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WORLDS ENOUGH AND TIME
1992

Book cover art by Vincent diFate.
Review © 2007 by Thomas M. Wagner.
AUTHOR'S SITE

[Spoilers herein.]

It took him nine years, but Joe Haldeman eventually completed his Worlds trilogy with a novel that was about as far away, thematically, from the first as it could get. Over the course of three books, this trilogy has flirted with sociopolitics, romance, and war, then segued into post-holocaust survival epic, and now, it wraps up with a generation-ship space opera and first-contact epic. Since Vincent diFate's cover art itself reveals one of the blobby tentacled xenomorphs Marianne O'Hara and our spacefaring heroes eventually encounter, my spoiler warning seems a little like closing the barn door after the horses are out. But I take my critical responsibilities to heart, even if art directors don't.

In one way, Worlds Enough and Time offers the depth of narrative that I complained was insuffiently provided in both Worlds and Worlds Apart. Regrettably, much of that simply results in ennui. Here, the faction aboard orbital habitat New New York that favored building a generation ship and sending ten thousand or so hand-picked volunteers out on humanity's first colonial expedition has won the day. The effort, however, is not free from the grim spectre of sabotage. The Devonite religion, that bizarre sect whose members seem to do nothing but have sex all day, makes at least one concerted effort to blow the vessel up while under construction. But eventually, all is set for the starship Newhome's departure. And depart it does, on a one-way voyage to a watery world orbiting Epsilon Eridani.

Haldeman gets into his characters as never before in this volume, especially establishing Marianne as a pioneer heroine whose legacy will be passed down through the ages. (In fact, the story is largely narrated by Marianne Prime, an AI construct based on her personality, who tells us she's relating events from two thousand years later.) Thus, the whole Worlds trilogy comes full circle as the story of a woman from humble origins who becomes a legendary figure, a discoverer and maker of worlds. In that regard, readers will find the results most satisfying. With the trilogy completed, one now has its whole context against which to regard Marianne's development. And while it's not an entirely smooth development across the board, she emerges a genuinely memorable SF heroine.

Too bad, then, that the damn story here is often so tedious. While there are moments of good drama — particularly the alarming if inevitable moment at which all contact with New New York is lost for good — much of the story is taken up with recounting the minutiae of administrating a generation ship. It's realistically handled, I have no doubt. Dealing with a surprisingly high number of suicides is only the tip of the iceberg when one is locked in a tin can with thousands of dispossessed people, surrounded by light-years of nothing but hard vacuum and facing an uncertain future. It was also interesting to see Haldeman go back to exploring political themes, such as in the revealing fact that Newhome's adminstrators have chosen to run a sham democracy for the psychological effect of maintaining morale among an increasingly emotionally fragile crew, all the while making the final decisions themselves regardless of what the vote might be. It's hard to argue that such measures, while appalling to those of us who fancy we live in a real world democracy, might well be the only way to make things run smoothly and with a minimum of crisis aboard a vessel like Newhome. (But to what degree does our government in reality conduct its business that way, regardless of votes and polls? It's a sobering question to consider.)

While this is all intellectually absorbing, dramatically, it leads to flat, interminable scenes of exposition. Many of the scenes aboard Newhome are diary entries of Marianne's which basically take the form of "well, we have another problem, what're we going to do about it this time?" Fans of idea-based SF in the Analog solve-the-problem mode might like this kind of dry storytelling. But it lacks excitement and sufficient dramatic punch, I think, for most readers.

Still, things go from bland to worse once we arrive at the planet, and meet a species of godlike aliens with magic powers. I'm not making this up. In one of the most brazen instances of pooch-screwing in recent SF, Haldeman devalues virtually everything he has built up throughout this whole trilogy by introducing a species of 2001-ish, omnipotent aliens, for no apparent purpose than to make some weak point about the damaging effect religious ideologies have upon governments, or some such thing, and how humanity needs to rely on its own wherewithal, or some such thing, to truly appreciate life and realize its own capabilities. All of which strikes me as wildly dishonest when you realize that — no mistake — these aliens are basically gods. They teleport Marianne instantaneously to points all over the universe (including back to Earth), and they give her little moral "tests," all in the interest of determining whether humanity is sufficiently good to be allowed to continue to exist. And the only reason these aliens have these powers is so that they can serve this contrived deus ex machina formula. In other words, they're here, not as a believable product of their native environment, but as a plot device. And honestly, to wreck such a promising and compelling tale as the Worlds trilogy was shaping up to be, by resorting to devices that hackneyed and simplistic, is enough to make you wonder if Haldeman simply took leave of his senses as this book's deadline loomed on his calendar.

Even given the qualities in this trilogy's first two books, I'm wondering if I can responsibly recommend you read any of them, given that the whole thing ends so disastrously. As always, your mileage may vary, and some readers may glean much that is worthwhile amidst all that isn't. But with so much more consistent and rewarding series fiction in SF these days, even Haldeman's considerable reputation isn't sufficient for me to encourage you to hunt these titles down in a used bookstore. There are just too many better books — and not enough time to squander.