Ace, 1997, 351 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-00566-7
Most experienced SF readers faced with the occasion to read Joe Haldeman’s Forever Peace will inevitably draw parallels and comparisons with the author’s biggest success to date, the 1975 Hugo-and-Nebula winning Vietnam allegory The Forever War. Not only are the titles similar, but both stories star soldiers as protagonists and touch upon the theme of war.
But most differences end there. If The Forever War‘s protagonist Mandella was a true infantryman in the classical sense, Forever Peace‘s Julian Class is a soldierboy operator. Plunged in a full-VR suit, he controls sophisticated “robots” (soldierboys) hundreds of kilometers away. War by proxy, except that like Vietnam, Americans are still faced with a steadily worsening guerilla campaign. Not even the home front is safe, as Class will discover.
Class isn’t a full-time soldier, though: once his nine days of continuous duty are done, he disconnects from the machine and resumes his job as physics teacher at an American university. What is at first a subplot -Class’ relationship with a older woman and her stunning discoveries- soon becomes central to the plot, and the main thrust of Forever Peace begins.
It’s not a bad novel. Among other things, Forever Peace has been selected as a Publisher’s Weekly Best Book of the Year and has also won the 1998 Hugo Award for best novel. For the most part, Haldeman succeeds in producing a very good true Science-Fiction novel. Mixing good characterization with plausible science and readable style, Forever Peace is a better choice than many of the other nominees.
But, even despite the risk of sounding needlessly bitter, it might be time to reconsider Forever Peace. For all its qualities, it often has the feeling of a good first novel by a promising author, not the work of a seasoned pro.
Take the worldbuilding, for instance. Nanotech is there and some reasonably valid consequences are explained (like the essential remodeling of the economic system), but on the other hand these consequences still seem a bit irrelevant. The world of Forever Peace looks a lot like ours even though it seems like if a true leisure society has emerged.
Haldeman being a Vietnam veteran himself, it’s a bit surprising to find out that the motivation for the war (and opponents, and tactics, and goals, and…) are so shallow. (“under-examined” might be a better expression.) Of course, Haldeman’s attitude toward war, politics and government is as bitter as could be expected from him. It still doesn’t create a good impression.
(No, but really; nanotech is there… why fight a war?)
Then the second half of the book is plagued with exactly the same problem that almost destroyed Spider Robinson’s Lady Slings the Booze: Strange characters are assembled and shakily establish a doomsday scenario on a foundation of half-deductions, incredible speculation and doubtful assumptions. Then they make up a plan to save the world and the second half of the book is just an implementation of the plan. Booo-
Fortunately, Haldeman maintains a certain level of tension throughout and doesn’t attempt to play it for half-laughs-half-tears like Robinson. Expert commandoes are sent, a few unexpected things happen but the hero still save the day/world/universe on schedule. At least, it’s entertaining.
Yet, Forever Peace is a worthwhile read. Far from being as good as the classic The Forever War, it nevertheless remains a pretty good SF book in its own right. And somewhere near the end, maybe you’ll glimpse the true nature of its relation with The Forever War. The first volume’s resolution is precipitated by an event alien and frightening to the protagonist. The solution this time around is exactly the same and remains alien to the protagonist. But this time, we’re supposed to feel grateful. We have become the alien. There is nothing to fear this time.
Nice trick, Mr. Haldeman.