Jeff hadn't mentioned the third alternative, that I marry him and stay here. What would that be like? Marianne O'Hara, groundhog. I couldn't see it. Not even in this wonderful city. The Earth is closed space; history's mistakes endlessly repeating. The future belongs to the Worlds.
It is the future, the late 21st century. Orbiting Earth are forty-one "Worlds," asteroids which, collectively, have a population of almost half a million people. This is hard sf, and in the start of the book we hear how the asteroids were hollowed out and moved into position and spun for gravity and how they are mined for minerals that are sold to Earth and other Worlds, etc. One of the most prominent of the Worlds is New New York, home to 250,000 people, including our protagonist, Marianne O'Hara; Worlds is sort of a biography of O'Hara's early life, you might call a bildungsroman.
Worlds immediately reminded of Robert Heinlein's work. Like "The Menace from Earth" and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Haldeman's novel is largely concerned with speculations on what it will be like living on a satellite of Earth--the relationship between the satellite dwellers and the Earthers, in particular--and on future family arrangements and sexual life. Like so many of Heinlein's juveniles, it follows a young person as he or she goes on an adventure, learns about the universe, and gets mixed up in war and/or politics. Other Heinleinian notes are sounded--nudism, revolutionary organizations, ways in which a polity might limit the franchise, for example.
In the 21st century group marriages and regularized sexual promiscuity, of varying kinds, are the norm, with different customs prevailing on different Worlds, and drugs are used to control the onset of puberty and fertility--some girls have sex and bear children at age twelve, others elect to hold off puberty until they are 17 or 18.
Marianne O'Hara is a superior person, a girl who delays puberty until 17 and spends her teen years focusing on her education, including grad school. In the 21st century group marriages and regularized sexual promiscuity, of varying forms, are the norm, with different customs prevailing on different Worlds. Drugs are used to control the onset of puberty and fertility--some girls have sex and bear children at age twelve, others, like Marianne, elect to hold off puberty until they are relatively old.
We spend like 30 pages in orbit as Marianne grows up, learning about the Worlds' array of cultures and meeting minor characters, and then our hero, at age 19 or 20, starts her visit to Earth in New York. My old stomping grounds, in 2084 when Marianne gets there, is a crime ridden mess where there is a heavily armored cop on every corner, ordinary people wear long knives to deter muggers and rapists, and the Empire State Building is in ruins, left that way as a memorial of the Second American Revolution or Second American Civil War that put in place the current form of government. Marianne makes friends with various people, becomes a crime victim, gets mixed up with an underground group of rebels who aren't crazy about the current form of government--they profess to be libertarian activists who act within the law in pursuit of a more representative government and consider violence a last resort, but in fact they are heavily armed terrorist revolutionaries who assassinate people with lasers and have already infiltrated high levels of government.
Haldeman uses a variety of narrative techniques in Worlds. Much is in the third person, be he also offers up primary documents, like letters Marianne exchanges with her friends back on New New York, a media interview of one of her friends who describes Marianne's relationship with a third figure, diaries and journals written by Marianne and people who know her. This way Haldeman can, for example, in one chapter--a diary entry--show us Marianne's view of the terrorists immediately after meeting them, and in the next chapter--a third-person omniscient passage--explicitly show how they are misrepresenting themselves.
The bulk of the plot of the novel consists of three intertwined threads. One is Marianne's relationships with a number of men, and her decisions about whether she should have sex with each of them and which of them she should marry--remember, this is the promiscuous sex/group marriage future in which it is normal to have multiple concurrent lovers and spouses. The men are all very different from each other, on New New York there's John the crippled engineer, Charlie the big muscular religious man from a World where they have a sex-focused religion and people customarily have sex in public, and Daniel, a scientist. In New York there's Benny the poet and painter who gets mixed up with the revolutionary group, and Jeff the FBI agent who is taking classes. The spy stuff involving the revolutionaries is another thread, and a third is souring relations between the USA and New New York, involving boycotts and embargoes and tariffs and all that, the result of sudden economic change when some valuable minerals are found on the moon--these minerals can substitute for stuff New New York is currently buying form Earth, and provide an opportunity for greater Worlds independence from Earth. The danger of being arrested by the US government, or murdered by the rebels, or stuck on Earth because of the embargo, of course complicates things and dials up the tension when Marianne is considering with which men she should have sex and with whom she should build her future.
Back in America everything comes to a head as relations between the US and New New York get so bad that blackouts occur because New New York stops selling solar power to Earth. Under cover of the blackouts the revolutionaries make their move, detonating nuclear bombs in Washington D.C. and Chicago and declaring that they are the new government. The USA is in total chaos--half the FBI and half the military are loyal to the revolutionaries and so these institutions are too busy to maintain order, and criminals take advantage of the power vacuum. In the confusion missiles are launched from the US that strike many of the smaller Worlds, killing thousands of people and sending thousands as refugees to New New York, and then there is a nuclear exchange between the US and the communist states, leaving the Earth an absolute wreck!
Just before the blackout and revolution Marianne is kidnapped by revolutionaries for use as a bargaining ship or something (she is the most famous Worlder on Earth) and is rescued by Jeff the FBI agent, who has gone rogue from the Bureau. When America falls into chaos Marianne and Jeff have to travel across the violence-stricken countryside to get to the spaceport, but there is no room for Jeff, so Marianne leaves for New New York without him.
Worlds is good, but it is all plot, it didn't move me--I didn't really care which guys Marianne banged or married, which of them lived or died. One of the reasons the novel felt a little flat is that Marianne doesn't really drive the plot, she doesn't set goals and then try to achieve them--as a student she follows a schedule, and then during the world-shattering revolutionary crisis she is a victim of circumstances. She goes here and there, meeting some people who try to abuse or exploit her and some people who are nice to her and help protect her from the not nice people. After all the talk of her being so single-minded and smart in the first 30 pages of the book, she doesn't do much that is particularly smart or assertive on Earth--I can't remember her ever using her smarts to overcome an obstacle or preserve her life or anything like that. Rather than exercising the values and abilities she brought with her to Earth from New New York, she is corrupted by life on Earth, forced to commit acts of violence that she hadn't thought herself capable of.
Non-whites, African-Americans in particular, come off well in the novel. Marianne loves Dixieland jazz and the people who treat her nicest are some black musicians who invite her to play clarinet in their jazz band in front of a packed house, and we get a long scene of her playing with them; for Marianne, the evening spent playing with the band feels like "six bright hours of orgasm." This chapter is also significant in that it is one of the few times in the book when we actually see Marianne's talents and abilities in action.
It is implied that Marianne will become the leader of New New York, and there are two sequels, 1983's Worlds Apart and 1992's Worlds Enough and Time; maybe they follow her career as chief executive of New New York, and in them we will see Marianne use her intelligence to save her society or something. I own Worlds Apart and will read it soon, while Worlds is still fresh in my mind, and find out.