RogerBW's Blog

Forever Peace, Joe Haldeman 09 April 2018

1997 Hugo- and Nebula-award-winning military science fiction. Sergeant Julian Class runs a "soldierboy" infantry drone through a neural link, in an eternal war against "rebels". But bigger and more frightening things are going on.

This sometimes gets called part of the Forever War series, though it's very clearly not set in the same universe. However:

This book is not a continuation of my 1975 novel The Forever War. From the author's point of view it is a kind of sequel, though, examining some of that novel's problems from an angle that didn't exist twenty years ago.

The difficulty is that it examines too many of that novel's problems, and others. There's the ethics of warfighting by remote control (and while Haldeman deals with drones, he didn't predict that they'd be able to be controlled from the continental US rather than a forward posting potentially close to the action, which undermines many of his points while reinforcing others). There's the difficulty of soldiers trying to reintegrate, even if they're returning to civilian company after only a week in the field rather than months. There's the effect on society of cheaply available stuff as the "nano-forge" can build anything given the right atoms, although nano-forges themselves are controlled goods and their output is strictly rationed. That's what it looks as if the book is going to be about, at first, and that might have been quite an interesting story.

But then it turns out that a high-energy physics experiment might destroy the entire universe, and the whole thing devolves into a cartoonish conspiracy thriller, with the good guys fighting against the evil religious types in the government who want to end the world. It's reminiscent at times of Heinlein's Gulf (1949), with the mental supermen fighting the well-armed stupid bad guys, except they don't actually act like mental supermen, and the object of the fight is to arrange to remove entirely the human capacity for violence (via McGuffin) because otherwise sooner or later someone will set off the doomsday device. There is some consideration of whether this is the right thing to do, but no serious dissent except from the villains when they find out about it. There's certainly no mention of the potential problem that Heinlein mentioned in a different story (Starship Troopers, 1959):

Nevertheless, let's assume that the human race manages to balance birth and death, just right to fit its own planets, and thereby becomes peaceful. What happens?

Soon (about next Wednesday) the Bugs move in, kill off this breed which "ain'ta gonna study war no more" and the universe forgets us.

Nope, not gonna worry about that. Or indeed about some species elsewhere in the universe which is simply doing its own particle-physics research and hasn't spotted the universe-destroying flaw in its experimental setup.

The neural jacks themselves are clearly meant to be the big gimmick (and if this had come out before Neuromancer perhaps they might have been): the operators of the soldierboys each share their entire sensorium and at least their conscious thoughts, possibly unconscious ones too, with their whole platoon. It's suggested that this gives them tactical benefits, but mostly it's just an unexamined assumption that this is the way things are; indeed, the inventor of the jacks claims that "it was a couple of orders of magnitude simpler when you didn't have to wire into a soldierboy", i.e. if all you want is the consciousness-sharing. As usual, my objection isn't to SF getting things wrong; it's to SF not exploring why things might work in a particular way, but simply using them as an unexamined plot device. It's necessary for the end of the story that they should work this way, so they do. Similarly, the operators take ten-day stints driving the soldierboys, sometimes sleeping in the field… but why, when you could have three shifts of operators and run the drones day and night? And why is there so much sensory feedback that having your drone sufficiently shot up can kill you from shock?

The conspiracy doesn't hang together well either. Someone speculates

that there were only a few of them; maybe only four deluded conspirators. But he seemed to be able to draw on an awful lot of resources—information, money, and ration credits, as well as gadgets like the AK 101.

Er, but some of the people in your own conspiracy are entirely able to rewrite people's military records and get them flown anywhere in the world in such a way that nobody notices. So why does this surprise you?

The war-as-popular-entertainment angle obviously gets its origin in Vietnam, and certainly takes inspiration from the Gulf War in 1991. The stuff about the use of drones in war could be interesting, but is mostly dropped from the story. But the big plot is dreary, the technology is unadventurous except for the isolated Big Miracles, and the characters are flat and wooden. The narrative jumps between first and third person for no apparent reason, and sometimes between present and past too. Even a gruesome torture scene, apparently meant to wake up any readers who had drifted off and remind them that the bad guys are bad, comes over as artificial.

It's not even a complete pile of garbage like Doomsday Book, that I had some fun hate-reading. It's just blah.

This really doesn't feel like a Hugo-type book, not even a Hugo-type book that I despise (again like Doomsday Book). For the Hugo, it was up against City on Fire (Walter Jon Williams, and to my mind vastly inferior to the first book of that series); The Rise of Endymion (Dan Simmons, a disappointing ending to a four-book series that really should have ended after the first two); and Frameshift (Robert J. Sawyer) and Jack Faust (Michael Swanwick), which I haven't read. Of the three of those I've read, it's probably the best. That's rather worrying, really.

Read for Neil Bowers' Hugo-Nebula Joint Winners Reread.

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  1. Posted by John Dallman at 12:54pm on 09 April 2018

    I was meaning to read this sometime, but you've saved me that effort. Disappointing to see that it's soo poor.

  2. Posted by Dr Bob at 10:43am on 12 April 2018

    I have vague memories of quite liking this at the time, but not enough that I ever bothered to re-read it. I certainly liked it a lot more than the actual sequel to The Forever War.

    Linda Nagata's latest (The Last Good Man) is drones a-go-go. Remotely piloted, autonomous and locally piloted (chuck a scuttling, beetle-sized spy drone out of your pocket). Enjoyed that a lot. There were bits where I was wondering why hackers didn't spend their lives trying to take over all these drones - the plot never even mentions the possibility and assumes all data and wifi to these things is completely secure.

  3. Posted by RogerBW at 11:20am on 12 April 2018

    Alas, that pretty much matches the Pentagon's approach now: It's all secure, the big company we paid to build this stuff told us so, so we don't need to worry about it.

    (Scott Westerfeld's The Risen Empire also has lots of remotely-piloted mini-drones.)

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