The Forever War

~by Joe Haldeman
1976 Ditmar Award Winner
1976 Hugo Award Winner
1976 Locus Award Winner
1976 Nebula Award Winner

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman is one of those books that it seems like everyone is telling me I need to read and so I finally got around to it. I'm not entirely sure why it took me so long seeing as I've read and thoroughly enjoyed several of Haldeman's short stories and poetry. From what I can tell, there are actually several different versions of The Forever War available. The story was originally serialized in the Analog science fiction magazine in 1974 and was later collected as a novel in 1975, winning the 1976 Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and Ditmar awards. The first version of the novel was edited for length for some reason (the book is well under three hundred pages). In 1991 the book was republished with some of the missing content included (I think this is the version that I read). All editions of The Forever War published after 1997 have been completely restored.

William Mandella was a university physics student when he was conscripted by the United Nations Exploratory Force in the war against the Taurans. He is part of an elite group of highly educated soldiers, all with IQs of 150 or more and all in exceptional physical condition. The war last centuries but due to time dilation caused by traveling at close to the speed of light, William only experiences it as a few deplorable decades. Against all odds he repeatedly manages to survive the encounters with the Taurans and UNEF's own lethal training regimen. But while he and his fellow soldiers are off fighting in an interstellar war, human society is undergoing drastic changes. Eventually they no longer have a home where they are accepted to go back to.

Apparently, The Forever War can be read as a commentary on the United States' participation in the Vietnam War, of which Haldeman was a veteran. Unfortunately I can't speak much to that--my high school history classes stalled out at the First World War. However, I can say that Haldeman has effectively conveyed the anger and despair of soldiers that are caught in a conflict that they want no part in and which everyone else is trying to ignore is happening. The Forever War is a science fiction story, but like all good science fiction it reveals just as much about current and past events as it does to future ones. And even the story was written in the 1970s, it is still relevant for the twenty-first century. But by using science fiction as a vehicle, Haldeman is able to get his point across, emphasizing certain aspects of the war experience, in a way that would otherwise have been unavailable to him.

Perhaps as a result of it's serialization, parts of The Forever War feel slightly disjointed--almost as if the book is a collection of very closely related short stories rather than a single novel. (This may also have to do with the particular edition of the story I read.) However, this does not necessarily detract from the tale's overall effectiveness. One of Haldeman's strengths is that he pays attention to the little and big details that makes his world different without over-analyzing or over-explaining them. Although, he does occasionally choose to focus on things that seem relatively unimportant. Perhaps the thing I enjoyed most about The Forever War was Haldeman's exploration of time dilation and the alienation and culture shock people go through as society and technology continue to change without them. In general, I really enjoy Haldeman's science fiction and The Forever War is no exception.



Jeanne said...

Another joy of having read this novel is that now you'll see imitations and homages to it everywhere in science fiction written after it.

Phoenix said...

You're absolutely right! I've already seen references to it and it's been less than a week since I've finished it.