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Books: The Forever War

The Science Fiction Book Club recently named their "50 Most Significant SF & Fantasy Books of the Last 50 Years". Now, I know as well as you do that these "Best Of!" lists are totally bogus, but I've been in the mood for lighter reading recently, and when I saw Joe Haldeman's novel parked in the top half I recalled how many times this particular novel had been recommended to me over the years. Plus, given the current geopolitical situation, this seemed as good a time to read a book entitled The Forever War. So I picked it up.

As with most "classic" sci-fi works, this book has a gimmick, albeit a rather modest one. True to the name this is indeed a war novel, where the combat taking place is given as much ink as the characters. But the humans enbroiled in the The Forever War's interstellar struggle have to consider some elements that twentieth-century strategists were never forced to grapple with. Humans, it seems, have perfected near-light speed engines, and have discovered a network of wormholes which allow their fleets to travel instantly (from their point of view) to various points in the galaxy. Unfortunately, the theory of relativity mandates that while the troops may only experience a few months' travel as they voyage to their destination, years will have passed in "real time". A soldier might travel through a wormhold on a supply mission, drop off his cargo, return home through the same portal, and find that the Earth has utterly transformed during his "four month" sojourn.

The story centers on William Mandella, a reluctant and mediocre soldier who is among the first drafted and sent to fight the mysterious race of Taurans. As one of the few of the initial force to survive, he returns to an Earth where dozens of years have passed and finds himself heralded as one of the most senior veterans in military service, despite the fact that, to his mind, he's only spent a year or so in uniform. He also finds that the war has become increasingly absurd, as generals try to deal with enormous complexities of waging a relativistic war. Troops, for instance, are routinely shipped out with state-of-the-art weapons, only to discover, upon arrival at the battlefront, that so much "real time" has passed during their journey that their technology has become laughably out-of-date.

The Forever War is a rather simple book, refreshingly so. I've grown so accustomed to sci-fi novels cram-packed with throw-away ideas that it was nice to read one that set out to explore all of its ramifications of a single, clever conceit. Haldeman is clearly a man who knows a thing or two about military matters, and his depiction of battle, fanciful though it is, comes across as unnervingly accurate. He uses the chronological chaos to illustrate what the soldiers in the field unquestionably feel as they march into combat: that much of "military planning" hinges on hunches and hope. By pointing out the absurdity of trying to fight an intergalactic war, Haldeman points out the absurdity of war itself, but does so in a way that suggests that war may sometimes be necessary all the same.

I don't know if The Forever War is one of the most "significant' science fiction books I've ever read, but it certainly numbers amongst the most enjoyable.

Posted on March 25, 2003 to Books


Odd.. the list is almost-sorted alphabetically. It's like they started hand sorting it by relevance, then gave up and did the rest alphabetically.

Posted by: jonathan on March 25, 2003 2:25 PM

The top ten are (presumably) sorted by relevance; the rest are alphabetical. So the #22 slot occupied by The Forever War is kinda meaningless.

Posted by: Matthew on March 25, 2003 2:27 PM

Of all the sci-fi I've read 'Ender's Game' takes it home. I'm glad its on the list, however phony it might be. I did notice how they spelt 'Harry potter and the philosopher's stone'. good stuff. that book might have been more iteresting with some philosophy.

Posted by: obwan K. on March 25, 2003 2:35 PM

Joe Haldeman is one of the modern masters of the science fiction short story. Others are, IMO, James Tiptree, Jr, Gene Wolfe, and Michael Swanwick.

I suggest picking up some of Haldeman's short-story collections; you'll find them well worth your time.

Posted by: John Costello on March 25, 2003 2:50 PM

Oh, one more thing -- Haldeman is a veteran of the war in Viet Nam, so your perception that he knows a thing or two about warfare is dead on.

Posted by: John Costello on March 25, 2003 3:00 PM

John beat me to it: Haldeman spent time in Vietnam.

The best way to read The Forever War is to read the original short story, "Hero." It's basically the book, boiled down to its essence.

Actually, there's a book in "trade paperback" form called "The Best Military Science Fiction of the 20th Century," (isbn: 0345439899) that collects both "Hero" and the original short version of "Ender's Game."

Just for those, it's worth the money. When you throw in stories by Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick, and Harry Turtledove, it's a heckuva deal.

...why, yes, I DID work in a bookstore once. Why do you ask?

Posted by: Eric on March 25, 2003 6:02 PM

Me again. I forgot to mention that The Forever War was written as an "answer novel" to Heinlein's classic "Starship Troopers."

Heinlein's book is a helluva lot better.

Posted by: Eric on March 25, 2003 6:06 PM

I was just going to say that! TFW was okay, but ST was awesome. Oh, and I definitely agree about Ender's Game, though Card's best is a toss-up between that and Speaker of the Dead. They're both outstanding.

Posted by: Kevin on March 25, 2003 8:29 PM

I always read The Forever War was not so much an answer to Starship Troopers (although Haldeman has said that it was) as an allegory for the author's increasing feeling of alienation from the American mainstream during his service in Vietnam; I think he served between 1967 and 1970. I can imagine the changes between '67 and '70 would have been enough to produce some culture shock...

There's a thematic sequel, Forever Peace which I haven't read, and a book called Forever Free which I know nothing about.

Matt, you'll never track it down, but I believe Avalon Hill published a Forever War board game at some point.

Posted by: Steve on March 26, 2003 10:40 AM

no Iain Banks or Ken MacLeod? F-ck that!

Posted by: tomas on March 26, 2003 10:56 AM

A lot of people had a very negative view of Starship Troopers when it first came out, and I imagine a lot of Vietnam Vets in particular did. In retrospect, though, I don't think The Forever War reads as quite so much as an an "answer" to Heinlein's book, because Heinlein's book was much more timeless than it may have seemed at the time, and Haldeman's book doesn't wind up disagreeing a whole lot with it. Although it probably seemed to at the time.

I'm probably not explaining that very well, but you can see it if you've read both books and consider who the authors were and the time they came out.

BTW, The Forever War is a damn good book.

Posted by: Dean Esmay on March 26, 2003 11:27 AM

The Forever War hit me when I read it as a teenager. As relevant today as ever.

Posted by: Elaine Kenny on March 26, 2003 11:50 AM

Forever Peace is OK, but it's not that closely related to The Forever War, being set in a near-future where the war being fought is on Earth itself. It does explore some of the same themes as the earlier novel, as regards the alienation of the soldier, the experience of combat and so on. Somehow, Forever Peace emulated The Forever War by winning both the Hugo and Nebula awards for Best Novel. It's a decent effort, but it's not remotely of the quality of the earlier work (or of three or four of Haldeman's other novels, come to that.)

Forever Free is a sequel to The Forever War. It starts off with William and Marygay and the other soldiers on the world Man ceded to them at the end of the earlier novel, and explores what happens once the "original" humans come to realise that they're living in a glorified nature reserve. Then they decide that they want to leave the planet, and something very odd happens. (That's not much of a spoiler, I promise you.)

Haldeman's depiction of his characters a couple of decades on from the end of the earlier novel is entirely believable; it's easy to understand their frustration at their strange status, held at arm's length by Man. The trouble is, once they set out to try to do something about their situation the story falls apart, ending with a truly terrible deus ex machina ending which almost made me throw the book across the room and swear off Haldeman - whose work I generally like - for life.

If you enjoyed The Forever War you may well enjoy some of his other novels. I rate Mindbridge and All My Sins Remembered highly. The "Worlds" trilogy is also rather good. Any of his short story collections will be worth perusing: for my money, Haldeman is one of the most consistently effective short story writers in the genre.

Posted by: John on March 26, 2003 11:52 AM

i'd add the big time by fritz leiber :D oh and slow birds!

Posted by: kenny on March 26, 2003 1:07 PM

You're calmer than me: I DID throw "Forever Free" across the room when I was done with it. Right into the garbage can. I HATED it.

I don't like Mindbridge much. To me, it's one of those books that is an entertaining read, but is really 9/10ths fluff, 1/10th cotton candy. I've got three different copies of it, strangely enough, and I didn't even realize it was BY Haldeman. Oh well.

Posted by: Eric on March 26, 2003 9:27 PM

Back when I first read it, I devoured Mindbridge at one sitting. I particularly remember enjoying the "cut-up" technique of mixing the protagonist's story with excerpts from all sorts of documents, reports and so on written by other characters. At around the same time I first read John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar, which used a similar collage effect, and as I hadn't seen much of that technique back then I was perhaps more impressed than I would be today.

Still, I did like other elements of the novel: the way the humans were clearly venturing into territories they didn't begin to understand, the team working together in the field, the stuff about working in a quasi-military organisation which isn't best equipped to handle a situation but tends to fall back on established procedures anyway. And then there was the weary, somewhat fatalistic protagonist, a spirtual cousin of The Forever War's William Mandella.

Without the benefit of a recent re-read, all I can say is that Mindbridge made a big impression on me at the time and helped earn Haldeman a place on my buy-on-sight list. He retained that status until the double-whammy of Forever Free and The Coming.

(That said, Guardian sounds interesting - albeit not very SFnal - and I may have to pick up a copy when it's out in paperback.)

Posted by: John on March 27, 2003 3:49 PM