Title: The Always War
Author: Margaret Peterson Haddix
Publisher: Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers
Genre: Dystopian Science Fiction
Themes: War, Fear, Society
Age Range: 4th-8th Grade
Fifteen year old Tess has always lived in a world of war. The war that her country is fighting has been going on for over 75 years, and there appears to be no end in sight. The war has led to shortages of everything, and so many decades of living in a constant state of deprivation has led the people to be depressed and hopeless. The only bright spot is the occasional ceremony honoring a citizen of their community as a war hero. But the ceremony for Tess' childhood friend Gideon does not go as planned. When they attempt to give Gideon his medal, he freaks out, insisting that what he did does not deserve anything but scorn. Soon, Gideon disappears, and the once bright future that awaited him is replaced with constant surveillance by the government for his "mental" problems. Tess is sure that something else is going on, and when he escapes into the night, she follows. Soon she finds herself on a plane, flying into enemy territory. Gideon is looking for redemption, and the only way he can see to get it is to admit his wrongdoing to the very people he hurt-the enemy. But what Tess, Gideon, and a young stowaway named Dek discover when they reach enemy territory calls into question everything they thought they knew about the 75 year long war.
As usual Haddix does an excellent job creating a dystopian society. Like in her Shadow Children series, there is a sense of desperation and despair that just cries out for someone to do something to make a change. The Always War also has elements of Ender's Game in it, in that the people "fighting" the war are doing it remotely, without having to see the results of the bombs they drop. Unlike Ender's Game, however, the young "pilots" in this war know that they are fighting a real enemy-but are they? Haddix also threw in a little bit of "War Games", that classic Matthew Broderick movie of the 80s, by creating a sentient computer that calculates the odds of winning the war.
For the first 80% of the book I was sure that this was the beginning of another series. The story moved along at a decent clip, but there were still so many things that needed to be resolved that I was sure that there were a couple more books in the works. Then, in the last 25 pages or so of the book, it appears that everything gets resolved very quickly-and not terribly satisfactorily, if truth be told. After spending so many pages describing the wartime society that Tess lived in, and then describing in great detail the journey that the young people took, the resolution seemed to happen in a flash. The big reveal about the war was not a surprise, but once it was done the war ended and the people accepted it in a flash, something that just did not feel very realistic. It might seem strange to use that word to describe a story about a supercomputer that pretends to fight a war so that humanity doesn't annihilate itself, but until the very end I was totally caught up in my own suspension of disbelief.
That said, there are a lot of good things that can be pulled from the story for discussion. Turns out the war was about water-that is a very timely topic. Also, the way that citizens were encouraged to sacrifice their joy and hope for the war effort is also something that has parallels in both our recent and not-so-recent past. If you are a Haddix fan, then this is a book that you should read, just for the sake of being able to put it in the context of her other work. If you've never read Haddix before, I suggest you start with Running Out of Time, or Among the Hidden, or Found before trying this one.