Joe Haldeman postulated a peaceful first contact in his 1976 novel ‘Mindbridge’

February 5, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 5, 2019

Author’s note: This post contains some minor spoilers for the terrific novel The Forever War. Although these spoilers are rather trifling, If you have any interest in science fiction and haven’t read that book, I urge you to do so before you read this post! MEM

Joe Haldeman made his bones as a science fiction author in 1974 with his first genre novel, The Forever War. Like much of Haldeman’s work, this gritty soldier’s-eye perspective of a centuries-long conflict fought between humans and a mysterious alien race was informed by the author’s experiences as a draftee who was injured during his service in the Vietnam War.

Under a pseudonym, the Oklahoma-born author published two adventure novels featuring a merman before releasing another book using his own name. That volume was Mindbridge, a 1976 work which borrows a few techniques from The Forever War while tackling a story that in many ways is quite different from its predecessor.

Let’s quickly dispense with the narrative techniques that the two tales share. Both stories incorporate documents chronicling the characters’ endeavors; if memory serves, deployment orders appear in both stories. Mindbridge employs an expanded form of what I believe may be called an epistolary approach; in it, Haldeman uses excerpts from the main character’s memoir, a student evaluation, an employee manual and scientific reports, among other documents, to illuminate the universe and propel the action.

On to the story: The narrative tracks one Jacque Lefavre, the Swiss-American son of a disgraced physicist whose main claim to lack of fame was erroneously dismissing the most revolutionary discovery in all of science as wishful thinking. One can hardly blame poor Robert Lefavre; the Levant-Meyer Translation, or LMT, has the unbelievable effect of instantaneously teleporting matter tremendous distances — a minimum of about nine light years, with a maximum reach limited only by the effect’s exponentially increasing power requirements.

The younger Lefavre, who “dropped the terminal ‘S’ from his [first] name (because he was tired of being called ‘zhooks’),” is extremely smart and something of a maverick; his successful application to attend the Agency for Extraterrestrial Development Academy in Colorado Springs was the subject of his last conversation with Dr. Lefavre. After a few hiccups, Lefavre becomes a “Tamer,” the unfortunate name assigned to AED’s corps of outer-space explorers. His first translation is as part of a five-person crew conducting the first-ever survey of the second planet orbiting the star Groombridge 1618:

It wasn’t an especially promising place; the planets accompanying small stars rarely pan out. They wouldn’t have wasted an experienced team on it. 

Tania Jeeves was helping Jacque adjust his suit’s biometric readout. “Ten to one it’s just a rock. A hot rock or a cold one, we’ll see.” 

The five of them were standing around the Colorado Springs ready room, having a last cup of coffee while putting their suits through final checks. They would be living in the suits for the next eight days. 

“You don’t think we’ll find anything interesting, then?” Carol Wachal asked. “Just an expensive training exercise?” 

“Well, it’s always interesting. No two are alike, not even the rocks.” 

“But you don’t think we’ll find any life?” Jacque said. 

Tania shrugged and snapped shut the lid of the readout box. “I wouldn’t expect a Howard Johnson’s. Maybe fossils, maybe some tough species like the Martian nodules.” 

A door at the other end of the room opened and a technician looked in. “Ten minutes,” he said. “Right after the next incoming.” The door led to the staging area, where their suits would be sterilized. Once clean, they would go on to the vacuum chamber that held the LMT crystal. 

In fact, the quintet finds Groombridge to be a surprisingly Earth-like planet hosting liquid water and life forms of both the plant and animal variety. The key discovery, however, is a modestly sized form of sea sponge, which has the effect of telepathically linking individuals who simultaneously touch it — the eponymous Mindbridge, which is unfortunately referred to on multiple occasions as the Groombridge bridge.

This astonishing discovery, however, turns out to be not the subject of the plot but one of its facilitators. In late 2052, a group of AED Tamers discover sentient life, which turns out to be the novel’s true focus. Haldeman then explores how two expansionist species might attempt to negotiate first contact without exterminating one another.

In effect, Mindbridge keeps the young white male protagonist who witnesses a number of important events, the human bureaucracy that controls the lives of countless animated cogs, and the near-future (beginning) time frame from The Forever War but flips the rest of the story on its head. Mindbridge starts before another sentient race is found and tries to play out the scenario without a genocidal interstellar conflict. And instead of conforming with the laws of relativity — which enabled men and women traveling between stars at high speed to age at a much slower rate than the rest of the population — Haldeman employs a form of scientific magic.

‘Mindbridge’ (1976) by Joe Haldeman

To be frank, while Mindbridge isn’t as lively as The Forever War, the novel has some fairly engrossing bits. Haldeman excels at expanding on his central conceit: showing how humans would exploit the Levant-Meyer Translation as a tool to learn more about, and gain dominion over, faraway planets. The characters are somewhat bland, but thankfully not as generic or cardboard-thin as the ones in some of my recent reads (looking at you, Time is the Simplest Thing and World Without Stars). All in all, Mindbridge is a fitting companion piece to The Forever War that made me want to read other Haldeman tales.

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