On the surface it seems like Forever Peace is a story of near future (2043) GIs remotely controlling mechanical soldiers in much the same way as aerial drones are today. However unlike a plane, a footsoldier has a much more personal perspective of war. Also, unlike the mock cockpits the drone pilots use, these “soldierboys” offer a fully immersive experience via a neural interface. So while the soldiers themselves are not physically present in battle, they still suffer the mental trauma that has always gone hand-in-hand with soldiering. However the Ngumi War in Central America is really not what this story is about. The war is background, a reason to explain why Julian Class, the protagonist, is neurally jacked into his platoon for ten days straight.
Julian is a draftee living in a society where work is optional (although apparently being a soldier is not). Fusion reactors provide unlimited power and nano forges and basic raw materials are factories of unlimited potential. People (at least the developed nations) live in a socialist state that provides housing and dispenses food and entertainment rations to all citizens. Working simply becomes an optional activity to earn more. Clearly this massively disrupts society as we understand it today, yet this reality is simply part of the setting for the story. (It was actually this aspect of Forever Peace that I contemplated the most).
Julian is also a physicist and becomes tangentially involved in the experiment for their era – a massive particle accelerator setup in the Jovian system. The goal of this experiment is to achieve particle accelerations of such a magnitude as to peer into the early beginnings of the Universe itself. Marty, (ex-partner to Amelia who is currently partnered with Julian) discovers that the experiment itself may result in the end of the Universe or in the very least destruction of the solar system, and hence humanity itself. A pseudo-Christian religious cult called the Enders learns about the discovery and dedicates itself to ensuring the experiment proceeds without interruption. This creates conflict and tension in the last act and quickens the pace, but even this story isn’t what Forever Peace is about.
The heart of the story concerns itself with the deep level of empathy people feel when they are all neurally linked for about two weeks straight. The people involved would become “humanized” to the point of being unable to commit violence. This effect was discovered by the military some twenty years ago which suppressed the information and then henceforth limited the time people would be jacked into their soldierboys, since all soldierboys were intimately connected to other members of their platoon. Julian’s experiences being jacked, with this platoon and with a prostitute, about being more than one person at a time are very similar to Breq/One Esk 19 in Ancillary Justice. The big difference is that Justice of Toren was an AI and fairly emotionless, whereas Julian’s experience had a very strong emotional connection.
I think the story should have developed the experience of being more than one person, and made the empathy that the characters feel more powerfully convincing. Details about how more hours jacked into the soldierboy results in being a better soldier but ironically also results in greater pacification of the participants. This could have been done at the expense of dropping the universal destruction thread since a nuclear war and the solar system blowing up would have both accomplished the same thing as far as humanity is concerned. Peace through perfect empathy is the message of this story. Everything else distracts. Some other criticism I have are the awkward alternating narration between first person (Julian) and third person, the unsophisticated repeated foreshadowing, and the contrived reliance on powerful friends (general), coercion via humanization, and rare artifacts (nanoforge) to move the story along. They all conspired to make the book appear more amateurish than its Hugo and Nebula wins would suggest.
Forever Peace, while considered part of the Forever War series really has absolutely nothing to do with it. While the title makes sense for this book, it really does confuse the issue with Forever War and Forever Free which are strongly related. However there are similarities. Both protagonists are physicists, and both draftees. Both stories conclude with humanity transformed into a kind of hive mind connection.
(Amazon) Forever Peace