Friday, October 08, 2010

Book Review: Forever Peace

Joe Haldeman
Awards: Nebula, Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –


I really like Joe Haldeman’s writing. And I like the way his experiences as a soldier in the Vietnam War strongly influence his stories. Forever War, one of his first novels, is a great example of his talents.

Forever Peace (not a sequel) isn’t quite as good as Forever War. But it is similar in that it also deals with the theme of man’s apparently inherent violence towards other men.

I think my main problem with Forever Peace is that it seems like two completely different stories mashed together with hardly any believable link.

The first half of the book – the best half – illustrates Haldeman’s vision of a war fought by remote control. The U.S. and its allies are at war against the Ngumi, a hazy alliance of various Asian, African, and South American countries. The Ngumi, who generally come from poorer nations, use human beings to do their fighting. For us, the war is primarily fought remotely by “soldierboys,” which are giant heavily-armored humanoid robot-type machines. Each soldierboy is controlled by an individual human soldier who is safely reclining on a chair on a U.S. military base and is “jacked in” to his or her soldierboy’s command matrix through a plug at the base of his or her skull.

The soldierboys are used in platoons of ten for rotations of ten days. While platoon members are all jacked in at the same time together, they can see, feel, and think what the others are seeing, feeling, and thinking. This makes for extremely rapid and effective communication but also means there is basically no privacy. It also means a lot of deep trauma when one of them is killed in the line of duty.

The main character, Julian Chase, is a sergeant leading one of these soldierboy platoons in the jungles of Costa Rica. He sees so much carnage and has to do things that affect him so horribly that he has a breakdown and becomes suicidal and therefore useless to his unit.

This is where the first story stops and the second (weaker) story takes over. In addition to being a soldier, Julian also happens to be a physics post-doc at a university in Houston. He’s dating one of his professors, Dr. Amelia Harding, who is working on the Jupiter Project - a project to create the universe’s largest particle accelerator around the planet Jupiter, using that planet’s materials and energy to build it.

After Julian has his breakdown, he joins Amelia in her work and they discover that when it is finally finished and turned on, the Jupiter Project will replicate the Big Bang and thereby destroy the entire universe. The rest of the book becomes a ramped-up race against time in which Julian and Amelia and a small group of their friends battle to get the project stopped in the face of overwhelming sinister and lethal forces who want it to continue.

What happens is that Julian’s friends discover that if you leave people jacked in to each other for two weeks or longer, they become completely empathic and can no longer bring themselves to harm any other human. So the plan is to install jacks in everyone on earth’s head and turn them all into involuntary pacifists, starting with the army, before the Jupiter Project can go live.

The soldierboys do reappear in the second half of the book, as a key part of the plan to stop the Jupiter Project, but, maybe because Julian was dropped quite suddenly into civilian life, they start to seem like big toys rather than terrifying implements of war. Also the plan seems very contrived, and everyone seems a little too eager to jump right in and implement it. I’m not sure I actually would want a world in which everyone on earth was forcibly made into a pacifist.

One thing I particularly liked about Forever Peace was that it presumed the existence of “nanoforges.” Nanoforges are machines that can create anything out of raw materials. You just feed in some ore and minerals and some instructions and it grinds around and returns penicillin or a diamond or a nuclear bomb or whatever you want.

These machines could conceivably bring about a peaceful egalitarian society where all basic needs are taken care of essentially for free and everyone can pursue dreams of education, exploration, and so forth (à la Star Trek). But, instead, Haldeman sets up a world of nanoforge haves and have-nots. This creates a circular situation, like our real world only more so: lack of access to nanoforges means poorer countries are short on food, fuel and medicine; lack of food, fuel, and medicine creates unrest; unrest makes rich countries less likely to want to give the poor countries access to nanoforge technology.

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