By Joe Haldeman
Originally published: 1974
I’ve never been a fan of classic military science fiction. I feel there is always more emphasis on battle scenes and tech rather than character and story. There were exceptions: Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, which dealt with the emotional and moral effects of war; and John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series, giving us the “wise man’s” perspective of combat and death. In both cases there is a xenophobic subtext of how man deals with aliens (or humans) they fail to understand, but convince themselves to fear. Both Card and Scalzi (and others) owe a large debt to Joe Haldeman who created the template for speculative military science fiction novels that deal not simply with tech, but much broader and controversial issues that we as humans struggle with today.
Published in 1974, The Forever War (winner of the Nebula, Hugo and Locus Awards) is the quintessential “war novel”. Its thought-provoking parallels to modern day warfare, uncanny prescience toward changes in human sexuality and economics, exploration of xenophobia, and mind-blowing use of time-space travel mark it as a classic among classics.
At its heart The Forever War follows the career of William Mandella, one of the first space soldiers sent to battle the Taurans, a distant and virtually unknown alien race. To conquer this perceived threat, soldiers are sent through ‘collapsars’, allowing them to travel light years in mere seconds. The kicker? While the battle or campaign only lasts a few months, Albert Einstein’s general relativity has the last laugh: the soldiers return to their original bases only a few months older, but decades later.
Those lucky enough to survive return only to find society changed and their hard won battles nearly forgotten as technological advances and additional decades-long battles have changed the war. They are sent out time and again to ever more distant locations in the galaxy while changes to society on Earth further widen the gap that links them to their former lives. Mandella and his fellow soldiers signed up for a simple 4 year tour of duty. Instead, centuries have passed.
The author, Joe Haldeman, wrote The Forever War a few years after his service in the Vietnam War, where he served as a combat engineer. The novel is as much an exploration of that war as it is a science fiction tale of a war against an alien race. It reads like a war diary: short unemotional verses about combat, training and loss of life. The passages where Mandella gets leave to visit his Earth (or a hospital planet) explore the trouble combat veterans have while trying to re-enter a society much changed since they enlisted. These “shore leave” sections are a welcome reprieve from the senseless killing and combat that make up much of the novel. The novel will hit you hard in the gut, but also earn a chuckle or two as the reader sympathizes with Mandella as he struggles with military protocol and the politics of war.
While much of the story begins in 1997, it doesn’t feel dated. Even now, 40 years after the end of the Vietnam War, the themes of The Forever War are still echoing around the world. Unfortunately.
This is exactly how classic science fiction should be: addressing important issues; raising questions that parallel our current lives; and exploring the relationship between humans and the society we live in. The Forever War is worthy of numerous re-reads and further discussions. Haldeman was named a Grand Master of Science Fiction, a title well earned. As a result of reading this in e-book format, I am now left with task of finding a hardcover copy so I can place The Forever War on my shelf next to editions of 1984, Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World and Darkness at Noon. All should serve as warnings to avoid past and future paths.
Read this book.
5 Stars out of 5
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