Author: Joe Haldeman
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
Published 1974, this edition 2009
“So. Damn. Good.”
That was my reaction and the first words I wrote after finishing The Forever War. My thoughts after letting the book sit with me for over a week have not changed. It is not only a great science fiction war novel (many would say the best), it is a great war novel. period.
“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…”
– Book blurb from back cover
I said a moment ago this is a great war novel without having to qualify it by genre. I say that because its greatness doesn’t have to do with its battle scenes (though it has them), and it doesn’t have to do with the science (though it has it); it is great because it’s about people and humanity, it’s about our base desires and needs, and it’s about all the good and bad that comes with it. And overarching all of those themes it’s about home – coming home, what home really is, and how it changes. Before I get to all that though let me talk about the story.
The book opens in 1997 (it was published in 1974 so forgive what Haldeman got wrong on the timeline of history). The opening setting is a military camp in Missouri where recruits for the new United Nations Exploratory Force (UNEF) are being trained. But this isn’t like any army you know. When dismissed the recruits yell, “FUCK YOU SIR!” and when they bunk for the night the co-ed team openly fraternizes in every sense of the word – it’s encouraged. But what makes this an even more unique fighting force is its enemy, the Taurans. UNEF is the first human force to go to war against an alien species. To fight the Taurans Earth has changed its recruiting practices. This army is made up of the mental and physical elite within society, chosen for their superior capabilities and not just because they might make good cannon fodder. This first unit, fifty men and fifty women, are training to set out and be the first humans to take up arms against an alien species, but more will follow, many, many, more.
The Taurans are not named based on anything they call themselves or about anything observed about them. In fact nobody has ever seen one and lived! Their name is derived from Taurus, the constellation in which they were first encountered when a human colonial ship was attacked and destroyed. As we see in the opening chapter the recruits are training to kill the Taurans without knowing anything about them; about their body make-up; about their fighting ability; about their society; nothing.
After their initial training exorcises in Missouri the UNEF force is sent to the planet Charon to train in space with low gravity in their new insulated fighting suits with laser fingers for primary weapons, giving a whole new meaning to the phrase, “just point and shoot.” While on Charon they are not expected to have less than fifty percent casualties…during training! After numerous ups and downs (more downs) on Charon they ship off to Stargate 1, their first posting and waypoint on their way to fight the Taurans where they will establish an initial base to be used by all subsequent UNEF forces as a staging point in the war.
Upon leaving Stargate 1 for their first way point, Aleph One (planets and systems being named after sequences in the Hebrew alphabet) they begin a war that will last 1143 years from the point of view of someone left behind on earth but just a handful of years to any soldier who survives the whole ordeal. This is probably a good point to explain FTL travel in The Forever War, the collapsar jump. Fire an object toward a collapsar with enough speed and it will shoot by and be flung out in another part of the galaxy at the same speed when it encounters another collapsar field. The travel time is zero between the two points. At least for those on board the ship. They must then slow down and reverse course to their destination which can take weeks or months depending on speed and distance. For the UNEF soldiers their initial campaign only lasts a couple years (short fighting time and months of travel time), but for everyone else seventeen years have passed. This is due to a time-dilation where time for someone observing an object in motion is different than time for the object in motion. I’m not good with math or physics so I won’t try to explain more.
From this point forward there will be some spoilers. I couldn’t come up with a good way to write this review without them, but I’ll keep them as minor as possible. I’ll also admit this may read more like a book report than a book review and for that I apologize.
The Forever War is told from the point of view of just one character, William Mandella. From training in Missouri to the war’s conclusion we follow Mandella and share in his experiences. The narrative itself however is broken up into four parts each designated by Mandella’s rank at the time, private, sergeant, lieutenant, and major. As a private, Mandella experiences his first taste of combat and initiation into war and is just trying to not get killed. As a sergeant Mandella is now in charge of a squad and his role and perspective has shifted, he has to look out for his team. But after taking massive casualties during unexpected attack on their ship the initial fighting team is sent back Stargate where they are mustered out of the service and allowed to return to Earth. After some really negative experiences at “home” Mandella decides to re-up and is mustered back into service as a lieutenant where he has his first experience leading soldiers in combat and is promptly wounded and sent to Heaven, a world designated for rest and rehabilitation. After six months of rehab Mandella is promoted to Major and given his own company, and the last arc of the story ensues. Mandella and his company are thrust into what will be the last campaign of the war.
The other major character of the novel is Marygay, Mandella’s fellow soldier and primary lover. Much of the narrative tension in the book is bound up in their relationship though it isn’t apparent at the outset. As time goes on they become closer, more intimate, and fall in love even if they don’t really say it. Themes of love, and why soldiers fight are bound up in their relationship. As the centuries go by and more and more of the initial cadre of soldiers sent to fight the war die, and their experiences of family and life on earth are drastically changed, Mandella and Margay realize they only have each other to lean on and relate to. More on the why of that below, but suffice it to say as they grow closer we the reader grow closer to them, and when they are wrenched apart due to the needs of the war, it becomes gut wrenching or us.
What struck me about The Forever War was the human element to the story. This isn’t an action thriller where the emphasis is on alien combat, and exploding monsters. Rather it touches upon the human experience of war, how it changes us and society, and the way in which we react, both positive and negative. Haldeman, a Vietnam War veteran surely used his wartime and post-war experience in writing the book.
There are a number of themes worth exploring in The Forever War. One that spans the narrative from page one to almost the last page is the question of why the war is being fought and whom does it serve. It’s a classic question in the history of military conflict and Haldeman explores it in subtle ways until he smacks you with an answer at the very end. The soldier fighting the war have no knowledge of their enemy other than they exist and that they destroyed a colonial ship in deep space. No survivors of that initial attack make it back and knowledge of it only comes from a drone sent back as the disaster struck. This confusion is evident in humanity’s first experience in battle with the Taurans when the soldiers fire on another alien species, killing dozens of them indiscriminately merely on the off chance they might be Taurans! As the war goes on and both sides adapt to their experiences and develop more lethal weaponry and tactics these questions about the why of the war linger in the background. When the final campaign is concluded and the survivors return to Stargate 1 the answer is their waiting for them in all its heartbreaking truth.
Love and companionship is another prominent theme as the relationship between Mandella and Marygay is developed. Though the story opens with the soldiers pairing off in non-exclusive sexual relationships they quickly begin to find regular partners. Mandella and Margay’s joint experiences amid the pressures and trials of war push them to closer and closer intimacy and exclusiveness. Through injury, near death, and even mustering out of service for a while they manage to stick together. They share the bond of both lover and fellow soldier. This is a bond that is strengthened by the realization that the world they knew, the society they knew, the home they knew – what they knew about being human hasn’t kept up with changes on earth over the centuries they’ve been away at war (more on that below). As the book draws toward it’s conclusion they are the last of the original fighting force left, centuries removed from the world they left behind. And then when they are torn apart and sent to different units due to military needs. This sundering of their relationship comes as a punch in the gut not just to them but to the reader as well, because it becomes evident due to the nature of time and travel through space that once they are sent in different directions they will never see each other again. What more is there to fight for other than to just stay alive? Is that even worth it?
The most prominent theme in the book is wrapped up in the idea of “home.” Really I’d say it’s themes (plural). Apart from merely surviving, this is probably the strongest motivating force for a soldier in war. Getting back home. Home to family, friends, the world you knew and left behind with its familiarity and comforts. Soldiers the world over experience this longing, only to find the home they left isn’t necessarily the one they come back to at war’s end. There’s almost always a separation in experience (apart from just the bullets flying and people dying) from those who go off to war and the people who stay behind. Society at home changes while the soldier’s memory of it remains what it was when they left. It’s that old adage, “you can never go home again.”
Haldeman takes that notion and blows it up exponentially. What happens when the home you left has aged not just months or years, but centuries or even a millennia in the time you’ve been gone? How does one’s concept of home change? What is home?
From the time the original soldiers leave Earth to the end of their first campaign the Earth and those who stayed at home have aged about twenty five years. Upon returning to Earth Mandella is smacked in the face with all that has changed. Family and friends have aged and died. The economy of the world has shifted to fighting the interstellar war. There have been wars at home in response to the conflict in space. In North America and Europe it isn’t safe to go outside anywhere without a gun or a body guard. Your life from the job you have to the medical care you can receive is strictly controlled by the government. A full one-third of the people are openly homosexual (evolving sexuality is another theme in the book). Mandella and Marygay must contend with drastic changes to the world and home they knew and soon discover they can’t find home on Earth. At least not the home they were looking for. They begin to realize “home’ form them has become the military life they just left, that the only real touchstones for the world they left behind can be found there among their fellow soldiers.
So they return to the military and are shipped off to war once again. As time goes by and centuries pass, at the conclusion of each campaign they return to Stargate – 1 to receive new orders and learn how much things have changed. Earth goes through cycles of war and poverty, then peace and wealth. As with any passage of time languages change. Little by little the English they knew changes form and dialect so much so that new recruits have to learn a form of common English in order to communicate with soldiers who came before them, something that puts up barriers to bonding and subtle resentments among them. One of the most striking changes is that not only has homosexuality become accepted, it becomes the norm and even the only accepted form of sexual identification on Earth. People are no longer born through sexual intercourse but are bred in labs and genetically predisposed to be homosexual. This becomes another significant barrier to forming relationships for the soldiers who have been around the longest.
So when Mandella and Marygay are finally separated their sense of place in the world (or universe) is torn apart. Mandella is gutted. The reader is gutted along with him and we are left wondering just how the story will end. I won’t give that away, but suffice it to say it will screw with your emotions.
One additional thing I want to address is an event in the book that when written would not have raised much of a stir, but in our day definitely would for many readers. As I’ve already noted homosexuality is an accepted part of the evolving society in The Forever War though the culture Haldeman writes about doesn’t seem to have a notion of the wider LGBTQ world of today. My guess is because in the 70’s when Haldeman was writing most straight people had a very binary understanding of sexuality – you were either straight or gay, anything in the wider LGBTQ umbrella was just “gay.” But whatever Haldeman understood at the time in terms of being gay or LGBTQ he definitely writes about it in a positive light which says something considering the time in which he wrote.
But one thing I think may bother a lot of LGBTQ readers is something that happens toward the close of the book when a couple of minor characters decide to change their sexuality. Remember, they were born homosexual, genetically made that way, it’s all they’ve known and part of who they are. Yet they decide to change their sexuality to become hetero. There’s a reason they do this, and again I don’t want to give anything away, but I can’t help but wonder if someone who is gay would do it for the reason they do in the book. I can’t speak to it because I’m straight. And Haldeman was writing in a day long before conversion therapy was seen as a terrible thing by anyone who didn’t go through it. So I’m curious what LGBTQ readers think of this element of the story. I’d love to hear what you think.
I know I have not done this book justice in this review. It isn’t very long (my copy was 265 pages) but it really moved me. Its writing is simple but effective, not flowery and profound. It doesn’t try to use deep philosophical ideas to convey a point. Haldeman just presents his story and leaves you with it. And I’ve been sitting with it almost two weeks. I kept thinking if I waited and thought longer about what to write I’d come up with a profound review. But it just kept sitting with me. I can’t convey what I really feel about it other than to say what I said out the outset.
So. Damn. Good.
I don’t know what else to say.