1974. Thomas Dunne Books. Paperback. 264 pages.
Earth is waging war against an alien race they have named the Taurons. Little is known about the Taurons, but Private William Mandella and his unit are sent to fight them in distant outer space. First they are trained on Earth and then on a planet so harsh that some of them die there. The war is impossible and ridiculous: space travel warps time, which means the aliens may either be ahead technologically or behind and they won’t know until they meet in combat. In the meantime, while the soldiers are away only months at a time, years, decades and eventually centuries pass on Earth, leaving the soldiers as bewildered outsiders to their own home planet.
Author Joe Haldeman was drafted to and wounded in the Vietnam War and wrote this book in the early 1970’s. The Forever War may be science fiction, but Haldeman’s war experience permeates the narrative.
I was hearing this, but the only thing that was getting through to my brain was that a third of our friends’ lives had been snuffed out less than an hour before, and he was sitting up there giving us a lecture on military theory.
‘So sometimes you have to throw away a battle in order to help win the war. This is exactly what we are going to do. This was not an easy decision. In fact, it was probably the hardest decision of my military career. Because, on the surface at least, it may look like cowardice’ . . . .
I had to stifle an impulse to laugh. Surely “cowardice” had nothing to do with his decision. Surely he had nothing so primitive and unmilitary as a will to live.
The connection of The Forever War to the Vietnam war, and to modern warfare in general, is what drew me to read this book. I hear in the news about how many soldiers struggle to find their place in society after returning from war. The time-warp aspect of the novel seems like a perfect analogy for this situation. I soon found that The Forever War had even more to offer than its timeliness. The Forever War is poignant but also funny, bluntly cynical but with a good heart. The story is packed with interesting details of its future universe but it never goes on too long about any one of them; I thought the level of brevity was perfect.
I could discuss the details of the world of The Forever War at length, as I found them fascinating, but I will give just a sampling. From the start of the book, which is set in what was then a future year – 1996 – women are fighting with men in combat, in what seems to be equal numbers. The soldiers are all casually promiscuous with each other, and Haldeman lets drop later that the women are “compliant and promiscuous by military custom (and law)” (p. 45). Another detail: when the troops face the Taurons for the first time, their commander uses a phrase to trigger a (false) implanted memory of the Taurons brutally slaughtering humans. Although Mandella is aware that it is false, he and the soldiers succumb to their programming and engage their enemy with no hesitation, overtaken by this strategically stoked rage. On Earth, violence is rampant and jobs are scarce. People illegally ‘sublet’ their jobs through brokers who charge the unemployed a heavy fee for the opportunity to have a job.
Sexual orientation becomes a major aspect of the book. At first, it is the government’s encouragement of homosexuality as a form of birth control. As time passes in the book, most of the human race becomes homosexual, and the heterosexual characters are the minority. Mandella is at first taken aback by the ‘rise’ of homosexuality, but later it’s just the way things are. In an interview I read online, Haldeman said “I think I wrote [the part about homosexuality] just to isolate the main character. He was the only straight guy in a gay Universe. And so they called him, “the old queer” because he was the only queer character. I wanted to isolate him. That is what it was about. There’s not much there about sexuality, or about real homosexuality, which is to me just another way of going about it.” In the interview, he also mentions how a gay friend of his didn’t care for how Haldeman’s gay male characters were all feminine and he said if he wrote The Forever War today, he would probably change that.
This is not a novel where I fell in love with the characters, but I did like them. Mandella is kind of an everyman. Sometimes he gets to be the hero of the hour, but sometimes he is unlucky and sometimes he makes a bad call. There is a love story tucked in there too, nothing overwrought, though it does have its tragic moments.
I was prepared for a bleak ending, but it was actually more hopeful than expected. The resolution to the war was surprising and hilariously cynical if looked at in a certain way: the war’s resolution was only possible when humans became less human.
Haldeman wrote a sequel to The Forever War called Forever Free, which I am curious about. If anyone has read it, let me know if it’s worth it.
Excerpts from others’ reviews:
Layers of Thought – “The novel pulls few punches in pointing out the stupidity behind how some wars are started, the crass way in which they are sometimes fought, and the almost total lack of consideration for the lowly soldier.”
Neth Space – “This is a novel from earlier times that is about our times, and one that both genre and non-genre fans should read.”
Sci-Fi Fan Letter – “Mandella’s a physicist, so most of the info dumps are via conversations he has with others, where he either explains the scientific concept, or has new concepts discovered while he was on a mission explained to him. Like the rest of the writing, these passages are short, to the point and integrated properly into the story. This reviewer has limited physics knowledge and had no problem following the novel, even though most of the science went over her head.”