Forever Peace

by Joe Haldeman

Cover image

Publisher: Ace
Copyright: October 1997
Printing: October 1998
ISBN: 0-441-00566-7
Format: Mass market
Pages: 351

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Forever Peace is, despite the reasonable conclusion one might draw from the title, not truly a sequel to Haldeman's deservedly famous The Forever War. (That's Forever Free, about which I have heard little good, unfortunately.) The author calls it a thematic sequel, expanding on the same subject material. After having read both books, I think that's fair, but Forever Peace can certainly be read and enjoyed without any knowledge of The Forever War.

Haldeman is once again writing a novel about soldiers, but this time, despite set against a war, it's not a war novel. Instead, it's a profile of a person, highlighted against the backdrop of a drastic change in human behavior.

Julian is one of the few selected to be a soldier for their term of mandatory public service and one of the fewer still who were selected to serve that term as controllers of soldierboys, high-tech suits of armor with no one inside, run remotely from a safe headquarters. Soldierboys are the primary ground troops of a future United States that controls nanotechnology and can automatically manufacture anything it has the raw material and plans for. They're used to fight a drawn-out war against a third-world alliance of South American and African countries who weren't a party to the nanotech cornucopia and universal wealth.

Right off, Haldeman's background strikes a very different note. Free everything is within mankind's grasp, and no one in the richer countries has to do anything at all except for luxuries apart from their mandatory term of public service, and yet still there's this pointless war for all the typical political reasons. He doesn't dwell on any of this and none of his characters preach about it; it's just there, the way things are, with enough details sprinkled throughout that the reader can fill in the blanks. As in The Forever War, Haldeman's brand of future extrapolation is refreshingly honest; technological cure-alls rarely manage to cure all, particularly when it comes to human politics.

We see some bits of this war, which has all the sad ridiculousness of any modern war between the US and a third-world country. The soldierboys devastate anything the enemy can send against them directly; the difference in technology is overwhelming. The only real threats come from infiltration, terrorism, or getting tricked into making very public mistakes. Despite the war portions of the book taking place in Central America, the result is a mood eerily presaging the Iraq occupation. Haldeman is very good at writing realistic military psychology, showing the emotions and reactions rather than concentrating on the (realistically rare) simple combat.

That's only a small portion of this book, though; the meat of the story is about Julian, his love life outside of the military (which is only a half-time affair for soldierboy controllers), how he deals emotionally with the war and some nasty events that happen a little ways into the book, and then what happens when the whole world starts to change. The first half of the book is very much a character study; a few things happen, impacting the world very little and Julian far more than he thinks at the time, and then the story follows Julian's attempts to deal with them. It's a beautiful treatment of post-traumatic stress. The reader can watch depression creep up on Julian while he tries to bury it all and pretend nothing's wrong.

Then, halfway through the book, two huge plot twists hit at once, and the plot shifts gears. This is where Haldeman runs into serious trouble. The first plot twist, a giant supercollider, is semi-plausible if a bit of a stretch. The physics are all skimmed over anyway and the collider is clearly just there to add conflict to the plot. The second twist, though, is the one that drives the primary plot of the book, and it's so contrary to human nature and psychology and so starkly unbelievable that it threw me badly out of my suspension of disbelief. I can't give any details without badly spoiling the first half of the book, but I spent fifty-odd pages waiting for the other shoe to drop since the surface explanation had no credibility, and the other shoe never dropped.

This is truly a shame. The rest of the book does a wonderful job at digging into corners of human psychology that are woefully underrepresented in science fiction. To have the plot of the book turn on something that breaks credibility so severely was very disappointing, and even though it sets up a nicely handled exploration of the grey areas of being a soldier and killing for a cause, I had a hard time getting past the fundamental unreality of the situation. It didn't help that when the villains came on stage, they were religious fanatics of the undifferentiated type; I enjoyed the digs at Christian millennialism, but unless there's a member of your bad-guy religion who is not a bad guy, you're not doing it right.

The emotional subtext, though, is beautiful. Julian's reactions are the real story, not the events he's reacting to. Haldeman touches on racism, on post-traumatic stress and depression, on camaraderie, sharing, and alienation, and on our complex relationship with violence. He sets up a metaphor for the closeness of combat and the loss of that closeness after combat and mixes it into the love/fear relationship that a civilized society has towards its soldiers and the psychological effects that has on the soldiers, and he does it all so subtly and so well that I didn't realize how well it was handled until after I'd finished the book. I've been thinking about this novel ever since I finished it, and I'm still seeing more layers and complexity in the psychology of the book. This is really impressive stuff, and I haven't even touched on the intriguing concept of the jacks that allow complete telepathy to the degree of two (or more) people feeling like one.

Unfortunately, it's built on top of a plot that, in the second half of the book, amounts to the magical utopian post-humans fighting against the cartoon villain religious fanatics. The surface plot is so superficial in its psychology that it belongs in a different book, and I say that even guessing at some of the reasons why Haldeman might be doing that intentionally. If only there had been less pixie dust in the plot drivers and more shades to the villains, this could have been one of the best psychological novels I've ever read. As it is, it's an excellent but flawed story, not about war, but about soldiers. You're going to have to hold your nose through parts of it, but I still highly recommend it.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2005-06-19

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