Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
I began this book wondering which Joe Haldeman I’d get. Would it be the author of the celebrated classic The Forever War? Or would it be the author of the ho-hum thriller Work Done for Hire? Turns out Forever Peace is a little bit of both.
This is a book that asks a simple philosophical question: is making war an essential part of human nature? As with most simple philosophical questions, the answer is complicated, and it’s a great question to ask as part of a science-fiction story. Haldeman sets his story on a near-future Earth, where the first world Allied countries we all know and love/hate are locked in a brutal, ongoing series of conflicts with the Ngumi, rebels who alternatively control or terrorize the so-called third world countries we all know and colonize. He posits a war fought by ordinary people drafted to become “mechanics” who “jack in” to soldierboys, aka remote-controlled killer robots. Along the way, protagonist Julian Class and his lover, Amelia Harding, discover that a physics experiment in orbit of Jupiter is a Very Bad Idea™, but that it should all be OK if they can just execute a secret conspiracy to make everyone in the world Love each other.
In other words, the first half of this book is a deep and compelling look at the horrors of 21st-century warfare and the second half is a psychedelic trip I would have expected from a Heinlein novel after someone ate the good mushrooms.
Let’s talk about that first half, since I really liked it. The whole killer robots controlled by former civilians is a mixture of Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and something ripped from a William Gibson story. It was likely super prescient for 1997—scarily, perhaps, it feels old hat and … uh … contemporary in 2018, when we literally have remote-controlled killing drones. Maybe no one is jacking in yet, but you know that’s just a matter of time until we get the brain–computer interfaces improved. So Haldeman essentially anticipated some of the technological revolutions in warfare that have quite swiftly overtaken us.
The essential problem with this form of warfare, which Haldeman explores, is the psychological impact of having disposable soldiers. There is a physical and psychological toll on mechanics who experience loss of soldierboy units—strokes, heart attacks, and grief and PTSD are all possibilities for these people. So, on the individual level, this war is still most definitely hell. Yet there is a cynical view, communicated by some of the higher-ranking characters, that there will always be more mechanics. The army can just keep drafting mechanics, keep building soldierboys, and keep waging this war indefinitely. The Allies can just keep killing rebels, no need to ever consider peace, because that is asymmetric warfare for you. War has become a business and a state of mind, a social standby rather than a disruptive element. Again, in this respect I feel like reality has overtaken Haldeman’s extrapolation a lot more quickly than even he might have expected.
Haldeman employs an interesting dual-narrator structure. The story flits back and forth between Julian’s first-person perspective and a third-person omniscient narrator who follows both Julian as well as other characters. This allows us access both to Julian’s very visceral reactions to certain events as well as access to other characters, to things happening elsewhere, and to alternative reactions. Similarly, the story alternates between Julian’s time on-duty as a mechanic and his off-duty furloughs to the university where he works and his life with Amelia. For the first bit of the book these are very parallel narratives, and Haldeman effectively exploits this structure to show us how Julian compartmentalizes and reconciles his role as a soldier, on one hand, and an academic, on the other.
OK, I think I’m sufficiently prepared to talk about the second half of this book. Fair warning: it’s a trainwreck.
Remember when people were concerned that the Large Hadron Collider would create a black hole that would sink into the core of the Earth and consume the whole planet? Well there’s an existential threat that is kind of like that, only if that were actually, you know, a thing that could happen. Haldeman kind of pulls that out of left field. And then there’s a revelation that if people stay jacked in with each other for longer than a week or two, they somehow develop so much shared empathy that they are much more peaceable, indeed, almost entirely non-violent. That, alone, would be an intriguing thing to explore. Instead, though, Haldeman decides to have Julian and Amelia pitch in with a group of characters to create a conspiracy to forcibly convert all of humanity into these pacifistic, jacked-in humans. It’s kind of like a dystopian plot except the dystopian conspiracy is coming from inside the house.
Look, I don’t even really care how silly the basic premise of making people more empathetic by jacking them together might or might not be. I’m willing to stipulate it, because it makes a small amount of sense, and it’s a really intriguing thought.
But there is only a very weak debate about the ethics around doing this in secret. One or two characters basically raise their hands and ask, “Wait, are you sure we get to make this decision for all of humanity?” and then get shot down because apparently everyone wants a jack installed in their brains.
Even putting aside the ethical questions that Haldeman brushes under the rug for the sake of story, I can’t get behind how silly this plot becomes. Forever Peace takes a turn from serious-minded war story to a loony, contrived thriller. Secret zealot assassins. Hiding out in Mexico. Pet army generals. It’s just … agh, I can’t even. Everyone took an Idiot Ball and strapped it to their backs and any respect or interest I had in any of these characters died a very loud, gargling death.
And then Haldeman waves his hand at ends the book with a “and we did the thing and everyone lived happily ever after” and I’m just not here for that. You declawed your own narrative, dude, and turned it into this limp, unappealing vegetable of a thing. I get that you’re trying to explore alternatives to war, and that in so doing you stumbled into a minefield of posthumanism and realized you were in too deep and so you backpedaled faster and farther than you have ever before only to decide that your only way out was through and boy wasn’t that a mistake. I just wish you had stopped and considered what the end result would be. Because … it’s this book.
Forever Peace is a weird hybrid of a book where the first part is incredible and the last part is just bad and that always makes rating things hard. I’m tempted to give it one star, honestly, because of how uneven it is. But I think two stars is more fitting, for me at least, just because I really was hooked on the first part of this book and did not want to put it down. I won’t let the last half’s disappointment diminish that.