To a small but measurable degree, Worlds Apart is a better novel than Worlds. The first novel offered excellent attention to character, particularly its heroine, Marianne O'Hara. But it lacked sufficient detail upon which to build its political themes. The apocalyptic war between the Earth and its orbital habitats known as the Worlds, while given its own suitable justifications, still felt rushed in the delivery. I wanted more backstory — particularly focusing on the state of affairs in America, primed for its third revolutionary war — to flesh out the narrative, give me a clearer idea how the social and political environment ended up the way it did, and thus offer me a stronger stake in events.
The action in Worlds Apart, naturally enough, stems from the climactic war in Worlds, so its own plot has a stronger foundation. Still, in covering twelve years of time in fewer than 250 pages, there are times when its story feels rushed as well. And there is something a tad familiar about the post-apocalyptic scenario against which the action in the Earth-based scenes plays out. Still, Joe Haldeman tells a gripping enough tale that, as with the previous volume, it doesn't exactly count as withering criticism to say that I wanted more.
Haldeman gives us two story threads to follow here. Marianne's takes place aboard New New York, one of the few surviving orbital Worlds. While the population must deal with refugees from other habitats and the problems of feeding and housing them under extremely finite resources (with the threat of a genuine Malthusian crisis a real possibility), Marianne finds herself included in a couple of missions back to the surface. One of these is to thwart a plan among groundhog survivors of the global holocaust — who have been propagandized to believe the Worlds started it — to send a spacecraft containing a nuclear device on a kamikaze mission to New New York.
The second storyline focuses on Jeff Hawkings, Marianne's erstwhile lover left behind on Earth at the cataclysmic climax of Worlds. Earth has been devastated, not only by thermonuclear bombardment, but by an out-of-control viral bioweapon that has wiped out virtually all of the adult population above the early twenties in age. Immune due to his acromegaly, Jeff travels the desolate Florida landscape posing as Healer. He brings medicines to the ragtag families of increasingly feral kids and adolescents, and barters with them, all the while trying to maintain radio contact in secret with New New York, which he isn't even sure still exists. Meanwhile, a new religion, based on the writings of Charles Manson (!), is sweeping what's left of the country and leading to greater and more frightening instances of mob violence.
Both storylines offer the trilogy's most engrossing talespinning, thus making Worlds Apart its best book. Still, I wanted more depth, a problem I also had with the first novel. While I've been on record on this website more times than I can count railing against big fat bloated books, there are still instances when a story cries out for greater detail, if only to make my appreciation of something I'm already admiring that much deeper. To be fair, Worlds Apart doesn't have this problem nearly to the degree Worlds did. I'm pleased to declare myself satisfied by and large. But I wouldn't have minded another fifty or sixty pages of interaction and drama to bring me that much closer to the characters and immerse me more fully in their struggle to survive.
As it is, there are several instances where Jeff's scenes just began to feel like any ol' post-holocaust guy-wandering-the-wastelands story. (You half expect Mel Gibson in Mad Max mode to drive up in a battered jeep.) And here and there, Haldeman lapses into pure author's-convenience in order to bring characters together who would have no valid or plausible reason to meet were it not that the plot requires them to do so. A case in point: late in the book, Marianne meets up with two of the kids from a family Jeff has saved from the plague with a new medicine sent back down to Earth by NNY. The boys confirm Jeff's survival to a fretting Marianne, thus giving some closure to their relationship. But it feels artificial and little emotionally manipulative. Again, if Haldeman had let the book breathe a little bit more, he might have found a way to execute this encounter that didn't stretch suspension of disbelief quite so much.
But what does work works swimmingly. Especially convincing is Haldeman's portrayal of the social crises aboard New New York. In addition to the refugees, there are quite a lot of suicides, plus much political debate and division over whether or not to transform the wreckage of demolished habitats into a generation ship bound for a nearby Earthlike extrasolar world. After all, a number of NNY denizens are scared of what might happen if the survivors on Earth finally get their civilization kick-started again, and what that might mean should they still hold a grudge against the Worlds. As you might have surmised, this is what segues us into the next volume, in what is shaping up to be, if not Haldeman's greatest work, certainly among his most sincere and ambitious.