“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.”
‘The Forever War’ is at heart a war novel. Joe Haldeman had served in Vietnam and his experiences inform the book. The concept is pure hard SF worthy of Robert Heinlein or Larry Niven. Soldiers are conscripted to fight in an interstellar war. Because of relativity a few years passing for the soldiers means many decades passing back on earth, they return home to a world hopelessly alien to them that has forgotten all about them. The soldiers finding themselves lost and out of touch in a world that has drastically moved on without them is a powerful metaphor for the reception the soldiers returning home from Vietnam received in reality. The main weapon that the soldiers use to fight the hive-mind aliens is even powered armour, same as in Heinlein’s ‘Starship Troopers’. But the two books could not be further apart. ‘The Forever War’ is about the horror and futility of war, and the senseless waste of lives lost and displaced that follow.
The protagonist is William Mandella, one of a hundred strong and healthy young people with IQs above 150 called up to fight against a terrifying unknown alien threat that has been destroying Earth spaceships. From the beginning, Mandella is cynical about the army. He studied physics and was looking to go into teaching and has no desire to be in the army or fight in a war. Unlike the protagonist of ‘Starship Troopers’, who learns that the army is always right, Mandella’s experience is one of horror, pain and grief. There is an argument that any anti-war story has the problem that it is inherently glamourising war by turning it into entertainment, no matter what the ultimate message. ‘The Forever War’ uses this to its advantage by initially appearing to be a fun, Heinlein-esque space adventure yarn, in much the same way that William Goldings’ ‘Lord Of The Flies’ initially appears to be a Ballentyne-esque boys’ adventure before things start to go wrong. Mandella, with his high IQ, his easygoing competence and his laidback, wry tone, could easily be a Heinlein protagonist.
The recruits start off their training on the moon, and then on the planet Charon, more than twice the distance from the sun as Pluto, to prepare them for the conditions of war in space. It doesn’t take long for things to start going wrong in these harsh conditions. The soldiers are warned that the slightest mistake in space can lead to their deaths, and many of them die messy, unglamourous deaths in training. Much of the novel’s power comes from the way Haldeman describes these deaths. The tone is achingly sad but never over the top, calm and without embellishment as Mandella describes truly horrific death. It effectively conveys the feeling of loss over this senseless waste of human life.
Soon enough Mandella and the others are shipped off to the first confrontation with the Taurans, engaging in a series of bloody battles that most of them don’t survive. Mandella doesn’t relish killing other sentient beings, and survives more through luck rather than battle prowess, and the one battle that he does actually lead goes pretty poorly. Haldeman does a really good job of conveying the idea that war is not full of glorious victories and excitement, but long stretches of routine interrupted by moments of terror and violence. It’s another reason why ‘The Forever War’ is so crucial; it’s just about the only military SF book that’s not violently militaristic. The book is also sensibly cynical about both the military and the government. The army is not above implanting subconscious conditioning in the soldiers’ heads to make them better killers, without telling them. At the end it turns out that the Taurans had never known war until encountering humanity, and that the war had been started and prolonged by humans because the Earth economy needed a war to fuel it.
On top of all this, ‘The Forever War’ is a deeply affecting love story. Mandella’s relationship with Marygay Potter, another soldier in his original company and the only one to survive as long as he does, is perfectly natural and believable. Throughout the novel they become more and more important to each other as they end up being their only remaining connection to the world they grew up in. I will admit to getting a bit emotional at the bits where he discovers her grievously injured in the acceleration shell, when they are separated again the final time they are ordered back into duty, and again at the end when he discovers that she has been waiting for him to return all this time.The message of ‘The Forever War’ about the human cost of war is always relevant, and it’s all the more important in a genre that frequently celebrates and glorifies violence. At a time when an adaptation of ‘Ender’s Game’ by Orson Scott Card is hitting the theatres, (a book that is well written but problematic before you even get to Card’s deeply unpleasant personal opinions), it’s clear that militaristic tendencies are still alive and well in the genre, and Haldeman’s deconstruction of those ideas remain just as powerful and moving as it must have been when it was first published.