Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Forever Whatever

As I continue to run through my backlog of books bought for me by people with rather faster book rates than mine, I've taken another visit to the Jamie pile, and made my way through Joe Haldeman's Forever trilogy, Forever War, Forever Free, and Forever Peace (that's the order they're presented in the omnibus, which is neither publication order nor narrative order, mainly because ...Peace isn't anything to do with ...War or ...Free, except thematically, kinda).

The Forever War, of course, is generally considered to be one of the all-time classic science-fiction novels, and I have no intention of upsetting that particular apple-cart.  It's fast, it's streamlined, and it uses its one big idea - an interstellar war requiring relativistic speeds means soldiers get shore-leave once every few centuries from Earth's perspective - allows Haldeman to cram the narrative with all sorts of smaller ideas, though that phrase does him a disservice; most of the strange forms of Earth William Mandella returns to could easily support entire novels on their own. The worst thing to be said about it is that there's a trace of sexism underlying some of this - women are fully integrated into the army but expected to screw male soldiers any night they ask for it (though they can choose from the assembled line-up).

This makes for uncomfortable reading, especially how low-key its presentation is, as though it's just something that happens now.  That said, the the book is first-person, and so well-realised that criticism of the book's approach here can be sidelined into criticism of Mandella's worldview, which indeed the book does later on, during a nice exchange when he finds himself in a future in which almost the entire population is homosexual: "Yes, your profile shows that you... think you're tolerant."

Beyond that niggle, and an ending that stops a few millimetres short of completely making sense, there's nothing much more to complain about. Well, maybe one could spend some time wondering whether it's true that given the choice, an army would rather have postgrads as foot-troops, but then Haldeman has both a physics degree and military experience, and I most certainly do not.

The sequel to ...War, Forever Free, is harder to love. It gains a great deal of points both for not repeating the generation-skipping format of the first book and for fooling the reader into thinking otherwise, but the structure of the book is strange and ultimately unsatisfying.  All three of the Forever... books have the same problem, actually; they rush their conclusions.  With ...War, this is easy not to notice, since by its very nature it is episodic, meaning it's short final sequence (followed by a very sweet coda) isn't a problem.  ...Peace, which we'll get to, suffers somewhat more in this regard, spending well over half its run time getting to the point where the nature of the story is locked down, and going from the heroes first real threat to their success to the end of the book in just fifty pages or so.

But it's definitely ...Free that has the hardest time of it here. I should perhaps qualify "harder to love"; for at least the first three quarters of the book, everything is perfectly enjoyable.  It's central hook - the survivors of the Forever War become increasingly uncomfortable on the backwater world their "more evolved" descendants have gifted to them, and decide to an insanely long jump into the future in the hope of finding something more interesting - certainly has potential, albeit feels a little too familiar.  As I've said, though, the book takes a wonderful left turn when the jump is interrupted by physically impossible means, and the planet they left just months ago by its frame of reference has now been scoured of intelligent life.

Haldeman proved how good he was at this kind of genre-switching with Forever War, of course, which had no trouble being funny, melancholic, romantic and action-packed by turns.  ...Free repeats this trick by running from a tale of disgruntled warhorses to what looks like the beginning of a space opera, before blindsiding the reader and ending up in a kind of interstellar murder mystery.

Which is perfectly fine. Not quite as inspired as its predecessor, but that's no reason to kvetch.  Like I said, the problem is structural.  Thirty pages from the end of the book, and the reader still has no idea what's going  on.  Nor is there any suggestion that matters are reaching a head.  The characters discover something is amiss, travel to Earth to see if there are any clues there and suddenly, a few pages from the end, it turns out God did it all and now he's leaving anyway and THE END.

Oh, and there's a bit about a race of shapechangers who evolved before us on Earth and have always been hidden until now.  There is no point to this at all, other than the fact that the 'changer we meet is a god-like being who literally turns out to have been a machine found earlier, and yet turns out to have nothing to do with the denouement. This is a funny twist on the application of deus ex machina.  It is not one that fails to be utterly shit.

Forever Peace is a definite step-up, though since it was actually released before ...Free, it's hard not to see these snap-shots of Alderman's output as evidence of diminishing returns. This novel is an odd beast.  As I say, it takes more than half its (brief) page count to come to the point, but the first part of the book is far from uninteresting. A little unfocused, maybe, but certainly entertaining enough that I don't want to find fault with that.

There are two fundamental ideas that propel the story along First, the US has invented nanoforges that can turn (usually) common raw materials into almost anything the operator requires, even down to such specifics as the vintage of the champagne you want to drink.  There are a limited number of these machines, which the US has control over, and which it loans the results to countries which it deems sufficiently friendly.  "Friendly" meaning, mainly, "white".  Almost every country in the world claims to be a US ally in the hopes of getting access to the forges, but an awful lot of them are funnelling money to guerrilla organisations which have declared war on America for keeping such revolutionary machines to themselves.

The second idea is that the vast technological and economic advantages gifted to the US have allowed them to create "soldierboys", essentially remote-controlled robot killing machines, only controlled directly by the brain stem of the operator through a spinal implant called a "jack".

Neither of these ideas can claim to be phenomenally original, but the interaction is of interest, and in any case not what Haldeman is really going for. The jacks were designed for military use, but may have wider applications.  People can exchange memories and sensations by plugging into each other.  Which begs the question: what happens if you leave yourself plugged in to someone else for too long? Tantric mind-sex as it were, which I guarantee you is going to be the name of Sting's next album (though "The Tepid Heart" is a pretty funny suggestion too).

Haldeman says in the brief introduction to the novel that this is a sequel to The Forever War only in so much as it elaborates on a theme he could only skim over in the original.  That theme, I am assuming - though obviously I would - is empathy. In the conclusion to Haldeman's best-known novel it's revealed that the entire human race has reached the point where they see no reason to be anything other than two clones - one male, one female - that represent the peak of physical and intellectual perfection, and all exist as one groovy gestalt entity, constantly uploading their own experiences so as to enrich the whole.  It is this transformation into ten billion carbon copies of a pair of sexy hippies that allows them to reach out to Earth's enemy throughout the book, the Taurans - also a hive mind - and finally work out how to make peace.

This idea is indeed considered more fully in ...Peace, in which it's discovered some way into the book that you can only "jack" with other people for so long in one stretch before you learn so much about them that you're no longer able to comprehend doing them harm, or anyone else either, short of self-defence. The book then becomes about the wisdom of and the attempt to convert the whole world, bringing an end to violence, war, and a mad quest for ultimate power that might end up frying the whole of the galaxy.

What's interesting about this idea is that Haldeman never really seems to consider the idea that "pacifying" humanity might actually not be morally reasonable.  By this I mean that among all the characters who discuss the possibility, you can divide almost every single one of them into two groups: those who are for the idea, and those who are clearly evil, and belong to a religious sect determined to destroy the planet so that God can give Creation another shake. I'm not unaware that I forgave ...War for the sexism its early stages included, but at least there the problem was tacitly accepted, not actively argued for, and humanity was shown to outgrow the idea in any case.  Here, it seems almost taken for granted that it would be a good thing to round up people, install machinery in their neck (with a 2% fatality rate, no less) and plug them into a central system until they made Neil from The Young Ones look like Vlad the Impaler.

Because as the book makes clear, this is not something you can just do to some people.  Once you alter people to have no capacity for violence, you're pretty much guaranteeing they're going to run over with tanks before you can say "Can't we settle this rationally?".

Now, whether or not this should be done is a fabulously interesting and complex question.  I've been thinking about this for days now, and I'm still no nearer an answer. What I do know is that something with an estimated death toll of 140 million worldwide which you haven't had time to test adequately and which relies on an argument that drilling holes into yourself and fiddling around with other people's brainwaves is maybe not something that should be unquestionably championed as a good thing.  And this is coming from someone with significant sympathy for the idea that giving an emergency insertion of empathy to pretty much everyone is probably the best thing that could happen.

So it's not a bad book, by any means, nor is its heart in the wrong place.  It's just a bit... unsettling, really, though again I note that Haldeman gets to talk about what price is worth paying to end war than I do.  That said, if you have to stack the deck with governments nuking their own people to frame the enemy, terrorists stuffing buildings slated for demolishing with gagged and bound children to make their foes seem heartless when they press the plunger, or a super-collider circling Jupiter which religious nuts are going to use to destroy the world in order to justify your "convert everyone immediately" plot point, I'm not sure the book is saying what you think it is.

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