Guardian - Joe Haldeman

Reviewed for Usenet (or see Google archive ).

Joe Haldeman
Ace publishers
ISBN: 0441009778 (Amazon link )

I like Haldeman a lot, and have recently chewed my way through some of his back-catalogue - Mindbridge and Worlds. I noted some reviews of Guardian on this group, and decided to pick up a copy. I ignored the review content to avoid spoilers.

Last night I realised I had Guardian on my shelves already! It's a bizarre book from a structural point of view and I think I regard it as a failed experiment. I'm going to try and avoid spoiling the STORY but reveal the structure for discussion. This shouldn't be more than is obvious from the cover or the heroine's opening remarks anyway.

This book purports to to be the memoirs of an old woman, the grandmother of the author of the prologue. It is based on her dairies, and written in her own words near the end of her life. It is not published until much later to avoid people thinking ill of her son or grandson as a result of the content.

Haldeman does a superlative job writing as the heroine Rosa Coleman "born in Helen's Mill, Georgia, in 1858, on a plantation with slaves." Her prose is clear and straightforward, as befits a well educated southern belle who spends much of her life teaching or, later, writing. For the first 2/3rds of the book this is more or less straight historical fiction, written in the first person. Rosa is an intelligent young woman who grows up sheltered and not entirely happy in a succession of boarding schools. A traumatic split from her family leads to her being orphaned, and it is in this state that she meets her future husband. Well, what else would a young woman want but to be married and settle into the role of a wife and mother? She cannot make her way as an independent scientist, no matter how she loves the subject. No, being practical and naive she is introduced to, and marries a man. All this is told is marvellously liquid prose that just flows along, set against the rich background of "the War", Gettsburg, and the bible.

There is a problem with Rosa's new husband; he's a brute. After several years of domestic violence, she snaps when some of it is directed at her son, in his young teens. An appalling series of events leads her to run away with him and try to avoid her husband, a rich and successful lawyer, finding them via the Pinkertons.

This first 1/3 is all fantastic stuff, and proves what a good writer Haldeman is. The second 1/3 though is rockier, not because of the prose, but rather because there is a bit of a travelogue imposed on us. The runaways enter an idllyic phase travelling along the Mississippi revelling in reliving their favourite moments from books, though I never did like H. Finn myself. This is a fantastic piece of writing too, but well, it just seemed that everything was too much fun! Although the scenes provided are great to read and offer a very well researched slice of late 19th century life I just felt that the story had run away from the author, and that I was now reading something by Michael Palin's adventurous ancestoress.

Things tighten up again later, with our heroine and her son, both marvellously sympathic characters, ending up hiding out in Dodge with some friends they meet, planning on going to the Yukon to make their fortune. While the father/son they meet go prospecting with her son, Daniel, Rosa will return to somewhere part civilised and teach in a mission school.

This is a pretty terse summary of the story, and while it's great stuff and very enjoyable reading you're probably thinking what I was thinking. "This is all very nice, but really, western's/historical travelogues in early America aren't my thing. Has Haldeman done a non-SF book?" Okay, so her life is more alien to me than most generic SF is, but still, if I'd wanted history I'd be looking at other authors.

Well, yes, and no. What I neglected to mention is that Rosa has met a large raven a few times, and while it never croaked "nevermore!" at her, it did manage a few words of warning, "No! Gold!". This is certainly... odd. After a few of these crises Rosa feels that the raven is something worth wondering about, and this reader agreed. However, life goes on, and apart from one or two incidents with the raven there is entirely a mundane novel.

Only in the last, say, 1/4 of the novel do things suddenly turn 90 degrees and head off into SF territory. After a personal crisis Rosa is about to commit suicide when Raven, think Coyote if those myths are more familiar to you, appears to her. She has already met him, in his guise at the shaman in the mission where she teaches. What follows is well, weak. Rosa is led on a cosmic journey by her feathered Virgil and returned to earth slightly back in time. She meets her son, and finds that (a) she can save them all from the way things turned out before and (b) history has changed in the very recent past - things aren't quite what they were. Armed with her new moral sense from the Raven Rosa goes on to live happily ever after, while her second son by her new husband, the prospecter, goes on to win the nobel prize in physics, profer an alternative to Hiroshima and usher in a new happier world history... The End.

At this point I was astounded. I'm putting this novel into the same category as Gentle's Ash, and Wilson's Darwinia. They are all well written, but suffer from having a main story which is much more compelling than the actual story. Ash is the most successful of these three, but Guardian probably sports the best writing and most sympathetic characters.

I found the ending both rushed and feeble. If the world history had been told slowly and revealed to us then I might have rejoiced in the clever alt-hist, but as it is the chances of her second son being (a) a genius and (b) involved in Manhatten, all in a few pages, is too much. I was reading about Rosa, not her son, who is barely introduced to us.

I also wasn't at all sold on her journey with the Raven. I liked it, but really it was very banal and the revelations were a bit cliched. The effect on poor Rosa also was quite minor. Myself, I'd have ended up on a funny farm...

All in all, I'd recommend giving this novel a chance; 2/3rds of it is superior historical travelogue and the SFnal ending might work for you.

Nitpick: page 222, "people payed me for it". Eh? Is this a historical use of 'paid' I've never seen before or another of those dreaded abuses of English by a US publishing house? AFAIK 'payed' can only apply to a rope.

(Yes, I know, this'll spawn a horrific grammar thread, but it jumped out at me. Well educated, and a writer to book, I felt that Rosa wouldn't make a mistake, but it's new to me.)

Posted: Sat - February 22, 2003 at 03:50 PM