on March 21, 2004
This slim military sci-fi novel won both a Hugo and Nebula awards following its publication in 1975, but readers today probably need a little context to understand why it was so well-received at the time. First and foremost, it was written as a direct response to the Vietnam War by Haldeman, who served a tour of duty there as a combat engineer and was severely wounded (he's also written several Vietnam-specific novels, including War Year and 1968). In the book, a young physics student named Mandella is drafted for a war against a mysterious alien race. We follow him through complicated and dangerous training, several violent battles, and his return home. Not surprisingly, Haldeman's portrayal of war is a brutal and messy picture, where long periods of boredom are followed by intense battles, death is arbitrary, and heroism nonexistent. Also not surprisingly, the war is revealed to be a misguided endeavor brought on by hawkish political leaders who lie to the public about the war. Needless to say, the public climate of the time was very receptive to such sentiments.
The other main noteworthy element of the book is the treatment of interstellar travel, and the distortion of time that results. After his first battle, Mandella returns to Earth to find his loved ones aged 27 years and society largely antiseptic. Just as many Vietnam vets had a difficult time returning home, he and many of his cohort can't handle life of Earth, and re-enlist. The book continues with Mandella shuttling from battle to battle, rising rapidly in seniority as hundreds of subjective years pass to his own few. Haldeman is a physicist, and there's a lot of scientific jargon about relativity theory to explain everything, and for the time, it was pretty exciting stuff for sci-fi readers. However, I found those passages nearly incomprehensible and the need to explain things definitely bogs down the narrative at times. These leaps through time allow Haldeman to do some interesting speculation about the evolution of humanity, as he touches upon cloning, sexuality, and genetics. The emphasis, though, is on Mandella and his personal quest to just survive. This is solid work, with generally good pacing, and a very overt antiwar message that is the product of its times.
on July 17, 2014
In the late 1990s, Earth starts an interstellar war against the alien Taurans after human colony ships in Tauran space were destroyed. The United Nations Exploratory Force (UNEF) begins conscripting the Earth's intellectual elite, the only humans smart enough to handle burgeoning space combat technologies. Among the conscripts is William Mandella, an MSc in physics and our protagonist.
After intense, deadly training on Charon, Mandella's company is ordered to attack a Tauran outpost. The outpost, however, is lightyears away, and the only way to traverse that distance quickly is to fly into a "collapsar"—essentially a wormhole created by the collapse of a star—and emerge out of another collapsar at relativistic speeds. Following their successful collapsar jump, Mandella's company arrives at the Tauran outpost planet, lands, and after making face-to-face contact with alien life for the first time in human history, proceeds to slaughter the Taurans stationed there.
The key to the novel becomes apparent on their return to UNEF's space headquarters. En route, they are intercepted by a Tauran patrol stationed nearby. Because of the time dilation at relativistic speeds, Mandella's company has only aged two years over the course of the campaign, but the Tauran patrol has had decades to research advanced technology and tactics. Mandella's ship is attacked and nearly destroyed by the advanced Tauran technology, but manages to make it back to HQ. Injured in the attack, Mandella is given shore leave to Earth, which is now 20 years in his subjective future.
Appalled at the deterioration he finds back at Earth (intense overpopulation and scarcity of resources, for example), Mandella reluctantly re-enlists, and is promoted to an officer. After surviving several more campaigns, he is eventually promoted to Major and is given the command of a company. His new recruits, from hundreds of years in his subjective future, speak an unrecognizable form of English and are bred to be exclusively homosexual. Faced with ever-mounting future shock apparent in the cultural differences from his soldiers, the rapidly-advancing weaponry, and the huge strides in physics rendering his education obsolete, Mandella struggles to understand the strange humanity he fights for and the point of the thousand-year conflict altogether.
Long plot summary aside, The Forever War is entirely about the Vietnam War. The oldest UNEF officers at the beginning of the novel are veterans of "that Indochina thing [that] had fizzled out before [Mandella] was born." Soldiers conscripted to fight agonize over losses incurred in a war with no clear goal or end in sight. Finally, Haldeman himself was injured fighting in Vietnam, and upon returning home, faced alienation by a culture removed from the actual fighting; the time dilation in the novel is just an alternative and more direct means of accomplishing this disconnect.
The Forever War is #1 in the SF Masterworks series, and for once I can probably endorse that rating. Five stars.
on March 9, 2004
Wow. What an excellent collection of reviews. Proof, if it were needed, that Sci Fi fans are a cut above your average Joe and Josephine.
Yes, The Forever War is a Vietnam allegory, and one of the ways in which it succeeds mightily is in the way our hero becomes increasingly alienated from his HomeWorld, and re-enlists.
Of the two-tour Vietnam Vets I know, including two Army Nurses, they all said the same thing - that they could no longer identify with the World they had returned to and felt that the familiar madness of Vietnam beckoned them infinitely more.
TFW is a fascinating book in the way it portrays the Einsteinian temporal paradoxes and their effects on Earth and Earth Forces in the field, fighting many light years away. The impossibility of having effective real-time command and control from Earth is just one of the factors that makes the war seem pointless.
Many Vietnam Vets found that Time seemed to pass at a different rate In Country compared to the States (which they called The World). Only when you entered your Short period, when you got down to your last 99 days, when you became a two-digit midget, or your last 9 days, when you became a one-digit midget, did Time begin to resume any kind of linear perspective.
While it's true to say that the only good thing about war is its ending, war is not always futile. When it is undertaken without a very clear attainable objective, i.e. something which makes it 'winnable', such as the Forever War and the Vietnam War, there is a crushing sense of futility, which comes across well in this book.
I put off reading this book for a long time. It sounded interesting but I hate having to read page after page of fighting. I was assured that this book wasn't just about war so I relented and got it.
This is science fiction at it's finest. It starts with Mandala, a private in the army, beginning his career. This war takes place in space and the main means of traversing space is through wormholes they called collapsars. True to science, when you speed through anything in space, time jumps forward for you relative to others living in normal spacetime. After Mandala's first tour of duty, which for him was only two years, he got to go back to Earth but it had changed after all the real-time had passed. Things were so bad on Earth, he reenlisted - so did his girlfriend. Again, they were sent off on missions lasting in reality hundreds of years. In the end, the war had gone on for 1,143 years but for Mandala it had only been about a decade.
One of the things that was happening at the beginning of the story, and it was something that I thought came from the author as how he thought the world was going to be (as it was published in 1974) was that there was a lot of casual sex in this army. In fact, it even stated that it was law to have sex. My first thought was that it was a sexist book written for men, but as the story went on this too changed. People's attitudes towards sex changed until it was almost gone. This war was a backdrop for a much larger story. How people change. How customs change. How soldiers don't always fit back into society when they come home. The scientific advancements over time. Finding love...and losing it. The ending tells how the war began and why it stopped. Fantastic concept. How perfectly plausible.
on May 20, 2003
One of the ideas behind The Forever War must've been amazing, even brilliant, thirty years ago: a war that lasts for thousands of years because of relativity. The other idea, that war is hell, is not exactly original. But the ideas make an interesting combination, and together they could've made a fantastic book.
Except. The author seems to have only a glancing familiarity with things like human nature. One perfect example is the way feminism works in the book. Oh, the women are in the army - they fight on the line and all that. But they're *also* expected to act as camp followers! When they go to a station inhabited mostly by men, they are obliged, by law and military rule, to have sex with those men for as long as the men wish it. That's every lonely 15-year-old boy's dream, maybe, but it wouldn't work in reality. Women don't respond well to rape, and highly trained, heavily armed women will eventually get tired of being unpaid, legally coerced prostitutes; the social order will rebalance. And let's not forget the strange relationship between Marygay and Mandella. It's hard to believe they're in love at all, because the author doesn't seem to have a clue how to write a convincing love affair, so it's hard to get worked up about their future together.
Except, again. The author, in his understandable bitterness about the Vietnam war, takes things a bit too far to demonstrate that war is hell. Why would any army rigorously test hundreds of thousands of people, then forcibly conscript the smartest and most educated so that they could *fight as grunts, in the frontline infantry*? Never mind that 150+ IQ people are exactly the sort you don't want in an army, since they aren't going to take orders any too well, but are the sort you want working on technological advances back home. Why go through all that to recruit for a group of people that will sustain 34% casualties every time they encounter the enemy, whether they're smart or not? And why would any army kill so many of its "elite" conscripted grunts in training? Most armies can find a way to train soldiers that doesn't, itself, inflict a 20% casualty rate.
Except, a third time. The future societies, which Mandella visits irregularly during his tour of duty, have that sad, silly tone that lots of future-predicting SF from the '70s has. It's hard to take seriously, not just because the predictions are off base; it's the way they're off base. Tobacco is illegal because it takes land needed to grow food, but marijuana is distributed free by many governments? The UN runs the major world fighting force and most of the rest of the world, too? Um.
Reading this book left me switching between annoyance, amusement, and regret, but by the end, regret predominated. It was a nice idea, and maybe it could've been a classic. As it stands, though, The Forever War is an old novel, best forgotten. Read something else; don't bother starting this War.
on October 11, 2015
Okay - no word of a lie. This has to be among the best novels I have ever had the pleasure to read.
This novel is the first book in the SF Masterworks imprint series (in publication order). This is the novel, along with Heinlein's classic Starship Troopers, that invented the space marine. If you look around you can see its influence in so many works of sci-fi that it's become a trope: Halo, Warhammer 40000, Old Man's War by John Scalzi. It's also hard sci-fi that deals with time dilation effects from sublight interstellar travel and wormholes as a way to somewhat address the sublight limitation.
More than that, this is a war novel. It's a damn good war novel, written by a Vietnam war veteran, that ultimately speaks about his war experience.
I'm sure he must have been writing it as a form of therapy. It deals with war in a way only a soldier and a veteran can truly know. It covers the injustice of the draft, the horror of killing, the impersonal compassionateless nature of the military, dehumanization, PTSD, loneliness and isolation, the terror of being caught up in an experience so much bigger and more terrible than you, the danger and invasiveness of war technology, survivor's guilt, and alienation from the culture a soldier leaves behind. The space marine trope character is often tough as nails and devoid of human weakness. Haldeman's space marines are anything but.
It was powerful, gripping, horrible, funny, disturbing, sad and poignant.
The edition I read contains an introduction from John Scalzi and an intro by the author, who said this was the definitive edition. Haldeman wrote that he had difficulty getting the book published because no one wanted to read a war novel in the immediate wake of Vietnam; a non sci-fi publisher expanded into sci-fi and that's how it got done. And it won the Hugo and the Nebula. I see why.
He said that even so, he had to cut a novella portion from the middle because "it was too depressing," according to his publisher. That portion was restored for this book. Normally I'm not a fan of restoring cut bits to award-winning novels; I can't imagine this one without it. I think the book would have really missed something if he hadn't included it, so hopefully you can find that edition.
I borrowed a copy from my public library to read as part of the Science Fiction Masterworks book club (which you can find as a group on Goodreads, a Facebook group, and a reading challenge on Worlds Without End; join us!) I finished it yesterday, and by that time I'd already ordered a copy from Amazon, knowing I would read it again and again; which arrived today.
Go out and get a copy. Read it. You'll thank me for it.
on November 24, 2014
I did enjoy this book and think that it was very well-written. Unfortunately, having missed Vietnam by a generation, I would not have seen it as an allegory to that, if I hadn't known this going in. (Possibly this is because the two Gulf Wars have been no less politically-motivated or fruitless than Vietnam was, so for me this book just describes war in general.)
The author has done a good job of making this hard SF, with solid science theory behind the technology. And he's done a fantastic job of creating a main character the reader will empathise with and care about.
I read this 4 years after having read Old Man's War -- which is often compared to The Forever War. I can see why Scalzi has been accused of cribbing from this book, despite not having read it before writing his own (I am quite sure that if he had, he would have chosen to do some things differently, simply to avoid such accusations.) If you enjoy one of these, you will almost certainly enjoy the other.
The only detraction I can make is that, like any SF novel that is 40 years old, it reads as a bit dated. I imagine for its time that it was very sexually progressive; but today, it made me more than a bit uncomfortable with its protagonist's frequently-mentioned homophobia -- simply by making a big deal out of what should not be a big deal at all (sexual gender preference), and by the idea that the only way to control and defuse mens' lust in a combat environment was for the female soldiers to be willing to "service" all of the men in turn.
All in all, though, it's an excellent book. Its laurels are well-deserved -- and it's good enough to make me decide to read the less-lauded sequels. I highly encourage giving The Forever War a read.
Joe Haldeman’s classic novel explores the future at the same time it reminisces about the Vietnam War and the 1960’s. It does both well.
Our reluctant hero, William Mandalla, is drafted into a high-tech war against the Taurans, an alien menace no one has yet seen. Trained at the edge of the solar system, Mandalla and his fellow soldiers depart for Epsilon Aurigae to face the Taurans. The story follows Mandalla and his close comrade-in-arms, Marygay Potter through their military careers. Highlights include fast-paced infantry engagements, tense chess-like space battles, and a brief flirtation with civilian life before eventual reenlistment.
The reader accompanies Mandalla through changing times. The relativistic effects of space travel stretch his military service across roughly 3,000 years. After each mission, soldiers return to an Earth society that has been evolving for centuries. They are drafted from a 1960’s culture of sex, drugs, and surprisingly little rock and roll. They return to changes in government, culture, technology, and even in human mental abilities. These changes are not easy to deal with.
Tech changes are most noticeable in the weapons soldiers fight with. The first space suits have a few enhancements, such as armor and a point-and-fire “laser finger.” Later improvements include not only more destructive weapons, but increasingly sophisticated communications, navigation, and emergency medical systems. Suits get smarter, too. Ultimately artificial intelligences make millisecond tactical decisions while soldiers provide strategic guidance. Soldiers remain much the same, griping about their food, second-guessing their rear-echelon commanders, and questioning the legitimacy of the war.
This is a not-to-be-missed science fiction classic and a good read. The changes in technology and culture characteristic of good science fiction are portrayed imaginatively and well. As is the life of the cynical soldier following sometimes nonsensical orders from an out-of-touch military command.
William Mandalla and members of his family play a central role in Haldeman’s sequel, Forever Free. A third Haldeman novel, Forever Peace has similar themes to the two Mandalla books, but is not directly related to their time or characters. Readers who enjoy The Forever War are likely to also enjoy Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and John Scalzi’s Old Man's War.
This, along with Starship Troopers and Armor, represents the "holy trinity" or armored-infantry science fiction. The idea that humans will fight aliens and be assisted by powered suits of armor. A reasonable, and interesting premise. Of the three titles, I feel that The Forever War is the best for several reasons. First, it has the most realistic sounding science. Particularly how temporal relativity affects space travel and how wars are fought. E.g., attack your enemy and it takes 30 years to get to them traveling at the speed of light, meaning a lot can change by the time you arrive there. Same thing for the return trip back. That's how a 5-year tour of duty turns into a 1,000+ year tour of duty (hence the title of this book). Second, I found its characters the most interesting. Not because they were as well developed, ST and Armor both do a better job in that regard. Simply because I personally found them more compelling. Finally, the social commentary that comes with good sci-fi was at the right level for me. Not as in-your-face as ST, but more coherent than that of Armor. All in all, they're all good books, but The Forever War was the best of the three for me. If you like science fiction, particularly military science fiction, than I recommend this book very strongly. With over 200+ reviews for this book, I don't feel I need to go into much more detail than that.
on December 6, 2008
University student William Mandella, an exceptionally bright university student with an IQ well north of 150 has been drafted. After a thoroughly modern and terrifyingly brutal boot camp with very deadly and very live modern weapons conducted in deep space conditions beyond Pluto's orbit, he'll be part of an interstellar war against the enigmatic Taurans, an alien species discovered when they supposedly attacked human ships.
Sci-fi fans know that most authors have a tendency to favour the hard or soft side of the genre. Clifford Simak, for example, is well known for his pastoral writing style that takes eager fans by the hands and lovingly guides them on astonishing tours through the soft side of science philosophy. Robert Sawyer, on the other hand, a talented and thoroughly modern Canadian author, grabs his readers by the throat and pulls them deep into the other side of the sci-fi spectrum through the implications of modern hardware and scientific discovery. Joe Haldeman's "The Forever War" cleverly straddles BOTH sides of the fence and beyond all expectations deals brilliantly with four separate themes, two soft and two hard, combining them into a single compelling but surprisingly short novel!
The titles gives away the obvious fact that war is an issue. "The Forever War" was published in 1974 and Haldeman is writing his story in the politically turbulent aftermath of the US experience in Vietnam. Whether Haldeman is vilifying warfare or simply presenting it as a fact of life and leaving it up to his readers for their own decisions will, of course, be a moral judgment that you will have to make for yourselves. (Comparisons will be made between this novel and Heinlein's "Starship Troopers" and Scalzi's "Old Man War" which also touch on the same topic of war with slightly different approaches).
Also on the softer side of the sci-fi genre, Haldeman has postulated a future in which asexual cloning has replaced normal reproduction and world governments have encouraged homosexuality as a solution to the world's population problems. In a clever twist on the world's current prejudices, Haldeman ultimately creates a world in which homosexuality is the norm and heterosexuality is perceived to be a perverted deviation. I've no doubt in my mind that a reader's current comfort level with alternative sexual orientations will also determine their reaction to this particular theme in the novel and whether or not they find it amusing or deeply disturbing!
On the hard side of the science spectrum, Haldeman deals imaginatively but realistically with two realities - the hard core rigors of deep space travel and the realities of relativistic effects such as time dilation.
No matter which side of the sci-fi spectrum you favour, you owe it to yourself as a fan to read Haldeman's novel. Unequivocally recommended as I go out to the second hand book stores to seek out the other books in the series, "Forever Peace" and "Forever Free".