Joe Haldeman’s 1974 The Forever War and 1997 Forever Peace were huge successes for the author, winning many of science fiction’s most prestigious awards, not to mention garnering him a solid fan base in the process. Though they share similar sounding titles and a military motif, little else between the two novels resembles the other. When it was announced in 1999 that Haldeman would be publishing a true sequel to The Forever War entitled Forever Free, the sci-fi community was abuzz: William Mandella was returning. Opinion in the aftermath could not be more divided.
Forever Free does indeed pick up the life of William Mandella, his wife Marygay, and the two children they’ve conceived since. Living on a cold, dreary planet called Middle Finger (a none-too-subtle touch of symbolism by Haldeman), the Mandellas, amidst a larger group of veterans and Taurans, serve as untainted gene pools, kept in isolation for “protective purposes.” Governed by a genetically perfect version of humanity called the Man, a posthuman group-mind, the Mandellas and others spend their days in bland, domestic rote on Middle Finger, life far from idyllic. The monotony of the situation drives the Mandellas to plot a daring escape involving a space ship, 10 years subjective time/40,000 years time dilation, and a grand tour of the universe. Their plans kick off without a hitch. Very soon, however, things start to go awry in ways that seem to defy reality, and getting at the heart of the issue may change the definition of “universe” for all.
In an effort to avoid spoilers, the above summary is only the beginning of the story. Given the (relatively) realistic context of The Forever War and Forever Peace, what happens to Forever Free’s heroes after this setup goes in directions no reader could predict. Haldeman is either too ambitious ideologically or creating metaphors too abstract to understand; many readers will finish the novel with a sense of confusion or disappointment. Though the denouement fits the story superficially, meta-textually there is a disconnect from The Forever War that may or may not require some outside-the-box thinking to reconcile positively. In fact, it can be debated whether any relationship exists at all.
The largest point of contention — the one that confronts readers expecting a story in the vein of The Forever War — is the mode of Forever Free’s storytelling. While The Forever War is a character study that chronologically describes Mandella’s life, Forever Free instead utilizes the motifs of mystery and suspense to build toward a grand reveal/twist intended to be scientifically and philosophically profound. I’m not saying that Forever Free is terrible because of the change of pace (it’s not), only that transitioning Mandella from a participant in larger political and societal events to a metaphysical mystery solver does not happen smoothly. This was perhaps not the wisest of literary choices given the 20 years of history and subsequent expectation readers bring with them to the sequel.
As it stands, Forever Free is either a cheap marketing ploy trying to capitalize on the success of The Forever War, or a philosophical statement so profound only a minority of people are capable of understanding it. Nothing about the two books is similar save the Mandellas and a Tauran. Haldeman could have easily renamed them the Smiths and a geskospud and thus improved the novel’s chances of being critiqued independently in the process. Readers (and reviewers!) would have been able to judge Forever Free based on its own merits rather than in comparison to the original. Otherwise, from plotting to theme, setting to secondary characterization, nothing resembles the other.
In the end, Forever Free is sure to be divisive for its change of pace from the original. Those expecting a continuation of the character study that is The Forever War will be sorely disappointed by the metaphysical mystery/suspense that is Forever Free. Simply put, the novel must be read as a stand-alone if it is to be appreciated. That being said, readers who enjoy the exploration of a scientific possibility in a science fiction setting may like it. There is an ongoing debate about whether deus ex machinae are used or not, but all readers should expect an unconventional conclusion that stretches the limits of reality in ways The Forever War never attempted. And for those who read this review and have read Forever Free, please inform me if I have missed some vital point.)
The Forever War — (1974-1999) The monumental Hugo and Nebula award winning SF classic. The Earth’s leaders have drawn a line in the interstellar sand – despite the fact that the fierce alien enemy they would oppose is inscrutable, unconquerable, and very far away. A reluctant conscript drafted into an elite Military unit, Private William Mandella has been propelled through space and time to fight in the distant thousand-year conflict; to perform his duties and do whatever it takes to survive the ordeal and return home. But “home” may be even more terrifying than battle, because, thanks to the time dilation caused by space travel, Mandella is aging months while the Earth he left behind is aging centuries…