We return to sf for the first post time in … quite a while, really. Forever peace is Joe Haldeman’s followup to the surpassed-only-by-Starship troopers-as-most-well-known-military-sf-novel The forever war.
That being said, they are completely different books that don’t even share a universe. Forever peace is more of a thematic successor than it is a literal sequel. It was nominated for a bunch of awards and I’ve already recommended it several times on this blog.
Brief plot summary
The gap between the haves and have-nots has widened considerably. While most citizens of the Universal Welfare State live in relative comfort, the developing world is plagued by constant uprisings. The UWS fights these wars through the use of soldierboys, remote-controlled robot soldiers piloted by draftees who are linked mind-to-mind. Forever peace focuses on physics professor and draftee Julian Class as he struggles with the morality of war, the possibility of the total destruction of the solar system, and the “rightness” of forcing a situation that would make humanity biologically incapable of war.
So how is it?
It’s really good, but plenty of people seem to disagree with me on that. I first encountered Forever peace in 1998, when I read an excerpt in a collection of Nebula award nominees that was one of my school textbooks. I was intrigued and wanted to read it, but was unable to find it at the library and forgot about it for 15 years before picking it up again.
Part of the issue with Forever peace is that it will let almost every reader down in some way. For those who are really into military sf for the testosterone filled shooting matches, the plot develops in ways that are highly critical of that mentality (to say the least). For those who are looking for a book that addresses questions of morality, the earlier, more blood-soaked portions of the book will be something of a disappointment. The ending is likely to be unsatisfactory to readers in general. It’s still a great book (and winner of both of the sf “biggies”, the Hugo and Nebula awards) but it takes a strong stance on multiple issues and the ending feels rushed.
It’s a very strongly crafted novel. The world building is unique, and as forward-looking sf it’s very successful. The developed world’s adoption of a “pseudo-socialist electrocash economy” seems totally credible. As a member of the privileged military class, Class [sorry] is able to travel virtually anywhere at will. The environments where he finds himself are richly depicted, making this book a great study in worldbuilding.
Haldeman does an excellent job of bridging “hard” and “soft” sf.* It’s a book that deals with issues of the income gap, imperialism, pacifism, racism, post-traumatic stress, and the classic ends-means morality question. It also addresses issues of engineering, partical physics, the way that technology impacts society, and how the same technological innovations that are used to make humans better and more effective at killing each other can be adopted for the opposite end. That’s a lot to pack in to one novel, and the fact that Haldeman mostly succeeds in integrating it all is really impressive.
I like that Forever peace asks difficult moral questions but doesn’t really provide easy answers. It’s hard to explain without giving too much away, but there are certain precipitous actions taken by the characters towards the end of the book that are morally questionable at best. Haldeman doesn’t condemn the characters for their actions, but neither are they treated like saints. Whether or not they made the right choice is a matter for the reader to decide. It’s a theme throughout the book – the Universal Welfare State appears to be a nigh-ideal governmental system, but like the present-day United States its prosperity is fueled by the exploitation of the developing world. There’s a lot to unpack here, but rarely does Haldeman state authoritatively one way or the other. These issues (with some exceptions) are integrated into the worldbuilding in such a way that it inspires the reader to ask the moral questions rather than presenting them directly.
The forever war is the Vietnam war memoir as sf. Forever peace is a novel of warfare in the post-Gulf War era. It’s a novel about a seemingly endless series of wars fought far away from home, with little rhyme or reason and constantly shifting boundaries, where supporting today’s allies and arming tomorrow’s enemies are the same.
*I find this distinction really distasteful. I pretty much only ever see it used by proponents of “hard” sf arguing that Le Guin, Cherryh, etc. aren’t writing “real” sf because it’s not “scientific” enough. If sf was built solely on existing scientific knowledge, keeping everything in the realm of the verifiably accurate, then it wouldn’t really be sf. It would just be plain ol’ fiction. I have a similar dislike of making sci-fi/sf/science fiction distinctions. Genre terms are just barely useful to begin with, obsessing over what makes it a “true” example of the genre makes them even less so.
This is an interesting situation for me. Forever peace is a book I recommend fairly often – it’s also the book I recommend that I most frequently get negative feedback about. From that perspective it’s a risky recommendation but I’ve found that on those occasions where patrons haven’t liked Forever peace, the reasons behind why they didn’t like it have enabled me to provide much more successful recommendations. It’s not usually a “first” recommendation for me, but if it’s clear that this patron is going to be a “regular” it’s one that I almost always recommend. Whether they love it or hate it their reaction provides the data for making some really awesome reviews.
It has some appeal outside of an sf context – it’s fairly near-future (2040s) and firmly grounded in its characters, who struggle with issues that are pertinent to everyday life in the late 20th/early 21st century.
Cross-recommendations for people who did like Forever peace, with notes for those who didn’t like it and why they might like these alternatives.
The forever war / Joe Haldeman – It’s one of the first things I recommend to people who didn’t like this one and haven’t read it yet. It’s shorter, more straightforward in that “classic sf” style, and the resolution maintains the pace of the rest of the book
Foreigner / C.J. Cherryh – The first installment in Cherryh’s roman fleuve, it’s just a good book all-around. Like Master and commander, it’s an engaging, epic story that doesn’t underestimate the reader
The human division / John Scalzi – One of the more recent books in the Old man’s war saga, it asks a lot of the same questions in a space opera context
Gateway / Frederik Pohl – For those who didn’t enjoy the violence but liked the psychology, this one is a good bet, although it is, unfortunately, too Freudian
Starship troopers / Robert A. Heinlein – For those who dislike the anti-war tone of Forever peace and are looking for military sf that celebrates the armed forces