Last week you got an action figure review, now you get a book review. I’m eclectic. The Forever War should be instantly familiar to most sci-fi fans. Because it’s fresh in my mind, I thought I’d flesh out my opinions on it. TFW is respectably dark and grim, so I feel that it’s a fitting selection for this site’s first instance of literary coverage. It’s also a Hugo and Nebula award winner, which speaks for itself.
The Forever War
Author: Joe Haldeman
Country: Unites States
First Edition: St. Martin’s Press, 1974
Featured Edition: Thomas Dunne Books, 2009
The Forever War, written in 1974 by Joe Haldeman, is one of those books that I had always meant to read, but just kept putting off. My loss, because TFW easily matches its hype. Heralded as one of the greatest military sci-fi novels of all time, I’ve always pictured it as sharing a podium with Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein, and Armor by John Steakley. What’s strange about my aversion to TFW, is that the two aforementioned novels are two of my favorites of all time. I can still vividly remember the first (and only) time I read Starship Troopers. I couldn’t have been more than twelve-years-old, and I eviscerated the book during a two-day period when I was home from school due to illness. I can’t remember any other book that I felt so sad to have finished. I wished there had been a sequel so I could ocntinue reading. Armor was another novel that I read in a couple of days. I’ve never felt so much empathy for a character in a sci-fi novel. And as I’ll soon explain, Armour and TFW share similar themes of alienation.
Although The Forever War and Starship Troopers are often mentioned in the same sentence, their tone is quite different. Starship Troopers is decidedly grim, but the underlying message is unashamedly pro-military. TFW, on the other hand, leaves the reader feeling that the military apparatus is relatively pointless, and exists only to keep the civilian populace in check. As every piece of promotional material for TFW will tell you, Joe Haldeman served as a combat engineer in Vietnam, and was awarded a Purple Heart for his contributions. TFW parallels Haldeman’s disenfranchised sentiments towards war, and the subsequent alienation he felt upon returning home as a veteran. Every time I’ve seen TFW mentioned, this fact has been heavily espoused. What I find slightly irritating about these sentiments, is that they make it seem as if it’s rare for science fiction to deal with real world issues. As all sci-fi literature fans know, every good sci-fi novel is a subtle reflection of its author’s beliefs, and is influenced to some extent by their real-world experiences. Maybe I was born way too late, but I don’t find it especially impressive that when writing a war novel, Haldeman channeled his personal sentiments on the matter. I mean no disrespect to Haldeman, I just don’t see why others find it so impressive that TFW is a sci-fi novel that explores real-world issues.
In the late 20th century, humanity has found wormholes called collapsars that allow them to travel across vast interstellar distances in a split second. Haldeman doesn’t spend too much time explaining these collapsars, but after some digging, I realized that collapsars are really what we now call black holes, which was a term that hadn’t been popularized in 1974. While travelling through these collapsars, humanity meets what seem to be a hostile alien race, which they dub the Taurans. William Mandella, a physics student, is conscripted along with a group of other physically fit, genius academics to engage the supposedly hostile alien race.
To be honest, I found the book’s first act to be somewhat dull. The soldiers are transported to a hostile world to learn how to operate powered armor suits under hostile conditions. These suits were obviously inspired by Starship Troopers. In fact, the entire segment felt like a weak version of ST’s training section. As with many science fiction novels, the humanity of the future is especially promiscuous; male and female soldiers alternate sexual partners every night. Although this might be the military’s ideal answer to the stress of army life, I would imagine that in the real world this would result in a considerable degree of conflict and tension. Because sexual promiscuity is so prevalent in sci-fi, I’ve always wondered, is this a result of sci-fi authors’ unfulfilled sexual desires, or were the sci-fi authors of the 60’s and 70’s just a bunch of free-loving hippies?
After receiving the requisite training, Mandella and the crew are sent through a collapsar to engage the Taurans in the first ever on-land encounter. The battle turns into a massacre; the Taurans are virtually defenceless, and are obliterated by the humans. Haldeman doesn’t shy away from graphic detail. The following excerpt describes the humans’ first violent encounter with a group of harmless animals on the alien planet: “Whenever the laser had opened a body cavity, milk-white glistening veined globes and coils of organs spilled out, and their blood was dark clotting red”.
The most interesting concept of the book is introduced after this first skirmish. Because the collapsar has transported the humans thousands of light years away from Earth, the subsequent time dilation means that in the period of two years for Mandella, dozens of years have passed back home. The time dilation also means that the Taurans have significantly more time to develop new weapons and methods of warfare. Upon returning home, Mandella and the woman he loves, Marygay Potter, realize that time hasn’t treated the Earth kindly. The Earth is unified by one government, and it exists primarily to fuel the war effort. Resources are scarce, meaning that everyone lives in government sanctioned poverty. I would imagine that Haldeman patterned this society after that of Soviet Russia. The conditions are akin to America’s worst impressions of communism, circa 1974. Furthermore, due to an overabundant population and limited resources, people are encouraged to be homosexual. I’ve never seen this suggested as a method of population control, but it’s certainly interesting. Mandella and Marygay, both of whom are pacifists, can’t adjust to the Earth of the future, and thus decide to rejoin the war effort. The theme of alienation is core to this novel. Mandella’s experiences are said to mimic the alienation that Haldeman felt when returning home from Vietnam. The time dilation exists as the perfect literary mechanism to subject Mandella and Marygay to constant “future shock”.
The rest of the novel has Mandella and Marygay being sent to various battlefronts, each of which are thousands of light years away. As a result, they constantly return to an Earth that has left them far behind. I find this concept ridiculously interesting. Without delving into spoilers, from the age of twenty to twenty-five, they experience hundreds of years of human progress. The war seems to destined to last forever, hence the term The Forever War.
I can only assume that like Mandella, Haldeman is a pacifist. For this reason, there were only a few segments of the book that really delved into the actual warfare. Readers who are looking for pure action would probably be best served elsewhere, but there is at least one really satisfying battle at the end of TFW. Haldeman devised a unique arsenal of far future weaponry for TFW. The weapons range from “finger lasers”, to mines that are sensitive up to a one kilometer radius. I really love when authors get creative with weaponry, and I wish modern military sci-fi wasn’t so dominated by “20th century marines with 20th century weapons, but in the future!”
I would recommend TFW to any sci-fi fans, and almost any literary types in general. The core concepts really transcend pure sci-fi, so fans of military fiction will also feel right at home. My only word of caution is that the book contains a considerable amount of actual science. Haldeman was trained as a physicist, so this is real science fiction through and through. For anyone interested in theoretical methods of counteracting the pressure differentials caused by traveling at up to 25 gees, you’ll find plenty of intellectual entertainment. Even though I sometimes have a hard time understanding it, I love when sci-fi delves into real science. That being said, there’s a healthy dose of social science fiction at play, which should please those who are inclined towards the humanities. I’m also a sucker for a bit of romance in my sci-fi, so I’ll admit that I really enjoyed the relationship between Mandella and Marygay. The ending alone is enough to rival any romance movie.
Perhaps TFW’s greatest strength is that it introduces so many interesting ideas, all while keeping an interesting narrative. Although TFW may not have been as influential as Starship Troopers, it obviously contributed it’s fair share to the world of military sci-fi. This book entertains on so many different levels, not the least of which is the desire for war in space. Basically, if you’ve found this site, and you haven’t read this book already, you owe it to yourself to give it a shot.
As always, you can contact me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on the facebook page. The next installment of Alien Rip-Offs in Film is still incoming; creating it is a pretty tedious process. Later space cadets!
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