Joe Haldeman – Forever Free

When Joe Haldeman won the Hugo award for his novel Forever Peace in 1998, a lot of people were disappointed that the book wasn’t a sequel to his 1974 Hugo and Nebula award-winning classic, The Forever War. Both books have a similar thematic underpinning, though, and put across a strong anti-war message; as a Vietnam veteran, Haldeman is always at his best when he writes about his “core values”.

Now, in Forever Free, he does return to the world and the same characters he left behind in The Forever War, in particular William Mandella and his wife Marygay. In The Forever War, the main characters were soldiers, fighting battles on distant worlds, and hopping forward through time in the process (relativity still being in effect). Each time they returned to Earth, they would find society changed almost beyond recognition. Eventually, human society evolved into a group mind known as “Man”, and the war ended.

Some twenty-odd years have now passed, and Mandella and Marygay have settled down on the planet Middle Finger. They have a family, and live in a peaceful farming community. Life is hard (the planet spends most of its 6-year “year” in deep winter), but peaceful. Mandella and his fellow veterans, though, believe that Man is keeping the old humans around as a genetic backup for the human race, in case something goes wrong with “Man” as a species.

To Mandella, the society is stale. His life is stale. He doesn’t have confidence in the future of Man, and wants to do something about it–if he can’t change the society itself, he will escape from it. Using a combination of hibernation and an ancient spaceship cranked up to relativistic speeds, he and a group of other veterans plan to take a short-cut to the future, and come back in 40,000 years’ time.

So far, so reasonable. This is a fairly logical extension to the first book, and takes the ideas forward at a gentle pace. Haldeman sets up some interesting conflicts between Mandella and Marygay, who considers the society a dystopia, and his children who think the opposite. Man is initially willing to go along with the whole expedition idea, but puts up resistance later; this ultimately leads to a showdown in which the veterans steal the spaceship.

…And then it all goes a bit strange.

I don’t want to give too much away about the second half of the book, but it is like Haldeman decided he’d had enough of the original plot, and threw it away in favour of something completely different. All of the interesting questions he sets up in the first half get dropped unanswered, and the emotional conflicts get rolled back to a previous state, as if they hadn’t happened at all. The characters are the same, but they’re in the middle of a bizarre and completely unexpected adventure. This new story doesn’t depend on the original characters in any way, and could have been set in any generic SF world–no need to place it in an established and well-loved environment. He introduces not one but two dei ex machina, and then doesn’t do anything with them!

I’m baffled. It’s like a head-on collision between two different novels, and the characters ultimately end up walking around in a bit of a daze.

What bothers me most is that Mandella and his fellow veterans to have no apparent stake in the outcome of the second part of the book; why did Haldeman not choose characters upon whom the outcome would have a deeper (read: “any”) impact?

I feel like this is a waste of a sequel, and I can’t help wondering if this book is more inspired by marketing forces than a genuine desire to explore the further story of William Mandella. Haldeman is a master writer, and he has written some of the best SF in the last quarter century (in addition to his novel Hugos, he has also won numerous awards for his short fiction), but although this book is unquestionably well written, I found the story terribly disappointing. Perhaps I had my hopes up too high.

The Forever War is a hard act to follow, and much though I hate to say it, I wish Haldeman had left it to stand on its own.

One thought on “Joe Haldeman – Forever Free

  1. Charles

    Martin, I just read this book. As a long time fan of the Forever War I was stunned (and not in a good way). I just can’t fathom what Haldeman was thinking. Your review coincides exactly with my own take: this is two separate novel ideas in one. The first is mildly interesting and at least true to the main characters. It does set up a range of interesting character conflicts that begin to draw the reader in, especially if they know the protagnists from The Forever War.
    But the book not only fails to deliver on those conflicts, it then spins off in a new and bizzarre direction which essentially amounts to a whole new story which is also unresolved in any way that relates to its characters. These contortions throw up plot anomalies that, like the earlier character conflicts, hold the promise of intriguing developments but simply vanish and are never spoken of again. Nothing is offered by way of explanation, and nothing else is put forward to fill the gap they leave.

    It’s almost like Haldeman said to himself “Gee, there’s a lotta SF these days about transhumans and supra-intelligences and stuff, think I’ll get me some of that. Hmm–I don’t actually give a crap about that stuff though. Maybe I’ll stuff it on the end of this other novella-length idea I have about Mandella & Marygay.”

    Or that he just sat down and wrote about a whole bunch of (sometimes unrelated) things that happened to William after he & Marygay had kids–with the emphasis on “happened to him”. This kind of writing is a story in the sense that it’s a series of linear events, but it’s not a novel.
    I’m astounded that Haldeman could write this, let alone allow it to be published.

    And you know? Haldeman is a master of character-driven hard sf. If anyone can pull off this kind of stuff, he should be able to. I just don’t get it.

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