Posted on July 14, 2017
27. ‘The Forever War’ by Joe Haldeman
Until I went to Mr B’s bookshop in Bath a few weeks ago and found The Forever War on their shelves, I’d never heard of this author, let alone this book. Then last week I found a brand new thread discussing it on Reddit – isn’t it strange how that kind of thing happens? Now I know that it’s a much-raved-about classic, and I think for good reason.
William Mandella is a bright young physicist who has been drafted into the army to fight an intergalactic war against the Taurans, an elusive alien race who have been blowing up human spaceships near ‘collapsars’, neutron stars which allow for faster-than-light travel. It’s a bit of a mind-bending concept to get your head around at first, but once you get the general idea that it’s about killing aliens in order to defend bases, Haldeman’s complex yet believable science falls into place.
Mandella is sent off for rigorous training in preparation for being thrown into the front lines of a bloody war. That might seem bad enough, but these ‘portal planets’ the army must defend end up being further and further out in space as the war progresses, and that means the soldiers suffer from the effects of ‘time dilation’. While they can whizz out to a portal planet in just a few months (thanks to the collapsars), relativity means that much more time than that has passed on Earth. A mission that takes 18 months might be the equivalent of decades back at home, and Mandella has to deal with some pretty extreme culture shock when he’s finally able to return.
This novel is based on Haldeman’s own experiences in the Vietnam War, and his concept really drives home the idea of fighting an entirely ‘alien’ civilisation who seem woefully underprepared at first, but turn out to be unbelievably difficult to defeat. There are also parallels between how soldiers in Vietnam must have felt about returning home to a world that didn’t care for the war they were fighting, and the feeling of absolute displacement in a country they thought they knew.
Of course, Haldeman has the scope to take his concept even further thanks to the no-holds-barred approach of sci-fi, and he really delivers. We get to see alien battles (both on the ground and in space), and discover crazy technology like stasis fields which disable all electronics, shells that protect the human body against extreme speeds, and incredible teaching machines that can cram the knowledge of centuries into a human brain in a matter of weeks. There is a lot of violence, gore and military strategy in The Forever War, and even though war stories aren’t usually what float my boat, I really found myself enjoying it here.
Something to note is that sex and sexuality seem to be very important to our narrator, Mandella (and to almost everyone else): there’s a lot of casual sex at the beginning of the story, and each time Mandella has to deal with time dilation almost the first thing he asks/is told about is sex. Homosexuality and ‘homolife’ become more prevalent as time goes on, and Mandella – as a straight man – feels increasingly uncomfortable about it. The book takes a somewhat old-fashioned attitude towards homosexuality (in that it’s a big deal, rather than no deal at all), but that actually works quite well in this context. What better way to describe a character out of time than by reading the book out of its time? There’s also a brilliant moment towards the end where Mandella describes himself as ‘tolerant’ of homosexuality, and a gay character says, “You certainly think you are.” Still, Mandella is a likeable character who knows his own limits and has a strong romantic streak. Just occasionally Haldeman has Mandella tell us how good he is, or has another character do it for him – which is a bit on the nose – but he also does a good job of showing it, so I ended up liking Mandella, and rooting for his happiness.
In fact, Mandella’s happiness is the major thrust of the book, and as the story moves further and further away from the world he knows, you begin to wonder whether he’ll ever be able to find a home (if he even survives the war). Time dilation gets more and more extreme, and there’s a really heartbreaking section in which Mandella and his romantic interest, Marygay, spend some R+R time on a planet called Heaven, having “desperate fun” because they know it must eventually end. I teared up at that part, and Haldeman does a good job of escalating the war from there and then delivering a solid ending.
For me, The Forever War look a little bit of time to get going, but once I bought into the main character then I was well and truly along for the ride. And it’s a hell of a ride.
“Surely ‘cowardice’ had nothing to do with this decision. Surely he had nothing so primitive and unmilitary as a will to live.”
Have you read this book or are you planning to? I’d love to know your thoughts!
Want to read this? You can buy the book here.