Thursday, December 13, 2012

Review of "Forever Free" by Joe Haldeman

Joe Haldeman’s 1974 The Forever War and 1997 Forever Peace were huge successes for the author, winning many of science fiction’s most prestigious awards, not to mention garnering him a solid fan base in the process.  Though they share similar sounding titles and a military motif, little else between the two novels resembles the other.  When it was announced in 1999 that Haldeman would be publishing a true sequel to The Forever War entitled Forever Free, the sci-fi community was abuzz: William Mandella was returning.  Opinion in the aftermath could not be more divided.

Forever Free does indeed pick up the life of William Mandella, his wife Marygay, and the two children they've conceived since.  Living on a cold, dreary planet called Middle Finger (a none-too-subtle touch of symbolism by Haldeman), the Mandellas, amidst a larger group of veterans and Taurans, serve as untainted gene pools, kept in isolation for “protective purposes”.  Governed by a genetically perfect version of humanity called the Man, a posthuman group-mind, the Mandellas and others spend their days in bland, domestic rote on Middle Finger, life far from idyllic.  The monotony of the situation drives the Mandellas to plot a daring escape involving a space ship, 10 years subjective time/40,000 years time dilation, and a grand tour of the universe.  Their plans kicking off without a hitch, very soon, however, things start to go awry in ways that seem to defy reality, and getting at the heart of the issue may change the definition of “universe” for all.  

In an effort to avoid spoilers, the above summary is only the beginning of the story.  Given the (relatively) realistic context of The Forever War and Forever Peace, what happens to Forever Free’s heroes after this setup goes in directions no reader could predict.  Haldeman either too ambitious ideologically or creating metaphors too abstract to understand, many readers will finish the novel with a sense of confusion or disappointment.  Though the denouement fits the story superficially, meta-textually there is a disconnect from The Forever War that may or may not require some outside-the-box thinking to reconcile positively.  In fact, it can be debated whether any relationship exists at all.

The largest point of contention—the one that confronts readers expecting a story in the vein of The Forever War—is the mode of Forever Free’s storytelling.  While War is a character study that chronologically describes Mandella’s life, Free instead utilizes the motifs of mystery and suspense to build toward a grand reveal/twist intended to be scientifically and philosophically profound.  I’m not saying that Free is terrible because of the change of pace (it’s not), only that transitioning Mandella from a participant in larger political and societal events to a metaphysical mystery solver does not happen smoothly.  This was perhaps not the wisest of literary choices given the 20 years of history and subsequent expectation readers bring with them to the sequel.   

As it stands, Forever Free is either a cheap marketing ploy trying to capitalize on the success of The Forever War, or a philosophical statement so profound only a minority of people are capable of understanding it.  Nothing about War and Free is similar save the Mandellas and a Tauran.  Haldeman could have easily renamed them the Smiths and a geskospud and thus improved the novel’s chances of being critiqued independently in the process.  Readers (and reviewers!) would have been able to judge Free based on its own merits rather than in comparison to the original.  Otherwise, from plotting to theme, setting to secondary characterization, nothing resembles the other.

In the end, Forever Free is sure to be divisive for its change of pace from the original.  Those expecting a continuation of the character study that is The Forever War will be sorely disappointed by the metaphysical mystery/suspense that is Forever Free.  Simply put, the novel must be read as a stand-alone if it is to be appreciated.  That being said, readers who enjoy the exploration of a scientific possibility in a science fiction setting may like it.  The debate ongoing whether deus ex machinae are used or not, all readers should expect an unconventional conclusion that stretches the limits of reality in ways The Forever War never attempted.  And for those who read this review and have read Free, please inform me if I have missed some vital point.)

(As a side note, this book is available in an omnibus edition, along with The Forever War and Forever Peace, entitled Peace and War.  Considering it’s only slightly more expensive than an individual book, the omnibus is worth buying if you enjoyed any of the novels but have not read the others.)

(This review has also been posted at  

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