Forever Peace by Joe Haldeman

When Joe Haldeman, early in his career, penned his 1970s science fiction classic The Forever War, he claimed his niche in the genre. Whatever happened after that, however well or poorly he performed, however much or little he expanded his legacy, his place at the table was secure. The general consensus is that, despite a career with several successes, he has never managed to equal that early novel. My experience with Mr. Haldeman is too limited to opine on that point, but I can say that in 1997, when he wrote Forever Peace, he definitely fell short but did not miss by a large amount.

Julian Class, a physicist and conscript in the American armed forces, is the protagonist of a story that transpires in the 2040s. The United States, now turned into a centrally planned economy, is at war with guerrillas all over South America and Africa. The principal weapon on the ground is the soldierboy, a deadly robot used for anything from patrolling to reconnaissance to assaults and assassinations. The soldierboys are remote controlled by soldiers like Class who are “jacked in” to the soldierboy through a plug surgically inserted into their brains, Matrix-style (perhaps it would be fairer to say Neuromancer-style).

An entire squad of soldiers controlling the soldierboys attain a oneness with each other, such that everyone’s feelings, thoughts, and experiences are collectively shared. More than simply walking a mile in another’s shoes, this jacking is akin to walking an entire life in another’s shoes, socks, pants, underwear, and t-shirt. At one point Julian Class, who is black, reflects that there is no racism among these soldiers, because it simply is not possible to be racist when you have essentially been another race, or several other races, for days at a time. This idea anticipates a larger revelation made later, which becomes the main point of the book.

The conscripts forced to fight in the so-called Ngumi War and man the soldierboys work for ten straight days, ensconced in a pod, and then have twenty days off. At this point they may fly for free anywhere they like as long as they report back to base for their next ten day cycle. Class splits his time between his job as a physics professor in Texas, where he is the lover of an older physics professor named Amelia Harding, and his slavery to the military.

This early part of the book, initially gripping, is dragged out for too long. It is simply an establishment of the characters and their situation, but for a while it meanders without destination. I found it creative and interesting, but after Class kept bouncing back and forth between Texas and Panama, doing the same sorts of things, I began to yearn for a plot point of some sort. There is character development, mainly in the relationship between Julian and Amelia, but very little reason why it must occur in this particular world. In a book of 350 pages, it is well over a hundred before anything like a central conflict with established stakes begins to develop.

When the central conflict does emerge, by means of two separate disclosures that tie together, the story gets going and renews one’s interest. Two opposed groups see, in this new information, an opportunity to not only further their interests but to realize their goals once and for all, and one group’s win means the other group’s devastating loss. From that point the story keeps the reader absorbed until the end.

Haldeman writes efficient, easy-to-read prose, and alternates between first-person perspective told from Julian Class’ point of view and third-person omniscient. It is an excellent decision for the story, reinforcing one of the aspects of the world: sometimes we are “jacked in” to Julian, sometimes we are not. However, I have often found that writers of his sort, who budget their words with the parsimony of Ebenezer Scrooge, have a tendency to relate the mechanics of a scene and leave out the soul. They often, though not always, focus on gross motor movements at the expense of other details, descriptions, fine motor movements, similes, internal conflicts and reactions, and anything else that might enliven our experience and help us get to know the characters and the world they live in.

Joe Haldeman
Joe Haldeman

Julian Class, for example, has a handful of poignant, sometimes tragic, experiences that impact him for, one presumes, the rest of his life. The descriptions of his reactions are purely mechanical. Even from the vantage point of his first-person perspective we are told nothing to indicate how he feels, not even so much as a mention of a clenched fist or altered breathing rhythm. Something usually comes out in dialogue a chapter or two later, but that is it. There is a passage in the book where a character attempts suicide, but until the moment the pills go into his mouth we are given little reason to suspect he is even having a bad day. It makes it difficult for the reader to connect with characters when the author treats them like robots.

The politics of the novel could generate a lot of discussion. Haldeman seems to come from an essentially leftist/progressive perspective, although his story has some welcome nuances. His treatment of racism, for instance, makes it a real problem in America midway through the twenty-first century, to the point where I felt a touch skeptical. For instance, the black protagonist is dating an older white woman, and this is kept secret because, even at a university, this mixed match would have provoked hostility from colleagues. For a novel written in the 1990s to imagine societal disapproval of that kind of pairing half a century later is curious. I would not think that such a pairing would be taboo even back then, at least not at a university. However, Haldeman has the sensitivity not to treat humans simply as racists and non-racists. There are different brands and levels of malignancy of racism. A woman Julian jacks with, for instance, tells him afterward that she is not a racist. Julian notes, “She was, in a way, but not malicious and not in a way she could control.” I think I know a few people like that.

When Haldeman writes about the origin of the Ngumi War, he again reveals his leftist slant. The United States has developed nano forges, armies of microscopic robots that, given the right raw materials, can make virtually anything. It is a technology coveted by all, but America — more precisely the American military — shares it with few. It is depicted as a tool used to keep countries compliant. When they get out of line and their civilians attack US forces, their allotment of nano forges is cut back. According to the author, the very inequality in wealth enforced by this rationing of nano forges is what caused the Ngumi War in the first place. That, in my experience, is a sure sign of a progressive: the one who says there will be no peace until there is justice, but who, by justice, means equality, and equality of just about everything imaginable.

MASSIVE SPOILER MASSIVE SPOILER MASSIVE SPOILER

There was one comment in the book that I found more interesting than just about anything else, something that I doubt the author himself would consider important, but it reveals the great gulf between Haldeman and a libertarian of my ilk. It is revealed that any humans who stay jacked with each other for a certain period of time become so attuned to other people, even ones they have not jacked with, that it becomes impossible for them to commit aggression against another human being, or even to strike out in revenge. They are physically incapable of employing violence except in direct defense of themselves or others with whom they have jacked.

What I found so fascinating is that some of the characters hatch a plot to install jacks in every human on the planet and pacify them through longterm jacking. They recognize that this would have the effect of ending all wars everywhere. However, even as they discuss this plan they talk about certain laws that might be passed afterwards.

How exactly they were going to pass laws with any weight to them is not explained. It does not dawn on the characters, nor on the author one suspects, that this pacification of the human race would not only end wars, it would end any possibility of government. If they could not initiate coercion, why would anyone heed their laws? I could right now, from the comfort of my basement, pass a poll tax on Nigerians and achieve no less than they. There is, in that development in the story, a real chance to unmask the nature of government, but Haldeman, it seems, has not read enough Rothbard.

END OF SPOILER END OF SPOILER END OF SPOILER

All in all, I enjoyed the book. It is not without its flaws, but the idea is interesting, the writing is smooth if a bit sterile at times, and the story, once it gets going, can hold a reader’s attention. I would rank it decidedly below The Forever War, but there is plenty of space beneath that fine piece of work for some good stories to fit. Forever Peace is one.

3.5 / 5 stars     

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About the Author

Matthew Bruce Alexander Staff Writer

Matthew is a libertarian living in central Ohio. A graduate of Ohio State University, he majored in Spanish and has published a work of libertarian science-fiction called Wĭthûr Wē.

{ 13 comments… add one }
  • Geoffrey Allan Plauché March 1, 2012 @ 2:45 am | Link

    “What I found so fascinating is that some of the characters hatch a plot to install jacks in every human on the planet and pacify them through longterm jacking.”

    If they’re incapable of committing aggression, how can they possibly carry out a plan that involves just that? Or is it only outright initiatory violence that they are incapable of?

    Reply
    • Matthew Alexander March 1, 2012 @ 9:20 am | Link

      That’s a good point. I should have said violence instead of aggression. It is the actual committing of violence, unless in self defense, that they cannot manage.

      SPOILER ALERT
      Many of the participants in the plot have not been pacified yet, and the early part involves trickery rather than subduing them physically. The later part of the plan we don’t see much of, and he doesn’t get into much detail about it.

      Reply
  • Andy Cleary March 1, 2012 @ 1:27 pm | Link

    “I could right now, from the comfort of my basement, pass a poll tax on Nigerians and achieve no less than they. ”

    Hahahaha… great line Matt!

    Good review, in the sense that I feel like I’m not going to spend the time reading it (it’s not compelling enough for me) and yet I get the gist of it…

    Reply
    • Matthew Alexander March 1, 2012 @ 2:11 pm | Link

      Thanks, Andy!
      Disseminating information, so that you may better assess your opportunity costs, is what we do here at Prometheus review. 😉

      Reply
      • Geoffrey Allan Plauché March 1, 2012 @ 2:20 pm | Link

        “here at Prometheus review”

        Prometheus Unbound. 🙂

        Reply
        • Matthew Alexander March 1, 2012 @ 2:47 pm | Link

          Whoops! Another slip!

          Reply
          • Geoffrey Allan Plauché March 1, 2012 @ 3:11 pm | Link

            The website url seems to confuse people. I wish I could have registered prometheusunbound.com, but it’s already registered… by a domain squatter, I think, because nothing comes up with you go to that url.

  • random mike March 1, 2012 @ 5:02 pm | Link

    You guys read Buying Time? That’s my favorite Haldeman book. It’s got some asteroid belt anarcho-capitalism goin on.

    Reply
    • Geoffrey Allan Plauché March 1, 2012 @ 9:22 pm | Link

      I haven’t, but I’ll put it on my to-read list. Thanks!

      Reply
    • Matthew Alexander March 2, 2012 @ 2:01 am | Link

      I hadn’t heard of it. I’ll have to check it out. I’ve only read Forever Peace and The Forever War, though I have a couple others sitting on my shelf waiting.

      Thanks for stopping by!

      Reply
  • Stephan Kinsella March 2, 2012 @ 10:07 am | Link

    What is the connection to the earlier novel? Can it be read independently of Forever War or is it necessary to first read Forever War?

    Reply
    • Matthew Alexander March 2, 2012 @ 10:17 am | Link

      The only connection is the anti-war message. These are different characters and a different fictional universe.

      The sequel to The Forever War was, I believe, Forever Free. Haldeman had an affinity for invoking the infinite in his book titles.

      Reply
      • Stephan Kinsella March 2, 2012 @ 11:08 pm | Link

        Thanks. I wish you had explained the interconnection of the books. Sk

        Reply

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