I’m ending the weird western series with some borderline cases.
Raw Feed (2004): Guardian, Joe Haldeman, 2002.
In some ways this is a slight novel; in some ways it’s a typical Joe Haldeman novel; in some ways it’s a disappointing novel.
Haldeman has almost written a weird western here. He gives us a novel mostly set in the 1890s about a woman and her son fleeing the husband who has horribly abused them both. At crucial moments, they meet a talking raven who offers them good advice or ominous warnings. She flees from Philadelphia to Alaska. Her son meets a sudden, violent end when he is murdered in the Klondike gold rush. At the moment of hearing the news and about to commit suicide, the raven is revealed to be a shapeshifting alien who also wears the guise of a Indian shaman who has been teaching her Tlingit in Sitka, Alaska. The raven takes her on a shapeshifting tour of alternate universes and time itself. He is a guardian of life and is worried that not only will the narrator kill herself but that humanity, like many intelligent species, will kill itself.
Ultimately, he moves her to another dimension where her son lives. More importantly, the man killed with her son, who she has promised to marry, does not die, and the two have a son who works on the Manhattan Project and figures out a way of building a third atomic bomb which is demonstrated for the Japanese in Tokyo Bay. In some unexplained way, that saves humanity from annihilation in the 1990s.
Haldeman is a good, tight writer, and his prose is always a pleasure to read. He often uses first person narrative, and here he pulls it off just fine even though the narrator is a woman and a Christian. The book sort of works as a quick travelogue through the west of striking Pullman workers and Klondike gold rushers and Dodge City after its heyday. But the book is something of a letdown in its speculative content and even, at times, its technique.
The narrator, who in her later years makes a living as a pulp writer of, amongst other things, sf and meets Hugo Gernsback, has, at times, the annoying habit of laying on the foreshadowing though I understand that this is to underscore the theme of the consequences of seemingly trivial encounters and events. To be sure, the raven first makes his appearance on page 22 of a 231 page book. However, his nature isn’t revealed until page 164. The raven is named Gordon in memory of Haldeman’s friend, the late sf writer Gordon Dickson, and there are also allusions to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” and the Tlingit trickster god of a raven.
It seems all too neat that an alien would choose to manifest itself to Christian woman in Philadelphia as a talking raven. And the wonders he shows narrator Rosa Coleman aren’t that interesting even when he says he is the guardian of life and not a single species. The aliens he shows are only briefly covered, not at all as interesting as other aliens Haldeman has created in his Confederacion universe.
In fact, I think the main trouble with this novel, what makes it a slight book if not a failure, is that it is full of some characteristic Haldeman themes and enthusiasms not indulged in other stories. Camille Flammarion’s sf novel Lumen
is explicitly mentioned not only in the story but in Haldeman’s dedication. I get the impression that Haldeman plotted the novel first, found out it somewhat resembled Flammarion’s story, and added the references. However, it could rather be the travels through the universe and sights seen, including a sort of afterlife, were first inspired by Flammarion. Alaska was where Haldeman grew up, and the dedication makes clear his fondness for the state. The metaphysical slightness of Gordon’s journey — and I don’t think the slightness is due to Haldeman’s terse prose — reminded me of his failed novel Forever Free
which also had god-like aliens interfering in the lives of humans for reasons that don’t resonate on an emotional level and don’t startle intellectually.
Understandably, Haldeman, as a sf writer and combat veteran, has been fascinated with the question of violence in human affairs and the future. That certainly shows up in raven’s prophecies about man’s possible destruction. However, the notion that American should have just demonstrated the atomic bomb to the Japanese and they would have quietly surrendered has never been real convincing. I’m not sure if the historical revelations were out when Haldeman wrote this novel, but we know now that the Japanese government, with the exception of the Emperor, wasn’t ready to surrender after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And the causality of how an A-bomb demonstration avoided nuclear holocaust is missing as well as lacking in plausibility. The hopping between alternate universes is another story element that Haldeman has used elsewhere, perhaps most effectively in his poem “DX”. It also features, in the attention paid Ernest Hemmingway in The Hemmingway Hoax as a sort of dark negative to the guardian raven here.
In short, I suspect Haldeman wrote this book because he wanted to experiment literarily and do an historical novel with sf elements, and he further combined it with his love of Alaska. The result was a fast, compelling read. But, in the end, it wasn’t a very satisfying read.