I read Joe Haldeman’s most famous novel, The Forever War, in only a little more than twenty-four hours. That alone speaks volumes about the work, which isn’t a long novel, but it isn’t short either.
I read this book right after having read Neuromancer (which I had some problems with, as this review shows), and so The Forever War was like a breath of fresh air. Like Neuromancer, it was extremely fast paced, but in an entirely different way. The chapters were very short (like in Neuromancer), but the book was mostly description, but description done so artfully that it was enough to move along the plot on its own, even in lieu of character interactions. Of course, there was plenty of dialogue and a lot of character interactions, but the description and narrative in The Forever War really stood out, and (unlike Neuromancer), made it incredibly easy to follow – and thus I was able to think more about the themes and ideas it brought up.
The novel is clearly about the Vietnam War, which the author has himself admitted. At its most basic, The Forever War is about a man drafted into a war against an unknown enemy, who it (rather predictably) turns out had been misunderstood from the very beginning (the ending of the novel was its weakest point by far; I won’t say anything more here, but it was weird, in a sort of cliched way, and I don’t think Haldeman came up with the cliche himself).
So, the novel is a war novel. However, it is a novel about war with surprisingly little combat; only two ground operations and one space battle are actually part of the narrative, and the rest of the combat is implied. However, the book isn’t so much about combat against aliens (with commentaries on first-contact and the nature of humanity thrown in at the end as an afterthought), but rather about the effects of war on two levels: the individual and the social.
Both of these effects are interwoven by following one man – William Mandella – as he is drafted into the human army to fight the mysterious, threatening “Tauran” foes, as he goes from trainee to Major. However, what is unique about this “Forever War” – which lasts, in the end, over a thousand years – is that it is a war across star systems affected hugely by relativity. Ships go so quickly between star systems through “collapsars” at enormous speeds, and so while little time passes on the ships, many years pass in the outside world. This has enormous effects on individuals involved in the war, as they go to complete one combat mission and return home decades later, to find that the world they came from is not what it used to be. In The Forever War, the first return home reveals Earth has become a dystopia, its economy and political system entirely dependent on the war, and is rife with violence. Throughout the novel, as the main character ages much more slowly than the rest of human kind (and ultimately survives the whole war), we get glimpses of how society is changes through his interaction with new recruits, including a period where heterosexuality becomes a dysfunction and, at the end of the war, one of the strangest visions of advanced humanity I have yet read about.
We also see the effect the war has on him, not only through fighting Taurans, being hypnotically conditioned, surviving brutal training, and becoming a high-ranking officer, but through the people he loses, both in the war and just be aging so slowly due to relativity. The effect of the war on the individual is extremely powerful, and the centerpiece of the novel.
What is also interesting is Haldeman’s vision of how the war is fought when relativity is taken into account. The war lasts a thousand years, and due to the time lag due to relativistic travel, one is never sure what level of technology the enemy you meet at any system is; you could be fighting Taurans armed with advanced technology you’ve never seen before, or Taurans even weaker than the ones you had just fought. As someone says of the Earth military high command, they plan “in centuries,” which is necessary due to the time dilations experiences by soldiers during the war.
The book is never slow, and though at times it has immersion breaking moments where you think “that’s odd” (such as the first return to Earth and the strange, somewhat troubling role of semi-forced sex in themilitary), it is definitely a worthwhile read and, I think, one of the best science fiction novels I’ve had the pleasure to read.