Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Review - Forever Peace

Forever Peace
by Joe Haldeman
1998 Hugo Winner for Best Novel
1997 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

Twenty years before this novel Haldeman wrote Forever War which also won both the Hugo and Nebula for its wonderful story of a soldier trapped in a conflict that lasts centuries. Forever Peace is intended to be a spiritual successor to that book and it completely fails to live up to the promise of its older brother.

This time a long running quagmire is central America is the war but rather than putting our hero in direct peril he is strapped into a remote operation machine which forms him into a gestalt with the rest of his platoon who operate mechs in the combat zone. They work in ten day shifts and when he's not at war he's a peace loving college professor. He comes to discover that if people are connected too long they gain perfect empathy and begins to conspire to use this to end all war while at the same time another conspiracy plans to destroy the universe (really).

There are several interesting aspects to the novel that certainly deserve attention. Haldeman plays up the impact that an extended, remote war has on a population. The war is treated as entertainment by the bulk of the population. In addition he has not lost his touch at portraying the viewpoint of a soldier in combat. The idea of a cyberneticly driven telepathy and how it affects culture was a concept worthy of exploration. Also I enjoyed the fact that the characters are pushing the edge of moral boundaries through technology.

Unfortunately these good ideas are wrapped up in some pretty awful ones. The main protagonist and his lover are well rounded characters but everyone else is at best two dimensional. There's the stereotype evil religion fanatics, the stereotype crazed berserker soldier, the stereotype good peacenicks, and the stereotype egotistical professors.

The villains are religious fundamentalists who are planning to destroy the universe, after all, a plan which even if we assume a cult conspiracy that has infiltrated every layer of the government, academic studies, and the military still has to deal with the fact that destroying the universe to get what you want might make a few people think twice. You'd think a few of them (and there had to be a lot in on the plot considering the scale of it) when they realized they would destroy the universe would think, "That's where I keep all my stuff!"

The book is crying out for a richer conflict. The question of is it just to remove aggression from humanity hangs over the book but is never really brought into play. Instead they plan to brainwashing everyone on the planet for the sake of not blowing up the universe.

I also had a problem with suspension of disbelief since there's too much in this "day after tomorrow" stewpot. Set in a future not so far off to have society radically transformed they have cheap nanomanufacturing (which is the cause of the war), cybernetic remote control complete with gestalt and telepathy, and universe destroying science projects. Any one of those would have radically transformed the world and yet none of them have; it's today with a layer of future on top of it. Compare this to the nanotechnology revolution in The Diamond Age and you can see how short it falls; the technology carries with it implications that go far deeper than "We can build anything cheap and only need the rest of the world for raw materials."

Finally when the novel leaves the battlefield so does a lot of the passion in the writing. Haldeman can tell a great story about the military but he seems to flounder when it leaves that setting.

So despite liking roughly a third of the book I can't recommend Forever Peace. The whole product simply doesn't deliver; many of the ideas are interesting but few are really followed up on and the characters fall flat. I've got to say give this one a pass.