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.