For the life of me, I can’t understand why Forever Peace won the Hugo, Nebula, John W. Campbell Memorial Awards for Best science fiction novel in 1998. Certainly Joe Haldeman’s earlier 1975 The Forever War is a beloved science fiction classic that deals with the Vietnam War, time paradoxes, and the absurdity of endless conflict. First off, Forever Peace is not a direct sequel, and is hardly related other than sharing a military science fiction theme. Even that connection is tenuous, so I can only think the publisher intended to sell more copies by linking them. It creates unfair comparisons, as this book should be judged solely on its own merits (or lack of). I though this book was pretty bad, but the only way for me to explain why was to enter spoiler territory, so if you plan to read the book, stop right now. Here we go…
Forever Peace is about a near-future Earth split into two groups: the advanced, lighter-skinned countries (the ‘haves’), and the poorer, darker-skinned countries (the ‘have-nots’). In the richer countries, the development of ‘nano-forges’ has led to a post-scarcity society in which hunger and hardship are conquered, but the rest of the world is locked out of this and is understandably upset about it. So the Alliance is fighting an endless guerilla conflict in dozens of locations against the loosely-connected Ngumi. It’s never clear why the overwhelmingly superior technology of the Alliance cannot prevail over the far-inferior Ngumi countries. It’s just assumed that guerrilla tactics drag out the conflict. It’s also never explained why ‘nano-forge’ technology cannot be shared with the ‘have-nots’ to create a more harmonious world.
Anyway, the book starts out fairly interesting. Julian Class is a middle-aged physicist who operates a “soldierboy” (an ultra-powerful weaponized mech that is controlled remotely via telepathic link) and controls a squad of 20 other “soldierboys” who conduct various limited-engagement operations (in Panama, in this case). When the squad is linked telepathically, they share all their innermost thoughts and form a very tight bond. This helps them function seamlessly as a team, but prevents any thoughts from staying private. Julian is not a war-monger, but citizens must provide several years of military service, and he feels strongly attracted to that psychic bond, even though the military ops leave him morally conflicted sometimes. This escalates to PTSD when a peace-keeping operation goes terribly wrong, killing hundreds of civilians.
Julian is also dating an older particle physicist named Amelia “Blaze” Harding, who happens to be working on an ultra-secret theoretical project to replicate the initial Big Bang conditions on the other side of Jupiter (dubbed “The Jupiter Project”). With absolutely no plausible explanations, we are led to understand that the experiment could either “result in a greater number of universes, or destroy our universe completely.” Why even take such a risk? But for some crazy reason, Amelia and her physicist partners don’t really see this as a big problem and submit the technical details to an academic journal for review. Well, it so happens there is a secret Christian fundamentalist cult that has infiltrated the top levels of the military called “Hammer of God”, and they’ve been eagerly awaiting an opportunity like this — the chance to destroy an evil godless world and create a new universe. How convenient! This was so completely ridiculous that I laughed out loud, until I realized that Haldeman was completely serious.
So having started out as a fairly interesting exploration of psychic-linked military ops, Forever Peace suddenly devolves into an incoherent techno-thriller in which deadly Hammer of God assassins stalk Julian and Amelia and their friends in an attempt to make sure that the Jupiter Project is not interfered with, which is confusing since it was Amelia and her science partners that proposed it in the first place. Events culminate with a high-tech battle on a US military base where soldiers controlled by Hammer of God try to take over and ensure that the world can be destroyed as planned via the Jupiter Project. There are many characters trying to kill each other, and I couldn’t keep them straight.
Somewhere during the story we also learn how the US has become more racist in the future (remember the dark-skinned and light-skinned Alliance and Ngumi conflict), and Julian and Amelia are a mixed-race couple, which is frowned upon. This seemed to serve no real purpose in the story other than as a half-baked attempt to appear sensitive to race issues. Just making your characters mixed-race does not count as a meaningful examination of race relations. There are also Julian’s suicidal feelings as a result of his PTSD thrown in, but this gets fairly short shrift amid the chaotic techno-thriller business.
Just when I thought that a single book couldn’t pile on any more implausibilities, the conclusion of the story was a complete stunner. [highlight to see spoiler] It turns out that… (drum-roll) …the psychic link that the soldierboy operators share (called “jacking in”) actually suppresses all aggressive thoughts if the link is shared for a prolonged stretch of…. two weeks! So supposedly for this incredible technology that links minds together and lays all secrets open, which must have been developed over many years with hundreds of test subjects, NOBODY EVER NOTICED THIS? That military units didn’t recognize their soldiers would lose the will to fight after two weeks. And that this amazing technology is routinely used throughout society but nobody recognized the implications.
To make things even more absurd, Julian and Amelia and their friends decide the best way to cure the world of war, conflict, and economic gaps is to conduct mass surgeries to install the jacking technology in as many people as possible to demonstrate its wonderful pacifying effect. Their only concern is to make sure to operate on both sides at the same time so the non-pacified side doesn’t wipe out the other side first. I’m sorry, but the whole scheme is completely hare-brained.
So in the end the Jupiter Project is foiled, the Hammer of God fanatics are beaten, the interracial couple is saved, and all war and economic inequality will be vanquished once we all share our innermost thoughts, because everyone knows that you won’t have bad thoughts if you have to share your mind with others. Are you kidding me? I think if people knew the innermost thoughts of each other, they’d be at each other’s throats in a heartbeat. Call me a cynic, but I think it’s only the fact that we can keep our less charitable thoughts private that we can maintain the façade of civility. [end spoiler]
I was stunned that Forever Peace swept the major awards in 1998. I’ve read a lot of high-quality science fiction this year, so Forever Peace really stood out as a dud. I’ll keep my fingers crossed for better books ahead.
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…