Proserpina! Proserpina!

Worlds — Joe Haldeman
Worlds, book 1


1981’s Worlds is the first volume in Joe Haldeman’s Worlds trilogy.

By 2084, half a million people live in forty-one orbital habitats circling the Earth; they are the so-called Worlds. New New York is largest of the Worlds. It is the only home our protagonist Marianne O’Hara has ever known. University in Old New York will be an entirely new experience for her. If she plays her cards wrong, possibly her last experience ever.

Several generations after the Second Revolution, the United States is neither particularly welcoming nor particularly safe. The smart thing for O’Hara to do would be to keep her head down and get through her year of post-graduate work with as few entanglements as possible. Instead, she makes friends, acquires lovers, and gets entangled in the deadly politics of an America on the precipice of a third revolution.

Even as the US stumbles towards civil war, discoveries on the Moon will destabilize Earth-World relations. The Worlds were progressing towards self-sufficiency in a generation’s time. The revelation that the Moon has unexpected reserves of water and other volatiles suggests that this timeline could be advanced by twenty years.

If a pot is on the verge of boiling, a few extra calories of heat are all it takes to bring the pot to a full boil.


Not that it’s in any way obvious from this novel, but the Worlds trilogy has its roots in 1976’s “Tricentennial,” which as I recall was commissioned to match the art on the Rick Sternbach cover.

Wow, this is a rape-heavy book! O’Hara gets assaulted at least twice. One character, not an American, asserts

For women your age, the second leading cause of death is murder after rape or sexual battery.

This could just mean that all the other possible causes of death have declined markedly over the course of the 21st century, but the events of the book do not support that interpretation.

This is very much a Yesterday’s Tomorrow, from the Supreme Socialist Union spanning much of Eurasia, to the Disco-era-style constellation of space habitats, to the endless accumulation of nuclear weapons by the great powers (although the nations of the late 21 century do arrive at a final solution for proliferation).

The notion that the accumulating injustices of the American system would provoke the lower middle classes into open revolution by the early 21st century does seem a bit [strike] prescient [/strike] odd. As does the fact that after the revolution, the system has fallen even more firmly into the hands of the oligarchs. Or that the system has eliminated most of the former US civil liberties. As if Americans would give up due process or let most wealth fall into the hands of the ultra-rich .

I found it interesting that technological progress has worked against the Worlds as well as for them. The flurry of orbital-habitat-construction in the early 21st century was predicated on the idea that there’d always be a market for space-based solar power. The development of inexpensive fusion has forced prices for electricity down, which has weakened habitat economies. Instead of power, the new killer-app for space stations is foamed steel, a low-density but very strong construction material.

It only recently occurred to me that just as there are parallels between Haldeman’s Marsbound series and John Varley’s Get Off Heinlein’s Lawn series, there are also parallels between the Worlds series and Varley’s Gaea trilogy. Haldeman’s future is shorter on immense, demented gods than Varley’s1, but both futures feature women leads, suicidal terrestrial societies, religious cults in space, and a generally pessimistic view of the world. And, of course, rape, which I’d like to dismiss as the tail-fins of disco-era SF, but can’t. A spot of sexual violence is still the go-to event for authors struggling to generate plots involving women characters.

As for O’Hara… she’s an observer to some peripheral events leading up to the Third Revolution, then a refugee desperately trying to make her way across an increasingly hostile US before she gets trapped on Earth. That’s not an unreasonable choice on Haldeman’s part — most humans spend their lives dealing with the consequences of the decisions made by the Great and Powerful — but she does come off as rather passive, someone who is rescued rather than someone who rescues.

This was Haldeman’s seventh novel (the fifth published under his own name). Not just a demonstration of his skills by this point in his career, Worlds is also a representative example of where SF was in 1980, technologically optimistic but socially? Not so much. Although this isn’t a future we will ever see, readers may still find it of interest.

Worlds is available here (Amazon) and here (Chapters-Indigo).

1: I guess I know what I am reading for next week’s Tears review.


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