RogerBW's Blog

The Forever War, Joe Haldeman 13 July 2017

1974 Hugo- and Nebula-award-winning military science fiction. William Mandella is a conscript in Earth's first interstellar war; it starts off looking an awful lot like Vietnam.

There are several things going on here, but that's the main one, and it takes several forms. Most obviously, the draft has been set up to take the smartest people available and turn them into infantry troopers by having idiots shout at them; it's never clear why, nor why basic training is set up to produce around 50% casualties. In fact an awful lot of things aren't clear, including why, given that collapsars are the key to interstellar travel, there is any point in putting or assaulting infantry bases on the frozen planets round them, given that both sides have space warships already.

But unlike the many imitators who just wrote war battle explosion hurrah without it making much sense, Haldeman makes that the point of his book: we eventually learn that entire war was started based on misunderstanding, lies, and the convenience of those in power (what a good thing we've learned since then, eh?), and all the ground fighting – there are two main sequences – really was completely pointless.

That's only the start of it, though, and the other really important point is differential time lag: the spaceships of this universe boost at multiple gravities for months on end, and dive deep into collapsar gravity wells, so the longer they're away from base, the more obsolete their weapons and equipment will be when put up against a modern enemy; and when Mandella gets back from his first deployment after two years of his personal time, it's 27 years later on Earth. While there are obvious parallels with the experience of returning Vietnam veterans, of whom Haldeman had of course been one, they're rearranged into a more overt future shock, with the people who got there the slow way simply accepting the gradual changes that have turned Earth from a reasonably OK place into a hellhole, while Mandella meeting them all at once is less able to adjust.

It was hard not to agree with him. Wars in the past often accelerated social reform, provided technological benefits, even sparked artistic activity. This one, however, seemed tailor-made to provide none of these positive by-products. Such improvements as had been made on late-twentieth-century technology were – like tachyon bombs and warships two kilometers long – at best, interesting developments of things that only required the synergy of money and existing engineering techniques. Social reform? The world was technically under martial law. As for art, I'm not sure I know good from bad. But artists to some extent have to reflect the temper of the times. Paintings and sculpture were full of torture and dark brooding; movies seemed static and plotless; music was dominated by nostalgic revivals of earlier forms; architecture was mainly concerned with finding someplace to put everybody; literature was damn near incomprehensible. Most people seemed to spend most of their time trying to find ways to outwit the government, trying to scrounge a few extra K's or ration tickets without putting their lives in too much danger.

Even more than in the real world, the only people veterans can talk to are other veterans, and when they get sent on different deployments they can be fairly sure they'll never see each other again: even if they both survive the combat, one will probably have died of old age while the other was still in transit. Meanwhile in the background Earth's society is developing, partly in cycles but partly with an overall trend of optimisation and conformity. More significantly to Mandella, who was drafted into a mixed-sex army with compulsory shared bunks, homosexuality becomes first usual (as a thing to be encouraged to reduce population growth, because apparently there are no future contraceptives and sexual orientation is something people can choose) and then universal, and Mandella is looked on by more modern soldiers as an outdated pervert. (This doesn't work as well now as it probably did in the 1970s, when the idea of homosexuality being accepted at all in society had some shock value; to a modern reader Mandella often comes over as making excuses for his dislike of homosexuals.)

Some parts work better than others; Haldeman likes talking about weapons with yields in "microtons", apparently not caring that a microton is just a gramme under another name. Things go very slowly at times, which makes the point of the dullness of military life but can itself be dull. There is almost no character development except for some for Mandella himself, and a little bit for his sweetheart Marygay Porter (Haldeman had married Mary Gay Potter some years earlier). Still, it's no Last and First Men, and the ideas work very well even when some of the detail-work doesn't.

1999's A Separate War is a side story, and this book was followed in 1999 by Forever Free; 1997's The Forever Peace is not set in the same world. Reread for Neil Bowers' Hugo-Nebula Joint Winners Reread.

  1. Posted by John Dallman at 01:59pm on 13 July 2017

    This book showed me how some people are just blind to metaphor. A university friend - the same one who found the Lensman series to be much better in German than English - read Starship Troopers, and started getting into a "military = virtue" worldview, with the help of the Dorsai series.

    So I lent him The Forever War. I was aware that I might get it back in pieces, but I'd read it a couple of times. His sole comment was "I liked the nova bombs." What can you do?

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