Book Review: The Forever Peace

Forever Peace by Joe Haldeman

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It was a decent enough throwaway sci fi book, but it didn’t even approach capturing the spirit of the original. The characters were not especially interesting, and neither was their plight. The plot held enough weight to support the narrative, but just barely, and I spent much of the book waiting for it to be over.

Not all of it, though. It spiked back into readability right at the end with the introduction of the unrepentantly repentant sociopath assassin Gabriella, and Julian’s transformation into the sort of sin eater surrogate who retains the ability to pull the trigger while the rest of the world undergoes mandatory indoctrination into pacifist libleftdom.

You could tell the book wanted to play around with the philosophical implications of declawing the human race, but it never quite got around to it.

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Book Review: The Forever War

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I didn’t intend on giving it 5 stars until I read some of the other reviews and saw what these absolute dumbs are complaining about.

Haldeman wrote about a ridiculous war with an alien species that lasted hundreds of years, but that was the setting, not the story. The social programming, the doomed attempts of the individual to resist conformity, the nowhere to run and no means of escape, the parasitism and violence that grew from collectivism, and the inevitable divorce from humanity to which all these things contributed, that was the story. Mandela’s experience seemed repetitive and cyclical because it was. That was the point. Every few hundred years, the bureaucrats sank their claws in a little deeper, and things became a little more bloodless.

The shifting sexuality subplot was a nice touch, though a bit taboo in the present climate if the chiding white girls with their 200-like “um, I just think the homophobia was kind of icky?” reviews are any indication. The idea is that norms can be steered by propagandists. Any norms, no matter how deeply rooted or ostensibly innate.

The whole shebang is a cautionary tale against government overreach and, more opaquely, the military industrial complex, played out like a less tongue-in-cheek Catch 22, but in space. The happy ending felt a little rushed, but it was nice that my mans finally caught a break, considering the shit he put up with for half a millenium.

Mandela is a bright guy, so the whole book has a tone of gentle mockery as he describes the back-asswards way the Powers That Be are trying to maintain the world. He’s initially recruited into the Space Force by an arbitrary government fiat drafting people with 150 IQs and athletic prowess on the supposition that the “best and brightest” could better defend against the alien onslaught that we’re picking a fight with, which is ruling class logic if ever I’d heard it. He comes back to earth and finds himself in a communofascist hellscape where UBI made money worthless and now everyone’s a heavily armed criminal. He and his girlfriend try to live their lives on their collective military largesse, but the world is too broken, and soon all their loved ones are dead, hers from raiders, his from bureaucracy. They try their luck on the moon and it doesn’t go much better. They wind up re-enlisting and become amputees, then get sent to Heaven, which is the nicest allegory for a rehab facility/psych ward I’ve ever read. They love their time there, but the spectre of returning to the real world and their military service is hanging over their heads, and even though the military pinky-swears they won’t be separated, they’re immediately separated. Mary Kay stays on Heaven, and Mandela gets shipped to another stargate; the jump causes a 200-year gap, and he begrudgingly accepts that she’s dead and his universe is pretty much empty.

Mandela is promoted to upper brass. He gets sent to active combat zones and watches more kids die, either from the rapidly accelerating technological arms race that totally changes shape each time he comes out of another century-long relativistic stargate jump, or from avoidable accidents caused by some higher-up giving orders they didn’t fully understand. No one trusts him because the zeitgeist has changed and everyone is gay now, while he remains just your average schmuck from 1994. Also, they decant babies like in Brave New World. They call Mandela mean names, but it’s okay. He’s already dead inside.

Another active conflict with the alien force resulting in most of his platoon getting annihilated, and he makes the jump back to earth, another few hundred years. He gets there and Earth is now a hive-mind consciousness of genetically identical clones, sort of like that episode of Adventure Time with Finn’s mom. The hive mind tells him that the war is over, and was only started due to miscommunication. Whoops! There are a bunch of other planets in the galaxy to choose from now, and they all run different rule systems; he’s “a free man” now and welcome to do whatever.

He doesn’t wanna do anything, though. What’s left? Then he cracks open his military record and finds a dusty old note from Mary Kay that says she’s been driving around the intergalactic block for the past three years, doing a 10-year jump every month and waiting for him to come back from the edge of the universe like Fry’s dog in front of Panucci’s Pizza. She’s sequestered in a hetero holdout called Middle Finger, and it’s still standing.

“Hot damn!” says Mandela. “Purpose!”

He chugs along to the secret straight enclave and the epilogue is him knocking up his 500-year-old girlfriend. Roll credits.

It rings mostly of lamentation for the plight of non-joiners, since joiners are eventually and invariably consumed by the machines they want to be part of. I don’t think it was a coincidence that his name was Mandela. He was innocent, but imprisoned by the circumstances of his life, passed down by these faceless arbiters that were so vague as to never had been conceptualized beyond “up the chain”. He wanted freedom, but didn’t know what freedom was, right up until the whole big bastard imploded and the new gods told him “go do whatever you want”. And what he wanted was to live on the cheekily named Middle Finger, a modernized caricature of traditionalism in a pocket of the universe that time forgot. It’s like he eventually decided to go be Amish.

But you know what? Spend some time in the Philadelphia subway at rush hour, then tell me how bad the Amish have it.

It was an incredibly intelligent, well-written, thoughtful book. I’m headed for the sequel next.

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Book Review: The Player of Games

The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Imagine, if you will, a world where gamers were not the most oppressed minority. Imagine instead that they were respected as world-class academics, if academics were worthy of respect. Further imagine that they live in a fully automated luxury gay space communism where every facet of their life is provided for by sassy robot nannies.

This is the Culture. And the best gamer in the galaxy, the Jocker himself, is named Jernau Morat Gurgeh.

Gurgeh only plays real time strategy games. He is the best. He writes dissertations and research papers on how to most effectively perform a zerg rush, or proper tower defense positionings. The Culture eats that shit up. Gurgeh is a rock star, sponsored by both Space Doritos and Future Dew. The androgynous men want to be him, the androgynous women want to be with him, and vice versa.

One day, Gurgeh is pitted against a literal little girl and he realizes he can beat her so bad that he might be able to perform “the perfect web”, which is when you absolutely dunk on a 9-year-old girl in Civilization IV on national television. An insane battle droid named Mawhrin-Skel who was rejected from the battle droids for being insane tells Gurgeh that he’s already run the numbers, and he can show Gurgeh how to do the perfect web. It’s only kind of cheating. Don’t be a wuss. Gurgeh agrees because he’s an asshole.

Not only does the insane battle droid’s strategy not secure him the perfect web, the robot then blackmails him with a recording of Gurgeh’s agreement to cheat in order to trounce this “prodigy” (still very much a 9-year-old girl). Mawhrin-Skel wants to get back into the battle droids, and he wants Gurgeh to do that, somehow.

Gurgeh has no formal rank. He has no sway in the galactic government, and no control over where drones are deployed. His job title is “gamer”. But, rock and a hard place. What’s a gamer to do? He says he’ll try.

A ways down the line, a government droid comes from the government to invite Gurgeh to play a new, incredibly complex game in the empire of Azad. Gurgeh agrees, contingent on the government droid returning Mawhrin-Skel’s previous position to him. The government droid says he probably can’t but he’ll try.

Gurgeh is loaded onto a spaceship and spends two years learning to play the game, which is also called Azad. Azad permeates every facet of life for the warlike, totalitarian empire of Azad, and their stupid fascist children are taught it from the moment they hatch or crawl out of the Apexes or whatever. There are three genders on Azad: males (boring, vanilla, essentially worker drones), Apexes (the ruling illuminati elite, reversible vagina and ovum), and females (uterus and retrovirus for slight modification of the egg once implanted by Apexes). Only the Apexes are allowed to do anything. The other two genders are beaten down from beginning to end of book.

Gurgeh isn’t as effected as he probably should be by the horrors of the empire, their cultural domination/sadism boner, or the torturous slavery lived in by the overwhelming majority of the species, and all the species they’ve conquered and subjugated. You’d think he’d be doubly effected, being from Bernie Sanders’ Starfleet utopia. Gurgeh doesn’t care about anything but gaming. He’s here for one reason: to play Magic the Gathering.

Thing is, Magic the Gathering isn’t just a game on Azad. The species themselves, the whole of the empire, are an obvious stand-in for a theoretical future in which Germany won WWII. They’re a pure fascism, they have propagandists and a gestapo, the whole of their society is held together by pursuit of further conquest and elevation of the ruling elite Apexes. Most things are illegal, but those illegal things are still purchasable, and more sought after for it. There are three layers of taboo pornography permeating the planet, communicated through secret channels and only for those who can pay:

Level 1 is generic smut, banging for banging’s sake.
Level 2 is humiliation porn, where the banging is secondary to the domination of the passive party/parties.
Level 3 is torture and snuff porn.

Gurgeh is exposed to this by a chiding shrew of a robot named Flere-Imsaho, sent to help grease the political wheels and avoid an intergalactic incident. Ostensibly, Gurgeh is supposed to play the game lose quickly, and demonstrate to the roving space viking Azad empire that the Culture is a joke unworthy of their time and warships.

But Gurgeh breaks out his Blue control deck and starts stacking those Ws. Victory royale after victory royale, there’s no stopping the boy. The Azadis recognize that things are going less than ideally and attempt to assassinate him a few times, but he is saved by his human contact on the planet, Culture ambassador and drunken HST analogue Shohobohaum Za.

Za is the best character in the book.

Gurgeh knows that the stakes are for real, and that the way Azad’s political system works is governed entirely by success in this game, which takes a lifetime to learn. The emperor is chosen based on who wins the planet wide tournament. Gurgeh, who has learned this game in two years, is absolutely spanking his way through all of the established pro-Azad players in the empire: priests, judges, bureaucrats, high-ranking politicians; even when they conspire together against him, they wind up activating his Trap card. Gurgeh sweeps the boards and sets up a head-to-head against Emperor Nikasar himself.

Once it becomes apparent that he also whooped Nikisar, and all of the space-Nazi dullards are also able to see it, they break for the day and Nikisar comes to visit him in his chambers. Gurgeh is like “golly, this is such a pretty and fun game we’re playing, and a good time between friends.” Nikisar beats the shit out of him and leaves.

Gurgeh goes into the next day’s session all lumped up and proceeds to noscope Nikisar in front of the entire galaxy. Right before he administers the killing blow, Nikisar has his foot soldiers sweep in and start murdering everyone in the room. Nikisar himself tries to kill Gurgeh with a sword. Gurgeh calls upon all of the combat training he never had because he lives in paradise to kangaroo-kick the Nazi emperor in the tummy, fall on the ground, then skitter across the burning wreckage until Flere-Imsaho shows up, activates his Deus Ex Machina protocol, and creates a mirror shield around Gurgeh, deflecting Nikisar’s laser pistol shot right back into his own domepiece and toppling the entirety of the Nazi space hierarchy.

Gurgeh returns home, where his girlfriend Yay tells him she transitioned to a dude for a couple years but now she’s transitioning back. They bang it out but Gurgeh is still melancholy because the horrible space empire collapsed and now he’ll never get to play Magic the Gathering again, which had become his favorite game.

In the end the narrator reveals itself to be the crazy battle droid, who disguised himself as Flere-Imsaho after manipulating Gurgeh into going to Azad in the first place for Special Circumstances, which is like the Culture’s version of the CIA.

I have a rule where if a book doesn’t have me hooked by 25% of the way in, I quit and never look back. This book very nearly missed the mark. It didn’t get good until after he went to Azad, around halfway through the book; the setup was sluggish, uninteresting, and droning. The first 100 pages could have just been the words “Gurgeh was very good at board games” and the story wouldn’t have suffered for it.

Four stars for that experience, but still an excellent read. I might make my way back into the Culture series, but not right this second.

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