You get drafted in the year 1997, your brain tortured out of its pacifism by hypnotic compulsion to kill. Many of your troopmates die in training on the icy planet of Charon, past Pluto. You spend the next thousand years, fighting a skirmish then sleeping through a trip that takes place at relativistic speeds – on your way to the next battle of course. You can’t go home because Earth society has changed too much. And why are humans fighting these alien Taurans anyway?
This is indeed the forever war.
The Forever War is a classic work of science fiction, winner of the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novel after its publication in 1974. Haldeman fought in the Vietnam War, and when he came home, he wrote this book. He had to be persistent to get it published, because no one wanted a science fiction book about Vietnam (whether it’s actually about Vietnam or not is another issue). The book was serialized, printed in various versions, and recently, finally, put together in an Author’s Preferred Edition by Eos.
The main character is William Mandella, an academic minding his own business. He gets drafted and The Forever War is basically the story of how he survives the war. Training is dangerous, interstellar travel is dangerous, and fighting the Taurans is getting more and more dangerous every encounter. Worse, none of the battles are the same. William has some face-to-face struggles with the aliens; he also wakes up from the sleep tanks at one point to find that half of his ship was blown away by projectiles travelling close to the speed of light. William and a woman named Marygay Potter fall in love, which makes every mission doubly treacherous: the odds are against William himself surviving, never mind the two of them.
William’s character is the reason why the book works so well. He’s not an action hero, and in fact he resists the notion. For example, he has dreams about becoming a machine but when he wakes he’s just a regular guy doing his best to get by, i.e. a real human being. Rather than falling into a downward spiral of dehumanization, William somehow keeps that essential gritty part of himself that will be able to move on if or when the war is ever over. This makes The Forever War a surprisingly optimistic book.
The book’s structure is intelligent, which creates its own hopefulness. The book is organized into four longer sections (labelled by William’s rank as he moves up in the hierarchy). Military science fiction has a tendency to succumb to war porn, with battles building towards one big blowout of violence and gore; all of Haldeman’s grim details work against this grain. The violent encounters usually come first in each section, followed by lots of aftermath and consequences. The book could be boiled down to the typical war-is-hell message, but everything about it is so smartly worked out that it’s a joy to read.
Is this book about the Vietnam War? Of course it is – a war that never ends, the draft, the same lack of purpose – and it was generally understood that way when it was first published. It’s also about every war, the current war in Iraq (more on that in a minute), and the plight of any thinking person caught up in war.
Paradoxically, The Forever War is none of those things, and only what it says it’s about: galactic war. For those people who care about such things, The Forever War is a solid work of science fiction. Journeys at relativistic speeds, encounters with aliens, startling sociological changes, and so on: Haldeman has worked these out carefully and they matter to the story. The genius of science fiction is that it can be both, neither, and anything in between, all depending on how much work the reader wants to put into the process.
I’ve been struck with a strange question recently when I’ve gone back to pointed works such as this book by Haldeman: can you ever be satirical enough? The Forever War ends with a surprise to the main character–the whole war was based on a mistake. A misunderstanding. This has become somewhat of a staple in such stories (see Timothy Zahn’s pulpy but interesting Conqueror series). But as recent events have shown, it’s also possible to start a war based on a wilful misunderstanding. What’s next? What could be worse? I’m glad that Haldeman was hopeful in his book, and it’s sad that a writer’s work can suffer for lack of cynicism (another example would be Alfred Bester, who worked in advertising back in the 1950s and 1960s, wrote some brilliant sf about it, but who could hardly conceive of how saturated our culture has become with ads). For a book that is thirty years old, The Forever War has held up reasonably well, and Haldeman has written some sequels that are also worth checking out.