As series go, the trilogy comprised of Joe Haldeman's Marsbound, Starbound, and Earthbound novels is a bit of an oddity. On the one hand, each book has been a direct sequel of the previous, picking up the narrative right where it was left off. Carmen Dula also remains the protagonist and narrator throughout the books. On the other hand, the plots of each novel, while hardly self-contained, could hardly be more different.
The first novel, wherein a nineteen-year-old girl emigrates to Mars with her parents and obnoxious little brother, might have been marketed as young-adult sci-fi. The second is more in line with something Arthur C. Clarke might have done: featuring a now fully-adult heroine as part of an ensemble cast, this book follows humanity's last-ditch effort to negotiate for survival against an incomprehensible and vastly superior intelligence.
And while the first two novels find our heroes "bound" for one exotic destination after another, a different use of the word is intended in this third book's title. Humanity finds itself, at this story's opening, "bound" as in tied, to the Earth, their advanced spacefaring technology literally turned off by the mysterious Others.
Satellite communications: gone. Also computer networks, modern vehicles, anything, in fact, which requires electricity. In other words, this is the story about the end of civilization. Or rather, it's a story about the first week or so of the end of civilization: the collapse of government, the initial orgy of violence and looting and massive casualties.
At the close of the previous book, Carmen and several other emigres of both Earth and Mars had just returned from a decades-long trip to the home planet of the Others. They had gone there to plead for the continued existence of their species and their planet, against an older species that could crush them with a thought.
While all this was happening, warhawks back on Earth pushed for a covert military response. Then the Others got serious, altering the local physics so that even electric batteries would not function, thus sending our species back to the Stone Age.
I enjoyed Starbound for what it was: a middle-book in a series, further exploring some of the questions raised in the original novel but not really answering most of them. But I'm not sure what to make of this latest installment.
Some of the strongest parts of the novel are new threads, possibly leaving the door open to further books, but the epilogue strongly implies that Carmen's story, at the least, is over. It reads like Haldeman was unsure if he was continuing or concluding the series.
That's not the only sense in which this book felt indecisive. Large swaths of the book are disaster porn, unpacking the nuts and bolts of an end-of-the-world scenario. But our characters aren't quite in the thick of it.
Thanks to some unique contacts and simple good luck, they end up jumping around a lot during the end times. First hunkering down at Camp David, then spending some time in California, and then traveling out of state. In the end, we don't see any of the rebuilding and preservation which is actually the point of surviving an apocalypse.
The mystery of the Others is no more than minimally illuminated by the end of the novel. It should be the unifying focus of this series.
Spy, the semi-autonomous interface for human-Other communication, gains additional depth as a character, but only late in the story, and it seems pointless since we know we aren't going to see any more of his unfolding relationship with our surviving humans after this.
In the end, this short(-ish) novel, well-written and enjoyable though parts of it were, left me wondering the point of it. I'm surprised to see Haldeman, who tends to favor tight plotting over long, meandering novels, nevertheless tell so little story in 278 pages. The abrupt ending likewise left me unsatisfied.
To new readers, I would probably offer the same advice long given about reading order in Frank Herbert's Dune series: read the first book, then stop.