William Mandella, a genius studying physics, has been drafted into the elite division of the United Nations Exploratory Force, which is fighting a seemingly never-ending war with the Taurans. After strenuous training with other elites on the Earth and in space, William and his colleagues are sent on various missions throughout the universe, traveling through black holes to get to each warfront. During each mission some of William’s friends die, but that’s expected. What’s surprising is that when he returns home, very little time has passed for him, but space-time relativity has caused many years to pass on Earth. Thus each time he comes back, he’s shocked by the changes that have occurred — changes in people he knows, changes in society, and technological advances which affect the progress of the war.
These changes are so drastic that Mandella, who was a reluctant soldier to begin with, would rather re-enlist — which means almost certain death — than live in a society he no longer relates to. He quickly moves up the ranks, but only because he’s the only soldier who has managed to survive this long, though it’s only been a few years of his own lifetime. The cultural changes on Earth have affected the military, too, and soon William, who’s so different from the people he leads, feels like an old man living in a young man’s body.
As you can probably tell, Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War is a military science fiction story that’s so much more than that. On the surface, it’s got all the stuff you’d expect from the sort of tense and exciting story where humans are fighting hordes of aliens, but on a deeper level, The Forever War is surprisingly emotional and thought-provoking. Joe Haldeman has called it “an sf treatment of what I’d seen and learned in Vietnam.” It deals with the expected themes — the horrors of war, xenophobia, survivor’s guilt, the disappointment of a tepid reception at home, the use of drugs and alcohol to cope and, especially in the case of Vietnam, the meaningless of it all. Haldeman’s SF-spin cleverly uses the relativity problem to show us the plight of soldiers who come back to a culture they hardly recognize, who lose family members and lovers who die or move on while they’re gone, and who feel like they’ve lost their former place in society and have trouble settling down. It’s tragically beautiful with an ending that offers hope.
Joe Haldeman wrote The Forever War as his thesis for an MFA. It was serialized in Analog Magazine and published as a novel in 1974. The Forever War won the Nebula Award, the Hugo Award, and the Locus Award. I read Recorded Books’ audio version, which was superbly narrated by George Wilson.
I had so many preconceptions about this book. It won the Hugo, Nebula, Locus and Ditmar Awards for Best Science Fiction novel back in 1975-6, and I knew it was a science fiction treatment of Joe Haldeman’s experiences as a soldier in the Vietnam War. So I was expecting something similar to films like Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986) and Born on the Fourth of July (1989), Brian De Palma’s Casualties of War (1989), Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978), Hal Ashby’s Coming Home (1978), or a book like Neil Sheehan’s A Bright and Shining Lie, etc. Instead, the book felt a lot more like John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War in tone, along with Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers minus the libertarian sermonizing. To be honest, through very little fault of the book itself, I found myself a bit disappointed. I was expecting a searing condemnation of the horrors of war, the callous use of young soldiers by generals in the military, a painful inability to readjust to civilian life, and lost faith in a false Cold War ideology. The book covered all these themes, but in a very matter-of-fact, unadorned style. Perhaps I should appreciate that the author didn’t use a sledgehammer to drive home an anti-war message, but that’s what I kept looking for and not finding.
Having been born in 1974, I have no memory of the Vietnam War and my first exposure to it was Oliver Stone’s iconic film Platoon in 1986, at age 12. It was really the first film I saw that realistically depicted the ugliness and chaos of war, and depicted the moral pitfalls of innocent young soldiers sent to fight an enemy in a foreign land, supposedly on behalf of the Vietnamese people, but discovering it was more about Cold War politics and containment of Communism than liberation or freedom. That film affected me very deeply — I was shell-shocked after watching it, and mesmerized by the performances of Charlie Sheen, Willem Dafoe, and Tom Berenger. I felt a strong connection to all the characters, and was shocked and horrified by some of their actions. But I learned that the fires of war can transform ordinary people and bring out their worst side.
So I came to The Forever War expecting a story equally as intense and wrenching. But when you change the enemy from Vietnamese people to inscrutable aliens that cannot speak human language, you automatically prevent the reader from developing any sympathy for them. Granted, soldier William Mandella feels a bit of remorse when his first encounter with the Taurans results in a one-sided massacre, but he quickly adjusts to this reality and doesn’t really struggle with his conscience much afterward. There is no sense of the outrage that accompanied the My Lai massacre, for example. In fact, the book makes it impossible to feel anything for the aliens whatsoever, as they remain alien and inscrutable to the end. Mandella’s loyalties lie with his fellow soldiers, completely understandably, not some aliens intent on killing him. He goes from battle to battle just trying to survive, with the time-dilating effects of near-light travel meaning that many years have passed on Earth after each tour of duty.
The book get more interesting when Mandella first returns to Earth and discovers that most things have gotten worse, and not much has gotten better. The world is overpopulated, the main industry is the war in space, and society has gotten more chaotic and violent. He and his fellow solider and lover Marygay Potter are taken aback by the poor quality of life in America and elsewhere. The biggest shock for them is that homosexuality has become widespread as a means of curbing population growth, and is encouraged by many governments. He feels quite uncomfortable at this development, and I’m not sure how much we should read into his attitude — just because a character behaves in a certain way doesn’t mean the author believes that. But in terms of the story, it seems implausible to me as a means of birth control. What about contraception? Surely in the future there would be other advances in medical technology to limit pregnancies.
In any case, Mandella and Marygay find it impossible to readjust to life in this radically-changed society and elect to re-enlist in the military again. They request non-combat training positions, but are immediately switching into senior combat roles instead. And they continue to move up in the ranks, mainly through sheer luck of survival, while most of their comrades die in terrible ways. Haldeman certainly wanted to debunk the idea of heroism and individual merit in war — you’re either lucky or you’re dead.
On the plus side, I thought the futuristic combat details of The Forever War were excellently portrayed. Haldeman seems to know his science quite well, and I can see how this book inspired a whole generation of military science fiction. However, I’m not usually interested in this subgenre with the exception of Lois McMaster Bujold’s MILES VORKOSIGAN series, because that is firmly focused on character-driven stories in a military science fiction context. The time-dilation effect of each tour of duty was also an ingenious metaphor for the disorienting social changes that soldiers encountered when they returned home. But again, I didn’t get a sense of intense struggle on Mandella and Marygay’s parts, just mild dislocation and dissatisfaction.
In the end, I think The Forever War is a well-written and important book in the science fiction genre, especially at the time it was published, but I didn’t connect with it as much as I expected. I fully recognize that I brought with me some unfair expectations, but it’s such a beloved classic. In any case, I’m keen to read Haldeman’s 1997 follow-up Forever Peace, which won the Hugo, Nebula, and John W. Campbell awards in 1998. I get the impression that he wanted to revisit the themes of his first book with a more modern perspective, which could be really good.
The Forever War — (1974-1999) The monumental Hugo and Nebula award winning SF classic. The Earth’s leaders have drawn a line in the interstellar sand – despite the fact that the fierce alien enemy they would oppose is inscrutable, unconquerable, and very far away. A reluctant conscript drafted into an elite Military unit, Private William Mandella has been propelled through space and time to fight in the distant thousand-year conflict; to perform his duties and do whatever it takes to survive the ordeal and return home. But “home” may be even more terrifying than battle, because, thanks to the time dilation caused by space travel, Mandella is aging months while the Earth he left behind is aging centuries…