Book Reviews, Novels

Joe Haldeman’s Forever Free (1999), or, How to Kill a Classic, Pt. 37

The last quarter of Forever Free ruins all the good qualities of this otherwise enjoyable sequel. The Forever War — not quite my cup of tea — is a classic of ’70s sci-fi; a hard anti-war response to America’s involvement in Vietnam. It’s a novel of brilliant ideas stilted by the simple progression of time — hippie naivete / sexuality does not look good in 20XX.

From the outset, Forever Free is not really needed, but creates a thick, addictive atmosphere on the planet Middle Finger — one honestly lacking from even the classic prequel. Man (with a capital M) and the Taurans, both hive-mind species of the future, have pushed the surviving remnants of humanity to the planet of Middle Finger, where they live in relative isolation and freedom. Some of the surviving soldiers, including William Mandella, decide to hijack an FTL ship and escape 40,000 years into the future.

haldeman-foreverfree-cover.pngThat’s the setup — and I’m interested. The climax takes a left turn into a new mystery: Their fuel effectively disappears and they’re forced to leave their trip after only a few months inside (25 years outside). They return to an empty world, though — Man is gone, the Taurans, and even the remnants of humanity left on Middle Finger have all vanished.

It’s a bit out of left field, but still has me turning the pages. The atmosphere up to this point is great, but the pacing is uneven, evidenced by a back-to-back flip into two additional new directions with only 40 to go.

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Haldeman in Vietnam.

We arrive back on Earth, investigating the apparent disappearance of all living species, only to discover that the entire history of humanity and the Taurans (including the Forever War) were orchestrated by a species of shape-shifting aliens called the Omni. They live around us right now, disguised as trees and leaves and dogs and bears and grass and soda machines and Mickey Mouse holograms, watching us and studying our behavior. Why? Who knows! Who cares?!

The Omni make no sense. None of this make sense. And, after a 20-page conversation explaining all this bizarre bullshit to the reader and the survivors of the Forever War, characters begin exploding in clouds of blood and guts and bones. Why? Because another alien species — the nameless, i.e., God — decided they/he wanted to end the Human Experiment for daring to travel outside the study area.

It’s explained in one final excruciating, expository conversation that Mandella et al., in trying to travel into the future, would have traveled outside the bounds of the world set aside for them, and this god has decided to put all self-aware beings into cold storage…except for the crew trying to escape…and the Omni. Those he decided to keep around and start exploding in masses of gore only after they spend months traveling back to Earth, start asking questions of an Omni John Wayne / Walt Disney that decided at this point, of all points, to show itself and explain things.

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How I imagine the writing process went.

With a scowl, god decides to restore the world to the way it was, and everyone lives happily ever after.

In these final 40 pages, Forever Free feels like it changed hands from a skilled writer with many books under their belt, to a teenage boy who a) has never written anything in his life, much less b) read anything, and c) absolutely gives zero fucks about anything. I went from thinking these negative reviews were all crazy to being utterly flabbergasted by how this travesty ever got published.

The ongoing comic adaptation of the Forever War series just began dipping its toes into Forever Free this month. Let’s hope it fixes the problems of the ending.

★★☆☆☆

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