Books: The Forever War

The Science Fiction Book Club recently named their “50 Most Significant SF & Fantasy Books of the Last 50 Years“. Now, I know as well as you do that these “Best Of!” lists are totally bogus, but I’ve been in the mood for lighter reading recently, and when I saw Joe Haldeman’s novel parked in the top half I recalled how many times this particular novel had been recommended to me over the years. Plus, given the current geopolitical situation, this seemed as good a time to read a book entitled The Forever War. So I picked it up.

As with most “classic” sci-fi works, this book has a gimmick, albeit a rather modest one. True to the name this is indeed a war novel, where the combat taking place is given as much ink as the characters. But the humans enbroiled in the The Forever War’s interstellar struggle have to consider some elements that twentieth-century strategists were never forced to grapple with. Humans, it seems, have perfected near-light speed engines, and have discovered a network of wormholes which allow their fleets to travel instantly (from their point of view) to various points in the galaxy. Unfortunately, the theory of relativity mandates that while the troops may only experience a few months’ travel as they voyage to their destination, years will have passed in “real time”. A soldier might travel through a wormhold on a supply mission, drop off his cargo, return home through the same portal, and find that the Earth has utterly transformed during his “four month” sojourn.

The story centers on William Mandella, a reluctant and mediocre soldier who is among the first drafted and sent to fight the mysterious race of Taurans. As one of the few of the initial force to survive, he returns to an Earth where dozens of years have passed and finds himself heralded as one of the most senior veterans in military service, despite the fact that, to his mind, he’s only spent a year or so in uniform. He also finds that the war has become increasingly absurd, as generals try to deal with enormous complexities of waging a relativistic war. Troops, for instance, are routinely shipped out with state-of-the-art weapons, only to discover, upon arrival at the battlefront, that so much “real time” has passed during their journey that their technology has become laughably out-of-date.

The Forever War is a rather simple book, refreshingly so. I’ve grown so accustomed to sci-fi novels cram-packed with throw-away ideas that it was nice to read one that set out to explore all of its ramifications of a single, clever conceit. Haldeman is clearly a man who knows a thing or two about military matters, and his depiction of battle, fanciful though it is, comes across as unnervingly accurate. He uses the chronological chaos to illustrate what the soldiers in the field unquestionably feel as they march into combat: that much of “military planning” hinges on hunches and hope. By pointing out the absurdity of trying to fight an intergalactic war, Haldeman points out the absurdity of war itself, but does so in a way that suggests that war may sometimes be necessary all the same.

I don’t know if The Forever War is one of the most “significant’ science fiction books I’ve ever read, but it certainly numbers amongst the most enjoyable.

I’d Like To Mock The Academy

Every year my friends and I gather to watch the Academy Awards and see who among us can make the best, ad lib, smartass comments as the events unfold. Some of last night’s contenders:

Scene: Steve Martin’s opening monologue.
Comment: “I’m glad to see that, out of respect for the war effort, they decided not to use funny jokes this year.”

Scene: Catherine Zeta-Jones rises after being announced the winner of the “Best Supporting Actress” award.
Comment: “Holy smokes! That thing should be named ‘Best Supporting Dress’!”

Scene: Catherine Zeta-Jones, in her acceptance speech, says “This is to my husband, who I love and share this award with.”
Comment: “Actually, she has to share the award with him. It was in the pre-nup.”

Scene: Adrien Brody makes out with Halle Berry before receiving his “Best Actor” award.
Comments: First Male – “Is it just me, or was that wholly inappropriate?”
Second Male – “That was was wholly inappropriate.”
Female – “Oh come on. Given the chance you’d do the same thing.”
Second male – “That’s true. And it would be wholly inappropriate.”

Scene: Elliot Goldenthal is announced the winner of the “Best Score” award for Frida, and the Academy Awards Band plays festive, Mariachi-style music as he approaches the stage.
Comment: “Oh, I’m glad he won. I love his work on those Azteca commercials.”

Scene: Roman Polanski is named “Best Director” for The Pianist.
Comment: “Booyah! Like I always say: never bet against the Holocaust movie or the actor playing a disabled guy!”

Scene: Nicole Kidman concludes her acceptance speech for the “Best Supporting Actress” and steps away from the microphone.
Comment: “Wouldn’t it be great if she was all like ‘Oh yeah, one more thing: Tom is gay’.”

Waiting For Togo

Did you see Bush’s speech last night, announcing the start of hostilities? This line, in particular, leapt out at me: “These are opening stages of what will be a broad and concerted campaign. More than 35 countries are giving crucial support.”

Thirty-five?! Just yesterday Powell said we had 45 nations (but admitted that a third of them “for one reason or another, do not wish to be publicly named”). What, did ten nations just not show up last night? “Okay, we’re rolling in seven minutes, people. Has anyone seen Bulgaria? Bulgaria? Anyone? What about Azerbaijan? Goddammit, Azerbaijan totally said they’d be here.”

The full roster of “willing” (and nameable) nations, by the way, is

Afghanistan, Albania, Australia, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Colombia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, El Salvador, Eritrea, Estonia, Ethiopia, Georgia, Hungary, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, the Netherlands, Nicaragua, the Philippines, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Spain, Turkey, the United Kingdom and Uzbekistan.


I like how Turkey magically became an ally, despite the fact that they turned down a 30 billion dollar bribe to use their bases. Do you think the US stuck Turkey on the list just so they’d have a number divisible by three? Without them, Powell would have had to say “We have the support of 44 nations, but 34.0909090909091% of them do not yet wish to be publicly named,” and then, shit, you might as well call the war “Operation Story Problem”.

Plus, most of these guys aren’t even sending troops. This sounds like one of those coalitions that college roommates form, the kind where they all swear they are “willing” help clean up the house before moving, and then, on the 31st of the month, they contribute by leaving a half-empty can of “Easy Off” on the kitchen counter and mysteriously disappearing for the day.

And I’m just talking about the known countries. What’s up with those that “do not wish to be publicly named”? I mean, not to put too fine a point on it or anything, but how much can you possibly contribute to a war and still expect to remain anonymous? On the “Coalition Of The Willing Sign-Up Sheet” I imagine these nations writing, like, “New Zealand: Will root for you.”

Tip of the Slung

My friend K works with a woman named Bridget. The two are collaborating on a project and intend to get together this Saturday to discuss logistics.

Earlier today, K’s boss held a conference with all her employees, and asked each how their tasks were going.

“Great,” K enthused, when it was her turn to provide an update. “I’m breeding with midgets this weekend!”

Rev. Spooner would be proud.

Research Day: Hotel California

Satan!Two months ago, defective yeti announced a bold new initiative, a monthly feature entitled Research Day where I would Google all the troublesome little questions that had recently occured to me and post my findings.

And then, one month ago, defective yeti boldly forgot all about it.


Anyhow, The Queen and I were tooling around in the car the other day, when Hotel California came on the radio. I immediately adopted my patented Way Too Inebriated College Guy voice and bellowed “Duuude, you know this song? It’s totally about Satanism. Seer-iously!”

The Queen said “What?”

“Listen,” I continued. “Did’jou hear that? ‘We haven’t had that spirit here since 1969’? That’s, like, the Holy Spirit, and they don’t have it any more. And ‘you cannot kill the beast’? The beast is Satan, man! It’s true!”

To which The Queen replied “What in the hell are you talking about?”

I get that a lot.

I assumed — erroneously, I guess — that everyone (including The Queen) had, while in college, attended a party where Hotel California was playing, and been cornered by a Way Too Inebriated College Guy, who insisted, with slurred earnestness, that the song was a thinly veiled paean (or perhaps “pagan”) to Satanism.* I mean, when I was in college this happened to me, like, twice a month.

But The Queen had apparently missed out on this element of campus life, leaving me to explain my cryptic remarks. When I finished, she asked “So is the song about Satanism?” I shrugged. “I dunno. I never bothered to find out. I should look it up on Google or something.”

And that’s how I remembered Research Day. So let’s get to it.

On the face of it, Way Too Inebriated College Guy has a pretty good case. First, check out the complete lyrics over here. As Hotel California opens, it seems the Hotel in question is nothing more than an illusion (“Up ahead in the distance / I saw a shimmering light / My head grew heavy, and my sight grew dim / I had to stop for the night”), some sort of spectral edifice for the damned. The narrator himself speculates that “this could be Hell.” Then, in rapid succession, we get candle lighting (Satan!), dancing in the courtyard (naked dancing? Satan!), and the aforementioned lack of “spirit”. Then comes the smoking gun:

Mirrors on the ceiling,
The pink champagne on ice
And she said “We are all just prisoners here, of our own device”
And in the master’s chambers,
They gathered for the feast
The stab it with their steely knives,
But they just can’t kill the beast.

The song concludes with the protagonist trying to escape, and being told “You can checkout any time you like / but you can never leave.”


If the lyrics aren’t enough, there are also rumors that The Church of Satan was founded in California, and that its leader was somehow affiliated with The Eagles. A typical assertion: “One of the top songs of the 70’s was Hotel California by the Eagles. Most people have no idea the song refers to the Church of Satan, which happens to be located in a converted HOTEL on CALIFORNIA street! On the inside of the album cover, looking down on the festivities, is Anton Lavey, the founder of the Church of Satan and author of the Satanic Bible!” (That quotation, by the way, was taken from this page. “When Way Too Inebreated College Guys Get Websites, next on FOX!”)

Some even say that there are backwards Satanic message hidden in the song. This site spells it out both ways: “Forwards: ‘There were voices down the corridor, thought I heard them say, welcome to the Hotel California.’ Backwards: ‘Yeah Satan, he organized, oh, he organized his own religion. Yeah, when he knows he should, how nice it was delicious, he puts it in a vet he fixes it for his son which he gives away.'” That’s pretty incriminating, because, as we all know, the most effective way to convert an unsuspecting music aficionado to The Dark Side is to take sinister phrases like “he puts it in a vet” and reverse them.

Anyhow, I figured I’d get to the bottom of this in about five seconds by heading over to The Straight Dope, as this is exactly the sort of question Cecil Adams likes to tackle. To my surprise, S.D. only mentions the Hotel California = Satanism question in passing while addressing a different query about the song. Then I checked Snopes and was let down again. What the hell? When I launched Research Day I never envisioned that I’d actually have to do, you know, research and stuff. Lame.

Still, it didn’t take me long to find refutations from the band members. In this interview, Joe Walsh was asked it it was true that Anton Lavey, the founder of The Church of Satan, could really be seen on the cover of the album. Walsh’s reply:

Absolutely not. Any reference to Satan or anything like that is completely in the eyes of whoever is thinking that. That’s a reflection of how sick they are. The guy in the window is one of the Elektra/Asylum publicity guys. The lighting just happened to be bad and he was really shy, so he was just peeking around the corner.

As for the meaning of the song itself, Don Henley has always maintained that the seductive influence alluded to in Hotel California is not Satanism, but rather the excesses of band life that The Eagles grappled with in the late 70’s. Here’s what he said during a 1987 interview with Rolling Stone magazine:

Q: ‘Hotel California’ was widely received as a sharp commentary on Southern California’s penchant for superficiality and decadence. Was that your intention?

Henley: Actually, I was a little disappointed with how the record was taken, because I meant it in a much broader sense than a commentary about California. I was looking at American culture, and when I called that one song “Hotel California,” I was simply using California as a microcosm for the rest of America and for the self-indulgence of our entire culture.

It was, to a certain extent, about California, about the excesses out here. But in many instances, as California goes, so goes the nation. Things simply happen out here or in New York first — whether it’s with drugs or fashion or artistic movements or economic trends — and then work their way toward the middle of America. And that’s what I was trying to get at.

(But isn’t that just what you’d expect a Satanist to say?)

As for the charge that the phrase “Yeah satan, oh he came, and organized his own religion” is hidden in the song — well, listen for yourself (mp3 link).

So there you go. The next time I’m drunk at a party where Hotel California is playing, I’m going to throw my arm around some hapless kid and bellow “Duuude, you know this song? It’s totally about California as a microcosm for the rest of America and for the self-indulgence of our entire culture. Seriously!” I’m sure that will go over swimmingly.

* This sentence was brought to you by the Comma Advisory Board.

Update: In the comments, Mike of Curious Frog remarks “Glenn Frey confirmed the line They stab it with their steely knives, But they just can’t kill the beast was actually a nod to Steely Dan …” In following this up, I found an interview in which Glenn Frey says:

One of the things that impressed us about Steely Dan was that they would say anything in their songs and it did not have to necessarily make sense … we thought of this Hotel California, we started thinking of there would be very cinematic to do it, sort of like the Twilight Zone …, one line says there is a guy on the highway, you know, the next line says there is a hotel in the distance, then there is a woman in there and she walks in … just sort of strung together and you sort of draw your own conclusions from it.

Frankly, I find that to be the most credible explanation of the song’s origin I’ve yet heard, especially when you add in the reference to “Steely” that Mike pointed out. My hunch is that the secret meaning of Hotel California is that it doesn’t really have any.

Bush: Time For Pretend Diplomacy Has Passed

In another sign of impending military action, Bush today announced that the US would no longer pretend to work with the United Nations. "The time for pretend diplomacy has passed," warned the President in a televised speech to the nation. "I will therefore spend today pretending to make up my mind about invading." Bush estimated that he would pretend to deliberate for a day before pretending to come to a decision. The declaration followed a summit in which Bush met with those leaders who favor war and, in a last ditch, pretend effort to find a peaceful resolution, asked them if they favor war. "Look at the bright side," Bush added, "Once we attack I can go back to pretending to fix the economy." In a press conference shortly thereafter, White House Spokesman Ari Fleischer clarified the President's statement, insisting that Bush had meant to say "if we attack."

Friday Afternoon Scrachpad

Oscar Tool: Better Late than Never

Well, it’s a few weeks too late to be of much use, and I’ve done only the bare minimum of testing, but the Make-Yer-Own Oscar Pool Page is finally up and running. Please report any and all bugs to me.

Hog Heaven

Our old “Half Pint” microwave was taking upwards of fifteen minutes to cook popcorn. And the Little House on the Prairie theme song would get jammed into my head every time I saw the name. So we finally ditched it and picked up a new model, one featuring a bevy of food-specific buttons like “Baked Potato,” “Vegetables,” and “Bacon”.

You know, if every major appliance in my home had a “bacon” button I’d be the happiest guy alive.


The roots of defective yeti are planted in a paper zine called The Game Report. Edited by Peter Sarrett, the quarterly features reviews and news relating to board games.

When I returned from the Peace Corps I resolved to start writing again on a daily basis. So, in 1997, I wrote a review of a card game (Titian: The Arena), sent it to Peter, and was thrilled when he agreed to publish it the following issue. I contributed a handful of reviews over the following two years, and soon thereafter launched my own game website entitled Aces Up.

The problem was that, after a year or so of maintaining Aces Up, I was thoroughly sick of writing about board games. I mean, there’s only so many times you can use the phrase “elegant design” before it begins to wear thin. In thinking that I could ape The Game Report, I completely underestimated Peter’s dedication to the subject matter and ability to write reviews that never sounded repetitive. So I gave up and started a blog where I could write about anything, and thus defective yeti ambled onto the scene.

Now, Peter Sarrett has thrown his hat into the blogging ring with Static Zombie, a site devoted to “television and less important things in life”. And, ironically, he cites defective yeti as his main influence. Now all I need to do is somehow turn dy into a print magazine about games and the circle wil be complete.

Peter is an excellent writer, so be sure to check S.Z. out. This is an fine place to start.


US Unveils World’s Largest Mechanical Pencil

Three Things That Distinguish Miami From Seattle

  • Ice cream vending machines in the airport.
  • Sandals for sale at Texaco.
  • Ratio of manatees to banana slugs considerably higher.