Howard's Reviews > The Peace War

The Peace War by Vernor Vinge
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's review
Jun 21, 2009

really liked it
Read in June, 2009

Solid science fiction novel with both post-apocalyptic and dystopia themes. Vinge crafts a compelling, tyrannical "post-war" society based in California where self-appointed peace keepers use absolute power to repress development and use of weapons technology. Written during the cold war, the novel explores the logical conclusion of US imperial designs - a benign empire that uses power only for the good of humanity (e.g., spread of democracy, development of pre-capitlist economies, etc.). The U.S. is actually a victim in the novel, with the self-appointed Peace Authority arising from the ranks of scientists and technocrats working for Livermore labs (in the Bay Area), only to use the ultimate weapon ("the bobble") on its own government, along with other war-making states around the globe.

The most interesting theme of the book is how use of power, whatever the goals, ultimately corrupts the user and propagates conflict. The Peace Authority, smug in its rationalization of cruelty and oppression, cannot relent in its use of absolute power, no matter the consequences. And the oppressed will always rise up to throw off their yoke (or simply try to reverse positions to enjoy the fruits of power themselves). Vinge adroitly exposes the hypocrisy of "hawks" who use the language of achieving peace and democracy through bigger and better weapons.

Yet, Vinge doesn't let peaceniks off the hook. The technology used by the Authority to oppress is very contained - creation of a sphere around the target that places the contents into an utterly opaque prison, essentially removing it from this reality (a "bobble"). Very little collateral damage. If peaceniks had such a device (I being a card carrying member), wouldn't it be a logical conclusion for them to take the worst of the weapons out of the game? Render the warmongers impotent? And, hey, lets bobble the warmongers, too. Vinge shows that the consequences of this path is a slippery slope, but makes the moral dilemma compelling.

Alright, now the not so good. Vinge admirably tries to tackle issues of sexism and racism in his post-war society. People of color - Latinos and Blacks - end up segregated from white people in Southern CA and oppressing themselves in a feudalistic society. North of Santa Barbara, white people live in essentially an anarchist's dream, with loosely networked and self-governed collectives trading amongst themselves. Hmmmmm. I guess his point is that race inequality is so deeply embedded in global power structures that even when super powers are neutralized, third-world/first world relationships endure. But, I am only guessing, as he does not give this the same air time he devotes to the peace/war paradigm. The post-apocalyptic "Watts" image of LA ends up pretty two-dimensional. In the end, it can even come across as subtly racist, despite the fact that the main protagonist is a young black man.

He equally fails in exploring how patriarchy so easily becomes the backbone of a tyrannical society. I can understand how the Peace Authority could devolve to male dominated power, but why would the anarchist collectives also oppress women? Why not contrast the Peace Authority with other forms of self-governance where women are equal? Again, the book can come across as subtly sexist, even though the other main protagonist is a very powerful female character.

Overlooking these flaws, I found his world well crafted and interesting. The book is more about ideas than characters. The plot moves quickly and makes for a good action/adventure read. If he could have teased more out of his other themes, I would have given it five stars.
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Amaha (new)

Amaha Sounds interesting. I randomly picked up Lost in Spacetime, which is a sequel to this, though set many years into the future, and enjoyed it. I don't remember it having the same race & gender dynamics going on as this one. I'll have to check this out as well.

message 2: by David (new)

David Reynolds Very nice review. It's been a while since I read it, and even so, you brought back the book's major themes.

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