Forever Free, Joe Haldeman

Ace, 1999, 277 pages, C$30.99 hc, ISBN 0-441-00697-3

WARNING: Contains necessary spoilers in discussing the book’s failures.

Fame can do strange things to both performer and audience. An artist whose reputation comes chiefly from hard work and constant professionalism can suddenly find himself able to turn out mediocre work with impunity, as the audience uses earlier works as an excuse to be lenient on newer material. Both sides lose out, because the the artist doesn’t perfect the work, and the audience gets results of inferior quality. In the book industry, best-selling authors can become “editor-proof”, when no one will take take them to task for overwritten books, weak prose or ordinary execution.

For instance, Haldeman’s thematically-linked Forever Peace won raves and a Hugo despite being a novel that read more like a moderately-competent first-time author’s work than a novel by a veteran of the genre.

Similarly, It’s easy to pinpoint Forever Free‘s problems, but it gets difficult to ponder why Joe Haldeman wrote the book that way. Especially when it’s the sequel to one of the most famous SF novels ever.

You may remember The Forever War: Published in 1974 as a Vietnam veteran’s answer to Robert A. Heinlein’s militaristic Starship Troopers (itself a classic), it went on to sell thousands of copies, win both the Hugo and the Nebula awards as well as gain a central position in the genre’s collective memory. The Forever War described the military experience of William Mandella, a physicist-cum-soldier in a war waged during millennia, thanks to light-speed delays. At the end of the first volume, Mandella found himself home with his girlfriend, ready to settle down as Humanity allied itself mentally with the once-enemy alien race.

As Forever Free begins, Mandella is restless: His two children are grown-up and he’s trying to find a way to prove that his type of human is better than Man, the collective entity now representing most of humanity. His best plan? Hijack a starship and make a one-way trip far in the future to see how it all turns out. Stuff happens and things don’t go as planned.

More specifically; they limp home twenty-five years later to find out that everyone has disappeared. They investigate and get weird results.

“How weird” is exactly the problem with Forever Free. While The Forever War (and the first half of Forever Free) is strictly enjoyable hard-SF of the most rigid order (the whole premise of both depends on the absence of Faster-than-light travel), the last pages of Forever Free lazily throw up a completely useless race of shapeshifters (“We’ve been around on Earth for hundred of thousands of your years,” they say offhandedly) and an apparition by God that would be more at home in a Monty Python sketch than in here. (“Oh, you were an experiment, and it’s now time to put away my stuff. Since you insist, I won’t delete you. Oh, I’ve changed to laws of physics while I was at it. Toodles. “) The central mystery of the book isn’t as much solved as it is basically declared irrelevant.

Needless to say, the result is so outlandish that some readers are likely to give up in disgust a novel that that been perfectly good up to that point.

Which naturally raises the question; why was it written this way? I offer a few explanations, none of them really satisfying:

  • “Ha! I’ll write you a sequel, you bastard readers! You keep pestering me for a sequel to a twenty-five year-old classic that stands on its own? I’ll give you a frickin’ sequel.” (Also suspected to be the Thomas Harris Hannibal syndrome)
  • “Oh, no! Five days to go on my deadline, or I lose my fat advance! Gotta wrap this up quick!”
  • “It’s like, man, I’ll put my stuff about Goddd and the universe and stuff. It’ll be sooo deeep and stuff. Man, pass the joint again.”
  • “The metaphorical encounters the literal in an effort to make the reader experience the same sense of alienation as the principal characters, which nicely fits into the post-modernist ethos of nihilism-”
  • “Oh gee, I screwed up this one.”

Pick one… but don’t pick this book in bookstores, and wait for your library copy if you really insist to see what the fuss is about.

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