Arts book review

Science fiction war memoir in a surveillance state

It’s more frightening when you don’t even know if it’s Big Brother watching you

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MIT Professor Joe Haldeman’s new novel, Work Done For Hire.
Courtesy of the Berkley Publishing Group

Work Done For Hire

By Joe Haldeman

Ace Hardcover

January 2014

Joe Haldeman’s latest book Work Done For Hire is a riveting near future science fiction story of the dangers of living in a surveillance state. Former sniper Jack Daley was drafted to fight in the continuing war abroad and has been coping with the trauma for nine years since returning home wounded. He has found some solace from his memories in writing, but no commercial success, and so he readily agrees to write the novelization of a horror movie that’s in the works. It may be just work done for hire, but Hollywood’s money will spend.

The horror story Jack writes follows a serial killer who hunts people and lives off of their meat. The descriptions of how he eviscerates his victims like deer are exceptionally gory and detailed: do not read this book while eating. Hunter, as he is known to the authorities, targets isolated victims: a jogger along a mostly deserted path through the woods, a woman who’s repairing a flat on her bike in the middle of nowhere. These clichés play off of our fears of being alone, far from the protection of the police, with no witnesses to run for help or clues left about what happened.

Then one day Jack awakens to find a sniper rifle on his doorstep and the first installment of a large payment he will receive if he kills a “bad man”. He refuses to become an assassin, but the mysterious woman who calls to give him his orders also threatens his girlfriend Kit. The Enemy, as he calls them, seem to be able to trace his position and even see his gestures. Jack suspects they have access to credit card records, phone calls and security cameras, but whether they are members of a governmental organization or have merely hijacked state technology remains to be discovered.

There is a tension between the isolation that horror movies teach us to fear, and the danger when the surveillance systems created to placate those fears are used against us. This book shows us the end results of citizens having no privacy coupled with a less than transparent government, where someone like Jack cannot even be sure the Department of Homeland Security agents he turns to are on his side. Jack seeks safety in the rural areas beyond the reach of technology, precisely where Hunter’s victims were abducted. His world is not too difficult to imagine.

This book is written in an engaging first-person narrative, interspersed with the chapters of the book Jack sends to the Hollywood producer who hired him. Jack is a likeable fellow, if a little rough around the edges. The details about sniping, the realities of treating PTSD, and his conversations with other veterans he meets turn this book into the type of war memoir that has become more popular with increased awareness about PTSD: it is not just the war but also what happened afterwards when the soldiers came home that must be remembered.