Ah, classic science fiction

Shannon and I spent a dizzying hour at Borderlands Books in the Mission last Friday. (I know, I know, it’s been over a week.) Borderlands is the perfect geek bookstore, right down to the unnaturally friendly Sphinx cat who haunts the front counter. It houses an impressive collection of science fiction and fantasy, including used books and small-press zines, in a pleasant atmosphere.

Somehow, I lived in the Bay Area for ten years without realising that Borderlands even existed, until Shannon told me about it last month. So much for being savvy about my environs.

I describe time spent at Borderlands as dizzying because a fog of attention deficit descends over me when I go through its doors. If I’m looking at books under “A”, and I remember that I wanted to look for something under “P”, my eyes will wander over “C”, “J”, and “N” along the way, until I recall that I wanted something under “W” too. By which time I’ve forgotten about “P”, and slump back to “A”, defeated in my attempt to maintain any thread of thought under the onslaught of thousands of book spines.

On our last visit, I decided to retro-educate myself on supposed classics of SF I had never read. I picked up a $2 used copy of Sam Delany’s “Nova” and Joe Haldeman’s “The Forever War”.

Prior to yesterday, the only Delany I read was his autobiography, The Motion of Light in Water, over a decade ago. Whatever his writing skills, Delany’s capacity for sex stuck in my mind; I was surprised he managed to squeeze in any time for writing, given all the time he spent at the truck stops.

Anyway, the carnage described in his autobiography has successfully stuck in my head for over a decade, but I can’t say the same for Nova. It is so much a product of its age (the mid-1960s) that it hardly bears reading today. Between the risibly psychedelic dialogue and the preoccupation with Tarot, I found the first few chapters almost unbearable, so I’ve been unable to bring myself to pick it up again.

None of this is the case with Joe Haldeman’s Forever War. This is essentially a Vietnam War novel, only with a science fiction setting. Haldeman fought in Vietnam, but his book suffers not one iota of the dated air that afflicts Nova.

Forever War is a humanist indictment of the military that happens to take the form of a gripping space opera. Given the continuing misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, the book has retained its relevance (something I think Haldeman might prefer was not the case). Haldeman’s unadorned prose and solid plotting can beat up Delany’s florid extravagances any day.

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