story of a nineteenth-century woman who is granted an encounter with a vision of the universe that is far beyond the imagining of most of her contemporaries. It is a quiet, almost pastoral novel that makes its points not through dramatic action or violence, but instead from the inner thoughts of a woman trying to find a place in the world for her and her son.

Rosa Coleman was born in Georgia, and sent by her parents to Philadelphia just after the outbreak of the Civil War. In college, she develops an aptitude for mathematics and an interest in astronomy. But when she is courted by a wealthy Philadelphian, she marries and settles into family life.

It's when her husband's violent nature is discovered, threatening her and her son Daniel, that she runs away, taking Daniel with her. From this point on, the story becomes almost a travelogue through the American West of the last quarter of the 19th century. Seeking a safe place, convinced her husband is pursuing them, Rosa and Daniel decide to head for Alaska. Along the way, Rosa adopts the surname Flammarion, inspired by the French scientist whose novel she has been reading.

Through most of the novel, Guardian reads very much like a turn-of-the-century story, with its descriptions of travel and new places, and references to Flammarion, Twain, and others. Apart from Rosa's fear of her husband, the tension in the story comes from foreshadowing of the trauma that awaits her in Alaska. The foreshadowing comes both from Rosa's own references, and from the recurring appearance of a raven who conveys cryptically dire messages. The raven is also an indicator of why Guardian, though elegantly written, with fully-developed characters and a well-researched historical setting, does not quite work as a novel.

The revelation that is presented to Rosa is a cosmological one, a view of the nature of the universe beyond the imagining of most human beings in the 19th century. Because of Rosa's astronomical education and reading choices, by the end of the novel the reader is prepared for a glimpse of scientific wonder, and Rosa's horrible truth. But that glimpse comes with an over-lay of mysticism, which instead of enhancing the experience, works to distract from it.

It doesn't have to be that way. R.A. Lafferty is just one example of a writer who often mixed legend, folk-lore, and even Catholic mysticism with science fiction in order to create something unique. In Guardian, Haldeman seems to be striving for something similar to Karen Joy Fowler's Sarah Canary, where the mystery surrounding the main character played the expectations of SF readers against the expectations of mainstream readers. The difference is that, in Sarah Canary, the mix enhanced the reading experience, while in Guardian the interplay of science and mysticism work against each other, and in the end, serves not to enhance the novel's sense of wonder, but instead diminishes it. Guardian is a science fiction novel that paradoxically works best when it is being a mainstream historical novel.

Copyright © 2003 by Greg L. Johnson

Reviewer Greg L. Johnson estimates that on a day-trip off from their journey across America, Rosa and Daniel passed within a few blocks of his home in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His reviews also appear in the The New York Review of Science Fiction.

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