War! What is it good for?
Absolutely nothing–according to Joe Haldeman, that is. You may remember him from my review on his novel, The Forever War, which was about soldiers of the future having to deal with the alienating effects of time dilation while fighting an interstellar war. Haldeman eventually followed this story with a spiritual sequel called Forever Peace.
Right at the beginning of the book, he explains what’s different about this tale:
Caveat lector: 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 the novel’s problems from an angle that didn’t exist twenty years ago.
The Story: Men In Machines Vs. THE Machine
Basically, it’s well into the twenty-first century, where all the First World nations are fighting the Third World countries, the former using state-of-the-art war machines controlled by remote human operators and the latter being armed with assault rifles, grenades, and the occasional nuclear bomb. Enter our protagonist, an African-American operator named Julian Class who’s absolutely had it with war and the military’s lack of empathy for both the enemy and its own soldiers. Being a part-time particle physicist, he gets involved in the Jupiter Project (which is like the Large Hadron Collider times ten) and discovers that its end results could wipe out the entire universe. To make matters worse, there’s a small but well-entrenched religious cult that’s determined to bring about the end as soon as possible, making this project the greatest weapon in their cause.
Julian’s dilemma is whether or not he wants to let the universe go up in a literal puff of smoke, especially when an equally drastic solution might be inserting cranial jacks into every human being so that they can experience each other’s worldview and thus put an end to war and violence forever.
I am totally not making that up, but trust me, it’s better handled than I’m making it sound.
The Setting: Nanobots, Assemble! Form Of… Whatever I Want!
Haldeman came up with two interesting future inventions: the cranial jack, which allows people to directly link up their physical, mental, and emotional sensations; and the nanoforge, which uses molecular nanotechnology to create anything so long as it has the right raw materials. And in the form of good sci-fi writing, he makes sure that both these technologies have long-term ramifications on an individual and social level.
“Jacking,” for example, makes it very easy to handle all that pesky exposition and almost instantly convert people to your point of view. It also leads to some unfortunate emotional side effects and just plain weird effects like men going through PMS and menstrual cramps after jacking with women (which actually is as dirty as it sounds). As for the nanoforges, they’re mostly there to demonstrate just how the First World has it and the Third World doesn’t despite having all the raw materials, which is probably why they’re at war in the first place.
Julian’s story is a good example for why the jack is both a good and bad idea. On the one hand, you achieve greater perspective and can appreciate things about other people and the world that once would have been impossible to communicate. On the other hand, you might slowly lose your own humanity. But hey, who cares, if it’s all done in the name of Science!
Final Verdict: Takes Forever To Read
For all the pithy jabs I’ve been making, this is not a bad story. It’s a slightly long read and moves a bit slow for the first hundred or so pages, and yes, some of the conclusions being reached by the main characters seem a little far-fetched. But to be fair, it’s set in a world of extreme violence and despair, so perhaps it’s all right for the protagonist to feel suicidal or for him and his allies to take such a strange utilitarian approach to the end of all war.
Forever Peace isn’t badly written and it does realistically depict the horrors of war, the strains that military life can have on the individual psyche, and that classic science fiction battle between scientists and the Establishment.
Bibliography: Haldeman, Joe. Forever Peace. New York: Ace Books, 1997.