Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Joe Haldeman "Forever Peace": book review

I read this book because Joe Haldeman was a special guest at the ArmadilloCon 2008. I'm not sure I would have read it otherwise, because I wasn't too impressed with his much better known novel, "Forever War". Yet I was pleasantly surprised.

Not only "Forever Peace" is not a sequel to "Forever War": it's not even set in the same future. The only thing they have in common is that there is an endless war going on in both, but in "Peace" it's confined to Earth. Oh, and "Forever Peace" actually has a plot, which alone puts it head and shoulders above "Forever War". It's also not ridden with anachronisms. More than that, the political and cultural picture of the world portrayed in "Forever Peace" feels so much like our own it's hard to believe it was written before some key events that defined the current political climate. There is an amorphous war against ill-defined "rebels"; there are religious fanatics hoping to bring about the end of the world; there is even a high energy particle accelerator, which prompts fears that it will destroy the universe by accidentally creating an exotic form of matter that would swallow all conventional matter. It's as if Joe Haldeman was peering through a magic looking glass into our decade.

Well, not quite, since the particle collider is in Jupiter's orbit.

And there are other technological advances in "Forever Peace" that are way beyond our current state of technology (otherwise this wouldn't be science fiction). The most important of them, on which the premise of the book depends, is the concept of jacking, or brain-to-brain interfaces that allow people to exchange thoughts, emotions, memories, and all kinds of mental states. While this is nothing new in science fiction, this concept is explored more thoroughly in "Forever Peace" than I've seen in any other book (maybe I just don't read much? :-)). The book examines its impact on global scale (e.g. changing the way wars are conducted), and on the characters' personal lives. As the book goes on, the consequences of brain interfaces escalate beyond practical and into purely revolutionary. The main scientific innovation described in the book is also critical in resolution of the conflict on which the plot hinges. This is what I ideally expect from science fiction, and "Forever Peace" delivers.

The characters are interesting too. They cross typical gender, race, and occupation lines. There is a young black man who divides his time between teaching college physics AND fighting in the war against the "rebels". (He had the back luck to be drafted.) His girlfriend is a physics professor, a white woman 15 years his senior. Between the two of them and their friends, they are an interesting bunch. These are definitely some real, non-cookie-cutter people.

The only drawback of this book, in my opinion, that the plot arc takes too long to take off. It takes over a 100 pages for the main conflict to be set up. Not that those first 100 pages are boring -- they are full of interesting stuff that tells you a lot about the society the action takes place in. It's just at first you don't necessarily get a feeling that the book is going anywhere -- it's as if you are just watching characters living their lives.

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