Sunday, April 17, 2011

1998 Hugo and Nebula – FOREVER PEACE by Joe Haldeman

1977’s Forever War won both the Hugo and Nebula and is one of the most influential science fiction novels of all time. I wasn’t sure it lived up to the hype, but I did like it, and it’s stayed with me since I read it. This novel is not a sequel to that earlier book – it takes place in an entirely different world; in keeping with the times, it’s much less space opera and much more cyberpunk – but it’s at its best when it evokes the same sense of war and world weariness that seems to have come from Haldeman’s experiences in the Vietnam War.

It’s 2043 and nanotechnology provides everyone in developed countries with all of their basic needs…though not always particularly well. Another common technology is mental ”jacking” which allows people to link their minds to others’ or to machines. The novel’s narrator, Julian Class, is an African-American man who uses his jack to remotely control a “soldierboy” fighting robot, deployed in an intractable war with most of the southern hemisphere (Julian spends most of his time fighting in Central America and Colombia). A linked group of rebels under the banner of “Ngumi” provide the ubiquitous enemy there, and they have also managed a nuclear attack on Atlanta (though there are suggestions that elements within the US government have worked to continue the war). Between missions, Julian is able to fly back to his home in Texas and observe the media coverage of the war, which most Americans follow like a sport. You could say that the Ngumi War is a kind of “War on Terror,” and Forever Peace shows excellent foresight on this front.

Piloting a soliderboy, and fighting the Ngumi terrorists, causes a great deal of mental stress, and Julian is especially tormented by the experience. He’s often on the verge of suicide. The first half of the novel allows us to see Julian in military actions, effectively portrays his own unhappiness, and establishes a richly drawn future America. In the second half, his older girlfriend Amelia Harding takes on a larger role as her own scientific research raises the stakes of ongoing war. The titular “forever peace” refers to a sort of pacifist revolution that Julian joins, as well as the possibility of death or even the end of the world, which Amelia’s research shows to be a real possibility. I found this second half much weaker. Actually, it’s flat-out bad. There are a lot of contrivances in how the bigger threats and possible resistance emerge; Julian knows exactly the right people to move the plot along. And, as the plot gets bigger and crazier, it simultaneously becomes a by-the-numbers thriller with some rather generic villains (a sexy fundamentalist-Christian super-assassin, in particular, is very over-the-top, and she takes over the novel in the last hundred pages).

The novel does fall down because of these second-half problems. It’s certainly no Forever War. It is very well-written though, and there’s an interesting trick with the narration, which occasionally switches to third person-omniscient rather suddenly (though I did think this kind of gave away the ending). More importantly, just like Forever War, it’s a very wise cautionary tale that relates closely to the world of today. Haldeman knows war, and he knows how to convey its horrors. Throw in an excellent first half and a host of interesting ideas, and I would recommend this novel, despite its weaknesses. Maybe quit around page 150…

Grade: B-

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