For a political novel, Joe Haldeman's Worlds spends a surprising amount of time on the personal. So much so, in fact, that the genuinely intriguing political content of the plot feels lacking. There was so much more I wanted to know about the future Haldeman presents here, and if he had only devoted as much attention to developing it as he did the life of his protagonist, Worlds could have been one of his greatest novels. As it is, it's a good novel that frustrates because of how much more deep and powerful it could have been.
Marianne O'Hara is a young woman who hails from New New York, the largest of many orbital habitats known as Worlds. The Worlds are politically independent of Earth, but they're all dependent economically due to the necessities of trade. Marianne gets the rare opportunity to travel to Earth — to "Old" New York, in fact — to finish her postgraduate liberal arts education. While there, she finds herself drawn into the machinations of an underground group who, like so many collegiate activists, claim to seek a fairer and less oppressive government. In fact, their true size is vast, with tentacles reaching all the way to the highest rungs of military and political power. And they plan nothing less than violent overthrow.
This is where I wish the book had more meat on its bones. We are told America has had a Second Revolution. But we aren't given much information in depth about what brought it on. (Nevada has seceded, for one thing.) I didn't see whole lot about the state of America as it's depicted in the book to make me think it's especially restrictive or oppressive. Skyscrapers that tower many kilometers over Manhattan speak to a powerful economy. There seem to be few restrictions on travel or speech. And yet there's this crowd of disenchanted collegiates who proclaim that Revolution is inevitable. A whole lot more background on the Second Revolution, of how things got to the way they are now, and especially a better understanding of why so many (the group is said to number at over 100,000) think a Third Revolution is a burning necessity, would have gone a long way.
What is depicted more engagingly is a growing tension between Earth and the Worlds, particularly when New New York discovers massive quantities of a precious natural resource on the Moon, a discovery which threatens to pre-empt a dangerous and expensive asteroid-towing project. When the United States decides they don't like this threat to their economic interdependence with the Worlds, embargos are instituted, and the whole thing becomes a powder keg waiting to blow.
All of this is seen through the eyes of Marianne. The strong focus on character makes Haldeman's story immediately absorbing, especially as Marianne avoids becoming the stereotype so many novels like this might offer. She's young and impetuous, but not especially idealistic. Her experiences on Earth (including narrowly avoiding getting savagely raped) quickly make her deeply cynical. Many of her scenes, while they don't advance the story much, do allow us some degree of insight into the geopolitics of the book's near-future, and bring the kind of human dimension any book needs for the fullest reader involvement.
But everything still feels rushed when we get to the climax. Within, it seems, the span of minutes, everything goes from hunky-dory to dodgy to really bad to totally apocalyptic. And while this faithfully mirrors how real life often pans out — how many of us had time to prepare ourselves for 9/11? — in a novel one expects a bit more involvement in the political realities and narrative backstory, and a real investment in the motivations of the actors. Again, had Worlds had offered as in-depth a history for its divided America as it offered for the Worlds themselves and for Marianne in particular, the climax would not have had such a whisky-tango-foxtrot abruptness to it. To its credit, the novel still feels relevant in many ways, especially in reflecting the xenophobic divisiveness so present in our post-war-on-terror reality. (Indeed, the degree to which Worlds could be seen as a post-9/11 story twenty years ahead of its time is sobering.) In the final analysis, Worlds is worthwhile reading, imperfect but intelligent and thought-provoking. And I suppose if anything about the politics of the future it portrays leaves readers scratching their heads and wondering how the hell everything came to such a pass...well, I imagine a lot of us feel that way in our everyday lives.