The Forever War is a somewhat dated but engrossing sci-fi novel by Author Joe Haldeman, first published as a serial in Analogue Magazine in the mid 1970’s, it immediately gathered critical acclaim, winning several awards, though it is not without its flaws, and won’t be too all tastes.
This review is based on the Peace and War Anthology addition. As well as containing The Forever War, its sequel ‘Forever Free’, a companion Novel ‘Forever Peace’ and an interesting foreword by Haldeman, detailing his thoughts on the book are also included. The Forever War is also available by itself in several different paperback additions.
The story opens in 1997, after an attack on a colonist vessel by a mysterious alien race known as Taurans the UN passes a law ordering the formation of an elite military strike force to take vengeance. This where our protagonist enters the story.
William Mandela (An American) is a reluctant soldier, drafted into the military, (cutting short his physics degree in the process), having no interest in politics or war, and sharing the ‘hippy’ ideals of his parents, he is far from the heroic characters that normally populate the genre, and proves an interesting protagonist.
The book is written in first person from Mandela’s perspective, and divided into three sections, each covering a different time span in his story. These are further divided into shorter chapters-most running less than 15 pages, the book is written almost like a diary, Mandela detailing his thoughts in a brief, honest matter. This simple layout makes the book a straight forward, accessible read… for those who can accept the plot.
‘Tonight were going to tell you eight silent ways to kill a man’, the very first line in the novel sets the tone nicely. Opening with the strike force’s training in the wilds of Missouri, it instantly feels very authentic, and somewhat out of place in the science fiction genre. The first few chapters deal with training- describing in brutal fashion various accidents that befall them, and revealing a somewhat fanciful military policy-the soldiers (who are of mixed sex) are ordered to sleep with each other for ‘moral’ purposes, smoke joints and address their superiors with a loud ‘F*** You Sir!’. The book does contain a lot of sex, crude language, and violence, and its protagonist doesn’t shirk from using or engaging in any of them, in all respects it is an adult novel.
The relatively negative, slow burning opening may put some readers off (those who bought the book just for the ‘War’ in the title may want to reconsider their purchase), as may the fact the first few chapters don’t read much like traditional sci-fi. But it does serve to demonstrate Haldeman’s skills as a writer, the dialogue is sharply written, and very convincing, and Haldeman has the confidence to avoid standard narrative structure, he is writing the book he wants too.
Haldeman had served in Vietnam as a combat technician and his experiences come across in several ways, having both positive and negative effects on the plot. The Taurans, for example serve as metaphors for the Viet Cong-resourceful, tenacious, and largely mysterious, whilst the soldiers are largely conscripts serving ‘tours of duty’. The book was originally rejected because of the parallels with the conflict, reading the book in modern context many of these metaphors are less obvious, but even so some readers may struggle to enjoy the book, sci-fi is a genre rooted in escapism, the metaphors, and regular references to real life events may spoil the illusion, and make it harder to accept a somewhat far-fetched plot.
When the action does start, it starts in memorable fashion. Landing on a barren wasteland of a world, with low gravity and an odd ecosystem they soon engage in a messy fight with the Taurans. To the soldiers it is a fight with no real purpose, and terrible consequences, the deaths and injuries are described in brutal detail-men screaming as their bodies trail viscera, or whimpering frantically on the ground as their friends die in agony. Despite being a war fought with laser rifles and fighting suits its feels surprisingly real, Mandela experiences the familiar feelings of guilt and anger, and Haldeman’s descriptions of the fighting could come from any other novel.
After this first clash with the Taurans, the surviving soldiers return to Earth to be discharged, this is where the novel really gets interesting. To travel to the Tauran’s star system, the soldiers used a complex system of ‘collapsar jumps’ (sort of like ‘wormholes’), travelling millions of light years in mere hours, due to time dilation, and relativity, everyone they know has aged more than 20 years on their return, whilst themselves have aged less than a year. It gives the war a sense of unpredictability- if Earth sends a strike force to a planet 200 years away, the Taurans have had 200 years to prepare and vice versa, and makes the novel very unpredictable.
Mandela quickly accepts his discharge, and goes to live with his mother (his father had died some years before), finding a world completely different to the one he left, with widespread power shortages, armed gangs running rampart, and next to no knowledge (or interest) of the soldiers battles or casualties.
Though The Forever War tells a complicated story about warfare and physics, at its heart it is also a love story. Discharged with Mandela was a female soldier, Marygay, who becomes his lover, and following his mother’s death, his one living link to the world he grew up in, their companionship is a key theme in the story, spanning from the beginning to the end, and while at times it veers towards cliché, it does add a human element to a potentially one dimensional story, and makes the story easier to access for casual readers.
Eventually unable to cope any more with the reality they are faced with, both re-join the army and are once again thrown into battle (advancing another few centuries into the future in the process), only to be injured, and assigned to separate units. When Mandela learns of Margay’s transfer, he is unable even to cry, the pain is too much-the odds of surviving the war are miniscule, even if they both do, the chances of meeting again at the same age, on the same world are almost non-existent. It is powerful reading, ‘when her shuttle took off it was like a casket rattling down into a grave’, Mandela is now alone, fighting for a world he barely recognises, and a cause he doesn’t understand.
Relativity is a complex theory, that could have easily been mishandled in the book, but Haldeman employs it to stunning effect, every time the soldiers are thrown forward in time, they do so with the knowledge that their only links to the past are traveling with them, it creates a powerful sense of underlying tension in the book, and makes Mandela’s story, at points genuinely moving.
Though this middle section is by far the most downbeat, and the social collapse of earth happens too quickly to be convincing, it is by and large engrossing reading: fast paced, and movingly told. It also contains a smaller usage of the technical language, and military acronyms that often appear in the book, (used to explain the physics of interstellar travel and military tactics) this is a benefit, as such language can make the book a confusing, and at points irritating read (even in the midst of a intergalactic war physics still seems boring) for readers more interested in the story. Whilst Haldeman’s obsession with detail makes the book more convincing, it does at points slow the narrative, and makes some chapters feel longer than need too.
Despite the ‘war’ in the title the action scenes are relatively sparse, like real life warfare, much of the time is spent training or waiting for the attack to come. Some readers may find these lulls in the story annoying, whilst the book is, admittedly a bit slow paced towards the end, the absence of overblown action sequences gives Haldeman time to build character and story details, for a book that runs only 231 pages, the narrative crams in a surprising amount.
The last section finds Mandela, now a Major in charge of his own strike force, at the very edge of the known galaxy; more than Seven Hundred Years have passed since his conscription, though he hasn’t yet left his thirties. Speaking a form of English barely recognisable to his troops, who are uniformly homosexual (A method of birth control imposed by the government), and essentially clones, he struggles to deal with his responsibilities as a large Tauran strike force lands.
Rather than writing a large scale finale Haldeman wisely decides to limit the battle to the soldiers immediate vicinity, loosing most of their weaponry to an earthquake they are forced to engage in brutal hand to hand fighting, it is an odd idea for a sci-fi novel, but it seems to work, these last few chapters are arguably the best in the book, intense, gripping, and rather surprising for the genre.
Though Haldeman largely shy’s away from direct satire, it does appear in this section-even after a 1000 years and all the advances in technology, the war’s final battle is brought down to a bloody person to person level, fought with swords and bows, not rocket launchers or laser rifles, its Haldeman at his best (or worst depending on your point of view).
This ending section is both thrilling and bloody, several promient characters die before Halderman surrenders the film to a surprising, well written but oddly out of place ending.
Some readers may find this conclusion annoying, as it is yet another metaphor for Vietnam, but that is exactly the point, it is a sci-fi novel, but it is also an indictment on the utter futility of war, and its effects on a personal level.
As it was written in the 70’s some aspects are somewhat dated, its use of swearwords, and its portrayal of women feel a bit out of touch with modern perceptions, whilst the portrayal of homosexuality was in areas, very uncomfortable reading. In the introduction Haldeman notes (rightly) that even in the 1970’s the notion of interstellar travel by the 90’s was ridiculous (he set the opening in this decade so the original officers and NCO’S could just about be Vietnam veterans),it certainly dose ruin the illusion, as some of his other ideas about the future seem believable in comparison. Whilst none of these things were probably considered major problems in the 70’s, they do show the book’s age, and depending on the readers point of view may cause problems.
It could do with a tighter edit, it is occasionally confusing, the Taurans remain largely two dimensional, and there are several plot holes (for example Mandela’s brother is mentioned only once, with no clue to his fate or purpose in the story) in the narrative. Haldeman’s obsession with detail and story is a strength of the book, but it also means that the main characters are never as strongly characterised as they could have been, for such a emotionally charged story, some readers may find the protagonists’ a little flat.
It will not appeal to every reader, and may not necessarily be ‘enjoyable’, but overall The Forever War is a triumph, the clever story, and likeable protagonist, making up for most of the flaws. 8.5/10
On a side note Acclaimed Film Director Ridley Scott (A long-time fan of the book) is currently developing a 3-D film adaptation, the script being drafted as I write.