Review: “Peace and War” by Joe Haldeman
“Peace and War” is an omnibus collection of related works by Joe Haldeman. I’d picked this volume up as I was looking for good examples of military sci-fi. From the publisher’s website:
Together in one volume for the first time ever; his classice novel of epic future conflict, THE FOREVER WAR, its sequel FOREVER FREE, and the companion novel FOREVER PEACE.
William Mandela is a reluctant hero, drafter to fight in a distant interstellar war against unknowable and unconquerable aliens. But his greatest test will be returning to Earth. A few months of his tour of duty equate to centuries on his homeworld, during which he becomes increasingly isolated from the world he has been fighting to protect
Mandela returns home for the last time – to find humanity has evolved into a group conciousness which excludes him. Alone, alieneated and missing the certainties of combat, he and his fellow veterans search for an escape – and finally look towards space.
A war is raging, fought by indestructible machines operated remotely by soldiers miles away – and for soldiers like Julian Class, war is truly hell. So when he and his companion, Dr Amelia Harding, uncover something which could take the universe back to square one, the prospect isn’t so much terrifying, as terrifyingly tempting…
Since there are three parts to the omnibus, I’ll break up the review to match.
The Forever War
This book’s concept is fantastic: humanity has faster-than-light travel, but a few months in transit can mean centuries elapse back home. With every mission, the protagonist find himself further and further away from the civilisation he’s trying to protect, in a war without any particular purpose, against an enemy with which no one has tried to communicate. The senselessness of the conflict plays off powerfully against the feeling of being adrift in time; a relic of the past to his own people. The lens through which the reader experiences this is Mandella’s growing relationship with one of the other first recruits from the start of the war, who goes through the whole conflict with him – right up until the end, when orders take them in different directions, and consequently towards different centuries.
I enjoyed this book very much. The concept behind it meant that the only constants are the protagonist and the war, the aptly-named Forever War. Despite the story spanning thousands of years and even the witnessing of humanity’s evolution in the process, the author keeps us with the protagonist, as he inevitably experiences disorientation and as he clings to his lover. This is also his motivation through the book – survive, and stay with her.
This is a rather curious follow-up to The Forever War. The majority of the story concerns the protagonist and a rag-tag bunch of humans, seeking to escape from their dreary existence into the future in the hope that it will somehow be better. This is a rather lengthy build-up to what we assume will be the main event – seeing the future about which Mandella has been dreaming throughout the book.
What actually happens is a little bizarre – they are forced to abandon their trip through time after it has barely begun and to limp back home, only to find that everyone – everyone – has disappeared. This necessitates a trip back to Earth to try and find the cause of the mystery.
I didn’t feel that this book delivered on its promises. After so much build-up to Mandella and the other humans taking this trip through time to see the future, the book instead delivers a few chapters on surviving in an abruptly abandoned colony and then a trip to Earth where the cause and the solution to their problems is – literally – deus ex machina. Admittedly, it’s a moderately interesting version, but I just felt that the story went in an abruptly different direction to what I expected, and then had an ending forced upon it. No foreshadowing, no plot twists – just a twist, that has no actual relevance to the rest of the book. Frustrating.
I enjoyed this book more than Forever Free, but it has several problems for me.
Firstly, the point-of-view switches between first person and third-person omnipotent. This was jarring the first time it happened, and while I did get used to it (since the switches happened with increasing frequency), it made for a strange read. One moment I’m in the protagonist’s head, the next minute I’m not only viewing the story from without, but I’m being given information that the protagonist can’t know. It feels clumsy after The Forever War (written entirely in first).
Secondly, there are no chapters in this book. Scene breaks, sure – but no chapters. Initially I couldn’t work out why this bothered me, but then I realised: I wasn’t getting any sense of progress. I didn’t feel like I was progressing through the book, but simply moving from scene to scene. Maybe this was an intentional effect on the author’s part, but once I’d noticed it, I didn’t like it.
Thirdly, the plot of this book was also somewhat marred by its execution. There are some great ideas here, and some excellent writing about the effects of war on its participants – even those who are only present through “soldierboys”, remotely controlled units whose operators have had “jacks’ installed into their brains. However, the actually arc of the story only seems to start halfway through the book, and again without foreshadowing. I suspect the author was trying to build a picture of the protagonist’s mental state of mind before commencing with the plot, but I consider this an error. The author’s writing kept me interested in the world and in the protagonist, but not because the plot was advancing.
When finally the plot gets moving, the book suddenly kicks up a gear. However, it suffers a similar problem to Forever Free, in that the ending comes about quite suddenly. There is at least foreshadowing, but perhaps not enough.
Although…maybe I’m being unfair. On reflection I think that this book is, at its heart, about the internal struggles of the protagonist and the horrors of war. I can’t help thinking that this would have come across more strongly without large swathes written in third person. The power of the book was sacrificed for plot, and both suffered as a result.
As A Whole
This is an omnibus of highs and lows. Good characterisation, inconsistent plotting. Excellent concepts, flawed execution. The author excels at putting feelings into words, but his story arcs left me unsatisfied for the most part.
What Can We Learn?
- Mixing perspectives is to be undertaken with the greatest of care. Done poorly, it can ruin the reader’s experience.
- Plot twists should, upon reflection, make sense. It’s unsatisfying to have a story suddenly lurch off in an unexpected direction without explanation through plot or character development.
- Deus Ex Machina. Just don’t. If you’re going to use this, please disguise it well.
- Story, story, story. It’s like a shark – it has to move forward or it dies. If you’re a really good writer, then maybe I’ll come with you for half a book while your protagonist goes about his business and is tortured by what he has to do, but eventually I’m going to get tired of waiting for something to actually happen.
- Don’t break your promises. If you spend half the book saying, “We’re going to do X whatever happens!”, at some point you’d better take the reader to X, and preferably before the end of the second act.
If it seems like I’m being harsh of the author, it’s only because The Forever War set my expectations so high. If you pick this up, consider skipping the middle book and you’ll probably be reasonably satisfied.