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The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
1976 Hugo Award Winner (1975 Nebula Award, 1976 Locus Award)
Got it from: On Loan from a Friend
Very much in the vein of Heinlein’s, Starship Troopers, The Forever War tells of the rise of Private William Mandella through the ranks of an interstellar and highly advanced military unit. At war with an alien race that Earth knows very little about (most people don’t even know their real name), Mandella’s tours of duty consist primarily of centuries of time-dilated space flight punctuated by a few minutes of doing everything he can to avoid the death at the hands of either the “Taurans” or faulty/inadequate technology. Then, returning home decades after his initial deployment doesn’t prove to be the homecoming he had hoped for and he just so happens to be specially trained for war, so…
A subtlety that is kind of in your face…
I have a conflicted relationship with military SF. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the tension and adrenaline of a good battle; I just generally prefer a little more intellectual stimulation. To be fair, I owe a great debt of gratitude to military SF. It was, after all, so many Clone Wars novels that really served to entrench me in the genre to begin with. At the same time, I generally end with the, it was great while it lasted, but now I just feel kind of…bleh, feeling. You know that one?
With that in mind, and as regards Joe Haldeman’s seminal novel, I am going to use one word: intellectual. I guess you might not expect a literary show-stopper from military SF, but I think that is pretty close to what you get with The Forever War.
Had he written nothing else, Haldeman would have already easily secured his place in the history of SF for a piercing analogy which spoke very clearly to the American experience of Vietnam. Not only did he touch on the disenfranchisement of the public at home, but also of the returning soldier, without ever degenerating to simply echoing those time worn Vietnam tropes. And he did it with an understated elegance that propels him beyond the ranks of so much military SF, which I find to be heavy-handed at times.
That being said, there is never any doubt as to what or when Haldeman is writing about. Even for someone like me, born after the Vietnam War and without anything you might mistake for wealth of knowledge about that particular war, the parallels were evident from the start. But those parallels are woven so seamlessly into the story of intergalactic war, that the few times Vietnam rears its head almost too tellingly, I found it actually kind of pleasant.
Haldeman writes, clearly, concisely and for the most part he is wickedly subtle in his critique of war and the life of a soldier. For some his style might come off a little too direct and maybe without much flair, but he masters the art of peppering snarky comments throughout which made me bark idiotically every time (so we know it is entertaining at least to society’s most basic individuals…). There were too many instances to count, but one of my favorites occurred later in the book:
What was that old experiment they told us about in high school biology? Take a flatworm and teach it how to swim through a maze. Then mash it up and feed it to a stupid flatworm and lo! The stupid flatworm would be able to swim the maze, too.
I had a bad taste of major general in my mouth.
He certainly never wanders into the heady intellectual territory of an author like say, Le Guin, but his delivery is a refreshing mix of the somberly absurd and the technological mysticism that has been rare in my experience of military SF. It is a fairly short novel, but in that short time, Haldeman manages to tell an epic story that is as socially murky as it is emotionally stirring. The Forever War was and remains a monument of science fiction.
Haldeman is by no means trying to hide the fact that he is writing about his experience of the Vietnam War. He says so in the introduction to my copy at least. But he also notes that many people no longer make the connection. I find that hard to believe, but maybe people have started comparing it our current endless war. Whatever you think of the subtext, The Forever War is just an absolutely wonderful book. There’s tons of crazy physics, dark and depressing social observations, space fights, earth fights, near constant sexy times and even time travel! If you have ever read this book, even if it wasn’t your favorite, there was likely something you loved.
Social/Political Climate 5/5
Scientific Wonders 5/5
Another roll of the die…
This week’s book is Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke.
Next week’s book is The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov.