Friday, December 27, 2013

The Forever War: Come for the psychic alien teddy bears, stay for the deft social commentary

The Forever War is everything everyone says it is. It’s a stellar (ha!) sci-fi novel. It’s a perfect specimen of a war novel. But it is also one other thing I’ve not often heard it called: FUN. Not light, mind you. Never that. But fun.

The plot is essentially this: We follow Private William Mandella, drafted into fighting an interstellar war between humans and an alien race, as he does futuristic soldierly things. There’s some timey-wimey stuff that goes on because getting to bases and battles in various parts of the universe involves traveling at ludicrous speeds.

This may at one point happen to someone.

As a result, the soldiers are barely aging, while the Earth they left behind is moving through centuries in an orderly fashion. As you can imagine, this puts a bit of a damper on the homecoming celebrations—for the few that live to see Earth again, that is.

Haldeman based this story on his experiences as a U.S. soldier in the Vietnam War, and while he says in the introduction that “it’s mainly about war, about soldiers, and about the reasons we think we need them” (p. xv), you can spot specific nods to Vietnam. For example:
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. (p. 138)

Damned if WE know.

Where this book just nails the hell out of being awesome is that it has all the trademarks of an excellent sci-fi novel and a great war novel without being heavy-handed. It has a message, certainly, but it’s not delivered through a bullhorn, which is hard to pull off when writing about a fruitless war, in the voice of a lowly soldier being shuffled from one position to the next like an expendable chess piece with laser-weapon capabilities.

Mandella (and I’m assuming Haldeman) has a dry sense of humor that frequently verges on sarcasm. But you get the sense that this is how he deals with the absurdity of his situation.
One man above guarding eighty inside. The army’s good at that kind of arithmetic. (p. 41)
Surely "cowardice" had nothing to do with his decision [to forfeit the battle]. Surely he had nothing so primitive and unmilitary as a will to live. (p. 107)
The collapsar Stargate was a perfect sphere about three kilometers in radius. It was suspended forever in a state of gravitational collapse that should have meant its surface was dropping toward its center at nearly the speed of light. Relativity propped it up, at least gave it the illusion of being there . . . the way all reality becomes illusory and observer-oriented when you study general relativity. Or Buddhism. Or get drafted. (p. 46)

Depends on where you're sitting, really.

My gateway to Haldeman was his first contribution to the Star Trek series, an adorably pocket-sized book called World Without End. (I never got around to reviewing that one, but I started and finished it sitting at a bar while a very loud band played. People jostled me and bellowed their drink orders over my head. I READ ON.) And before I was even finished with The Forever War, I acquired two others from Haldeman’s extensive backlist.

So there's my endorsement. Can you hear it ringing? It rings for you.


  1. "It’s a stellar (ha!)"


    This seems toooooo sci-fi-y for me, but I am appreciating its existence from afar. Although stuff related to Vietnam kind of automatically gets relegated to 'boring' by my brain. Except for Forrest Gump. Man, what a great movie.

  2. Aaaaanything war-related is not my general cup of tea, which is why I sometimes make myself read it. And I've also been sort of deliberately reading sci-fi, which I always end up enjoying but do not default to for some reason. So two birds, one stone on this one, is what I'm saying.

  3. Well if you PRETEND the aliens are not aliens, but more just a stand-in for...the peoples of some country that the U.S. might be in a war against...then maybe you might enjoy it?

  4. Just as Alice thinks this might be too Sci-Fi-y for her, I think it might be too War-ish for me... But but but psychic alien teddy bears yes I want that in a book please. So... I might read this sometime maybe? As always...

  5. I read this book earlier this year and really enjoyed it. Haldeman does just enough world-building to be fascinating but not enough for the reader to get bogged down by it. Glad you mentioned the humor because that was unexpected for me, but was a definite part of its pull.

  6. Normally this would not seem like something I'd go for, for both Alice's (too sci-fi-y) and Laura's (too war-y) BUT you have some pretty good taste and this sounds excellent. So I'm saying I might need to try this

  7. Megs! I've missed you! I've been away from the interwebs in any meaningful way but now I'm trying to cram a month's worth into my evening tonight. This book looks complicated and I"m not sure what to make of it...but if you say it "nails the hell out of being awesome," then I need to sit up and take notice.

  8. Yes but there are other things. the future everyone becomes gay and the straight people are the deviants. RELEVANT SOCIAL COMMENTARY.

  9. GOOD point. He doesn't assume that we need a lot of hand holding, and he just starts telling us the story. It ended up feeling really familiar in that listening to a friend. I think I'd like to BE his friend actually.

  10. The double whammy of too sci-fi-y AND too war-y. That just means you HAVE to read it now, is how it looks from where I'm sitting. *Jedi mind-tricks you*

  11. Em! I've missed youuuuu! The holidays are not conducive to Internet activities, but isn't it nice to know that we are always here?

    This book DOES nail the hell out of being awesome. And it's a pretty good place to start with sci-fi, from what I understand. It's one of those benchmarks people are always talking about.

  12. Forrest Gump taught me everything there is to know about American history. So...there's that.

    You lost me at sci-fi war against the aliens, but had me decently picked back up at the end. In other, more concise words - great review of a book that sounds okay (for me, and totally amazing for anyone else!)