In the year 2043, our world is embroiled in a large-scale war between the Alliance, composed of industrialised Western nations, and the Ngumi, a loose coalition of developing nations without access to the nano-forging technology that contributes to much of the Alliance’s wealth. Our viewpoint into this war comes from Julian Class, a draftee who controls one of the remotely-operated mechanised units called soldierboys, a job that requires an intimate mind-link and cooperative effort with the rest of the platoon.
It’s such a promising setup for a story. You have a conflict in which neither side is unambiguously the white hat, and which could serve as a lens through which today’s racial and regional tensions could be reflected and examined. The Ngumi are largely made up of oppressed peoples who can’t hope to climb out of the well that a lack of equitable wealth distribution has left them in without resorting to violent measures (a situation that has its parallels in our societies), but their tactics are sometimes reprehensible and the casualties vast. The Alliance draws the scorn that is directed at many regimes and individuals who soak up wealth and hoard it beyond all reasonable measure when others are suffering for want of it, but as corrupt as the governments may be, the individual on the street isn’t necessarily enjoying any great life for living under them — access to the nano-forging technology is beyond rigidly controlled, and we see glimpses into areas of poverty and urban and moral decay worse than the ostensibly wealthy societies of real world 2015 already harbour. Our protagonist’s life mirrors the conflict in a microcosmic way, as he starts the story in an interracial relationship which has to be hidden even from friends and acquaintances lest it face a level of censure one would hope we would have long moved past by 2043.
Lots of promise. So why the low rating? Because absolutely none of it is realised, and the book is completely muddled about what it’s trying to be. The interesting setting we start with never gets fleshed out beyond a skeletal background. The middle of the book meanders through Julian’s relationship angst based on his girlfriend’s inability to jack with him — to experience the mind-link that allows the soldierboy mechanics to experience each other’s thoughts, fantasies, memories, physical sensations — something which could make an interesting basis for a story itself, but doesn’t have any link to the established story arc so far or to the more compelling drama that could’ve been wrung out of the war’s direct effects on their relationship and its lack of social acceptance. Finally, from there we shuffle into a conspiracy to use the jacking technology to effectively brainwash humanity into widescale pacifism to prevent the utilisation of a doomsday device, which again, would be a great — if thoroughly implausible in its execution — concept for a novel that has nothing to do with the one I started off reading. It seems Haldeman gets bored even with this, considering how abruptly, almost dismissively, it’s wound up.
Incidentally, if you’re waiting to hear what any of this has to do with The Forever War, the answer is nothing. This is the second book in the trilogy but the relationship between the books is only conceptual, and that only really applies to the first third of it, in which it still appears the author is going to turn a cynical eye on the realities of war, just on a more intimate scale than the millennia-spanning intergalactic war of the first book. I think that would’ve been a good novel, especially as Haldeman’s writing seems to have reached a more polished level from a technical standpoint and Julian is a more compelling protagonist than the relative blank slate that was William Mandella. I think the other two books that could’ve been spun out of the ideas smushed into this one could’ve been pretty enjoyable too, but as it is, Forever Peace is much less than the sum of its parts.