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MIT novelist makes his peace with war stories

Joe Haldeman
Joe Haldeman
Photo / Donna Coveney

At first glance, Adjunct Professor Joe Haldeman appears to be a man of contradictions--a pacifist who writes about war, a former astronomy major who has spent his career working in the arts. But for Haldeman, the author of dozens of novels, short stories and poems, complexity is what makes life interesting.

Haldeman, 63, has been writing and teaching science fiction for decades. He has been at MIT every fall semester since 1983. His most famous work, the 1975 novel "The Forever War"--a science fiction Vietnam story--has been published five times and was almost made into a movie.

Haldeman's most recent books, "A Separate War and Other Stories" and "War Stories," both published this year, also deal with combat. This semester he is also teaching a course at MIT on war novels from various genres. "War makes for a natural topic for a dramatic story," Haldeman said.

Haldeman's aim is not to glorify war--quite the opposite. He tried to register as a conscientious objector when he was drafted in 1967. He said he told the government, "I would rather spend six years in the Peace Corps than two in the army." Still, he spent 1968 serving in Vietnam as a combat engineer. His experiences did much to inform his career.

Reviews of "The Forever War" have suggested that its plot touches on Haldeman's own feelings of isolation when he was so far from home with little news or contact. Haldeman said he agrees with this assessment in many ways. "I felt like that 365 days in 1968 went nowhere. We knew very little about what was going on back home."

Though he had written two short stories while at the University of Maryland getting his bachelor's degree in astronomy, it was while he was in Vietnam that he started his first novel. He called it a heroic fantasy novel, written in linked rhymed quatrains, and he wrote it in a blank book his mother sent him for his 25th birthday.

The book was lost one night when a rocket hit his empty bunker. But the novelist remained.

Haldeman, who had gone to Vietnam planning to go to graduate school in physics, returned wanting to write. Writing had always been a passion of his, and science fiction seemed like a natural progression.

He laughed recalling that his college advisor had tried to talk him out of taking a creative writing course. "They told me I needed differential equations, not fiction writing." He notes, "The opposite turned out to be true."

Haldeman has had a 40-year career writing fiction. He said he tries not to write when he is teaching--"It starts to feel like two full-time jobs"--and likes to write in the morning, waking at 4 a.m. to get a couple of hours in before the sun rises. He writes longhand, something that he knows is unusual in this technological age. He said it guarantees that a first draft is a "true first draft."

Over the years, his correspondence with his many fans has made the transition from letter to e-mail. He receives, on average, six or seven e-mails a day and tries to respond to them all. He has corresponded with some fans for years. One fan even wrote a 500-page doctoral dissertation on Haldeman's work.

Some of the most meaningful e-mails come from those considering a military career. "I've heard people say that my books have kept them from becoming soldiers," he said. "I am happy I have been able to use my experiences to do some good. There is no such thing as a good war or a bad peace."

Haldeman will participate in a gallery talk at the List Visual Arts Center at 6 p.m. on Dec. 8.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 15, 2006 (download PDF).

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