Haldeman, Joe. 1997. Forever Peace. New York: Ace.

Reviewed 28 April 1999

Forever Peace (cover) I just didn't get around to reviewing this book earlier. It's the Claudio Taffarel (Brazilian goalkeeper) of this year's Nebula nominees. It does a lot of very difficult things very well, but allows a couple of weak shots through into the net.

Despite the title's obvious similarity to Haldeman's earlier The Forever War (4 stars), this book is not a sequel, not a prequel, not part of the same series. It does share a number of metaphors, but shares no characters, no details of the setting, and (in the end) fewer of the qualities that made The Forever War an excellent book than I'd like. Mostly, it's not for lack of trying; in the end, Forever Peace's flaws stem from a failure to really extend the underlying conceit to its limits.

Forever Peace owes much of its analysis of warfare to the cyberpunk movement. One might almost call it "cyberpunk does Platoon and Full Metal Jacket." Julian Class is both a college physics instructor and a draftee soldier. As a soldier, he uses a direct brain-computer interface for 10 days a month to control a "soldierboy" fighting miles away against "primitive" guerrillas.

The novel is structured very much like a semimainstream political thriller. One almost expects Jack Ryan to put in an appearance. Suffice it to say that there is conspiracy and counterconspiracy, hawks against doves, fundamentalism against decency, and a great deal of political correctness.

On the other hand, Haldeman handles the shifts in viewpoints exceptionally well. The writing itself is distinct, but doesn't clash internally. Too often, multiple-viewpoint novels—especially those that switch between first- and third-person perspectives—either use an identical style for each viewpoint, or establish differing styles that fail to work together.

One real failure in Forever Peace is the sophomoric, conspiracy-theory treatment of the military heirarchy in DC. Sorry, guys, but covert operations just don't work that way. And two-stars don't have the authority presented (one of the two posts, in fact, is currently a four-star position). Finally, if surveillance technology is as good as presented, or even as good as it is today, the counterrevolution would never stand a chance. This problem is far from unique to Forever Peace; too many people have been reading Le Carré and Clancy for research on government structure and personalities, instead of entertainment.

The other real failure in Forever Peace is much harder to overcome, and is in fact the ultimate downfall of the novel. Julian and his coconspirators have completely neglected a major source of physical force in the world: pre-adults. If the brain-computer interface is as presented, it can't be installed until the skull stops growing (or the intracranial connections would get ripped out by growth, much as a tree can crack a driveway with its roots). Even if this isn't a problem, the Master Plan doesn't seem to include pre-adults. Would they split up a family because Mom and Dad can "pass," but Johnny can't? That's a real intelligent way to keep kids from growing up resenting the system. Aside: Not everything is like Columbine High School, but that's an excellent example. Finally, even if kids are included, who is going to keep the "fails" on their islands? The whole point of the "fails" is that they cannot learn, at the biochemical level, that violence is wrong. So, since they can't learn that, what is stopping them from using that violence to assert control over the rest of humanity—especially those "fails" who are otherwise mentally ill?

This book could have been a lot more than it is. It's not a bad book, but oversimplification results in failing to tell the whole story. And that failure isn't one of implication for the bright reader, but a failure of the imagination.

Overall rating: 4 stars
Excellent
(but barely). Certainly a better-than-average book, but not Nebula-worthy. No doubt I'll be "proven wrong" this coming weekend when the awards are handed out. But don't kid yourselves. Because it's so politically in tune with what the image the SFWA would like to believe it has, it's going to be like Costa-Gavras's films have always been with the AMPAS (the Oscars®): much more popular and acclaimed than it really deserves, and praised by many people who haven't examined it. That said, it's a pleasant enough book; it just doesn't live up to the acclaim it has received. The technical construction is a lot more mature than the underlying premise.


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