Wednesday, June 12, 2013

War is Hell On Other Planets, Too

Jason Sheehan, A Private Little War

Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War used space opera conventions to explore Haldeman’s Vietnam experience. Not only did the heroes cross measureless space to face an enemy they hadn’t seen; when they returned to Earth, the effects of relativity meant they returned to a world that had advanced centuries while they hadn’t aged. Its classic symbolism unpacked the implications of a war the combatants couldn’t understand.

I couldn’t help remembering Haldeman’s 1974 classic while reading Jason Sheehan’s debut novel, because Shehan does nothing, I mean nothing, that says this book needs to be science fiction. Sheehan serves a slumgullion of images salvaged from better-known authors: you’ll recognize Ernest Hemingway, Richard Hooker, and Tim O’Brien among others. He’s just leavened his blatant rip-off with Depression-era pulp sci-fi images, who knows why.

On distant Iaxo, Commander Ted Prinzi and Captain Kevin Carter are officers for Flyboy, Inc., a contract air force. They fly raids for the human government, which wants to seize swaths of land for human development. They hope to accomplish this by turning one group of indigs (natives) against another. But the mud-dwelling indigs refuse to die. So to cover its losses, Flyboy washes its hands of its pilots just as scrutiny turns to outrage.

I get Sheehan’s intent here. Blind kittens probably get Sheehan’s intent. His blatant parallels with America’s use of private proxies in foreign theatres (we’re looking at you, Blackwater) is admittedly timely as Barack Obama, the Drone Ranger, has unified left and right in outrage. The image of humans as alien invaders conveys Sheehan’s point appropriately; never mind that SG Redling did it better barely a month ago.

Sheehan says “Iaxo was a war without cliché.” Baloney. Start with the airplanes themselves: Captain Carter and his Flyboy pilots somehow fly alien skies in planes that would make sense over Verdun. Carter himself flies a Sopwith Camel, just like Snoopy. His men fly Fokkers and Junkers. Seriously. Biplanes with open cockpits. Sheehan attempts an explanation about public scrutiny and plausible deniability, which confuses more than it clarifies.

Carter and Prinzi march listlessly through the kinds of scenes readers recognize from other books. Sheehan’s story isn’t necessarily anti-war so much as anti-banality. Despite some long descriptions of combat missions, Sheehan, like Joseph Heller, spends his greatest time on the long, dispiriting spells between actions, and the ways pilots stave off boredom. His description of recreational strafing runs feels exactly like a key scene from Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket.

Sadly, neither Carter nor Prinzi are as interesting as Yossarian or Private Joker. Their actions are so repetitive, so non-dimensional, they belong in a Sgt. Bilko episode, minus the humor. They confront every setback—corporate micromanagement, indig insurgency, combat death—with the same mix of Patton-esque cynicism and stony resolve. Even when Carter’s big secret explodes at the novel’s midpoint, his reaction never varies. These men desperately, fiercely need a beer.

War feels like something that happens to these characters, not something in which they participate. They don’t even show ambition enough for passive aggression. This slow, joyless novel desperately needs a Hawkeye Pierce to call bullshit. Without such initiative, the characters fail to give their story direction; it becomes a novel about passive people failing to pilot their own lives. Maybe that’s Sheehan’s point, but at 480 pages, ermahgerd, that’s long.

And again, why is it science fiction? The science, technology, and alien landscape have no impact on the story or characters. Despite its Iraq War trappings, Sheehan blends images from nearly every American war for the last 200 years. Joe Haldeman used sci-fi to examine war from new, amended angles. If Sheehan had set the story in the Duchy of Grand Fenwick, it would make as much sense.

Sheehan wouldn’t need to serve in war, as Haldeman, O’Brien, and Heller all did, to write this book. Stephen Crane and Pat Barker didn’t serve. But they spoke with veterans, studied history, and verified their stories. Sheehan apparently memorized images and scenes from other books, reassembling them into a mess that broadly resembles every wartime book you’ve ever read. It doesn’t feel so much familiar as tired.

To imagine the experience of reading this book, remember every novel about cynical wartime banality you’ve ever read. Remember Catch-22, MASH, The Things They Carried, A Farewell to Arms. Now throw them in a blender with Flash Gordon and Terry and the Pirates, and spread the resulting jam across nearly 500 pages. It’s about that flavorless, and those 500 pages feel a lot longer.

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