This novel, a direct sequel to The Forever War, was always going to suffer by comparison with its award-laden predecessor, a book described by Peter Hamilton as "near perfect" and in my own earlier review as "one of the finest polemical works in science fiction". The first novel was fuelled by the juxtaposition of Haldeman's then-recent experiences in Vietnam and a stunning extrapolation of relativity's time-dilation effect, illustrating the grand futility of war as soldiers are catapulted forwards in time in an apparently never-ending war -- one which goes on not because of whatever triggered it in the first place but simply because that's how things are, or how they have become.
Despite its many merits, Forever Free, just doesn't have anything to compare to those two inspirational sparks, its main impetus coming from the author's fondness for his protagonists and his interest in what would become of them in civilian life.
Demobbed from the army, William Mandella and his partner Marygay were faced with a choice between giving themselves up to the human group mind known as Man, or settling with other humans on what was described to them as a "garden planet". They soon become familiar with the reality of a planet that spends most of its time in the depths of a harsh winter, calling their new home world MF, short for Middle Finger, or perhaps, Motherfucker. Their role here is clear: the biologically uniform, mass-cloned Man is keeping them as a genetic insurance policy, what is referred to as a "eugenic baseline". MF is little more than a zoo: the vets are free, but only within the bounds of what is little more than a prison planet. They make a go of this new life, even so, but it was never really going to suit them, and so they get together with other war vets to plan and plot, all under the ever-watchful eye of Man.
Mandella has a proposal which relates to his experiences as a relativistic soldier: steal an old starship and use the time dilation effects of near light-speed travel to jump into the far future and see how things have turned out. The likely scenarios appear to be: even 40,000 years on, Man will still be dominant and nothing much will have changed, in which case the voyagers will have lost little; the inflexible uniformity of Man will have led to its collapse, and true humans will have reasserted themselves, in which case the time travellers will simply have to adapt to an alien future among their own kind, which most of them have done many times already during the Forever War; or Man will have collapsed, taking with it all of humankind, and the travellers will have a blank slate. With any of these options, they would have little to lose, and a lot to gain, if only in terms of making things interesting for themselves again.
But such calculations mask one of the main weaknesses of this novel: the emotional questions that are at best skimped on, and more often completely overlooked. William and Marygay have two teenaged children and they really don't seem much concerned that their scheme could easily mean that they would never see them finish growing up. The children have a choice of whether to come on the voyage or not, but it really doesn't seem to matter very much. Their willingness to leave their children behind is simply a given of this story, with little or no discussion. Later, although their daughter has accompanied them, she disappears from the text for long stretches, simply not figuring in the main protagonists' lives -- so much so that it's something of a surprise when she re-appears towards the end.
Forever Free suffers when any parallels are drawn with its predecessor. The passion in the first volume, sparked by the war in Vietnam, is replaced here by the big philosophical question of what it is to be human, but that is not really explored: it is simply taken for granted that William will resist the concept of the group mind and will fight to defend individuality. Fair enough, but the question is not so much a question as a plot trigger.
And the big science-fictional idea, which first time out was the use of time dilation to leapfrog into the future, is in this case a mystery which appears in the second half of the book, relating to what goes wrong on the voyage and what they find on their return. But the mystery ends in hasty revelation, a solution which leaves the reader little chance of deducing what has happened: it's all down to Haldeman explaining, rather than us having a chance to find out.
Forever Free is, despite the qualifications outlined above, a good novel, but it is merely good and nothing more. As things pick up in the heart of the book, Forever Free becomes genuinely hard to put down, and despite its unsatisfying resolution, the big mystery is gripping and intriguing. An enjoyable book to read, then, but disappointing, too.
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© Nick Gifford 27 April 2002