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Worlds Without End Blog

The Forever War Posted at 10:36 PM by

Deven Science

The Forever WarThe title is not talking about the war I’m currently fighting here in Afghanistan, but if you thought it was, this is precisely why many people think that The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman, is just as relevant today as when it was written in the mid-1970’s.

The Forever War is about a group of citizens drafted into an intergalactic war with aliens that no one has actually seen before. The author wrote the book twenty years in the future, so that the war starts in the 1990’s. Due to relativistic time dilation, going off to fight only two battles before being able to return home sees them return to a world no longer recognized, as something like seven hundred years has passed on Earth. Money no longer exists. The currency is the Calorie, a direct effect of decades of starvation and overpopulation as Earth became a war economy over the last several centuries. Not comfortable on a planet they no longer recognize as home, its off-planet once again for these war veterans, preferring combat in hostile worlds to facing changes at home.

The Forever War is considered a science fiction classic, and indeed, it is well written, and the science of it stands out as top-notch. The way the author fully integrates relativistic effects into the plot, rather than trying to work a cheat around it, as most science fiction does, is worthy of a tip of the hat, and very well painted, visually. However, overall I’m not sure the book lives up to the hype. Its cultural concepts are extremely dated, to the point of being embarrassing in many places. Homosexuality is promoted in Haldeman’s future, as population control, so that these veterans, obviously straight, are seen as the queer ones. This kind of reversal could be interesting, and it helps to further isolate our heroes from society, except that the author handles it a bit clumsily, so that I personally got the impression that despite his trying to sound liberal and tolerant, he himself feared the rise of homosexuality as a norm.

The book is of its time. Haldeman came home from an unpopular war, wherein soldiers like him didn’t go because they wanted to but because the government told them that they had to. How, he thought, can we come home to such hate and disrespect, when we didn’t even volunteer to fight this war? In that, he had a valid point, I suppose, though it might be irrelevant, since soldiers who do volunteer to fight in an unpopular war still shouldn’t then accept being spit on, or called names like “baby killer.” The fact that he had no choice due to the draft was probably just salt on the wound, by his estimation. It was a country – a world – that he no longer recognized. He was obviously very pessimistic about where the country was headed, and his brief tour (most draft tours were 13 months) seemed like it might as well have been centuries. I could see how it would seem like the war made more sense than the home he returned to.

Still, while I would give the novel an overall positive rating, it doesn’t make it by much. The dated concepts and views in the book were often enough to pull me out of the story, or cringe. Indeed, much older science fiction works by Asimov or Heinlein often age better in their concepts than this book does. The saving grace for the novel after all of this is the suddenly upbeat turn at the end, as the author seems to reflect on how one’s world can still be what one makes of it.

I give it 6 out of 10.


This review originally published on Deven’s Science Journal.

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6 Comments

Emil   |   04 Oct 2010 @ 03:02

Not to forget the context from which Haldeman wrote this novel, being his own experiences in the Vietnam War, albeit set in sf universe. The main character’s name is "Mandela" (afterall), an anagram for the author’s surname, and strong correlations to his wife also features in the character of MaryGay. At the time I can well imagine Haldeman experiencing a psychological release from his own post-war afflictions by writing this tale, and in his own way, realized that one has to move forward in time, even if it means that society as you came to know it, changes. What is significant in this work is how he treats the clichés of "traditional" space opera fiction. Viewed through the eyes of someone who has experienced live combat action, much of the heroism of other space opera superhumans suddenly looks very absurd – take Miles Vorkosigan (apart from the wonderful character development Bujold does), or Honor Harrington (Horatio Hornblower in female form, later books laborious to read with all the political innuendos) for instance, at times singlehandedly changing the course of history in their respective universes. In real life, even in a sf universe, this rarely happens. That is significant in an age where the foundations for a Haldeman-type "Forever War" was cemented on 9/11. I do think this work has a resonating chill over the years, well worth the read.I gave it a 9 :-)

MT in Austin   |   04 Oct 2010 @ 20:48

One of the great books of all time. I rate it a 9 out of 10. Enjoyable books do not have to be "relevant". If I want relevant, I watch the news. If I want escape, I read sci fi.

Deven Science   |   05 Oct 2010 @ 00:38

It doesn’t HAVE to be relevant, but it certainly helps to not be hopelessly outdated.

Emil   |   05 Oct 2010 @ 05:36

Mhmm, I doubt many Vietnam Vets would view it as "hopelessly outdated." That aside, I do think that Haldeman’s re-imagination of the Vietnam experience in a space opera setting is still very much valid. Using time dilation as a device to depict the unrecognizable society that soldiers return to is really a masterstroke. Every time the soldiers return they encounter a transformed society. Isn’t that the true dénouement of his novel? Interestingly, the author himself does realize that some readers won’t be able to make a connection – this is probably (and arguably) why some might experience it as outdated. If Vietnam has taught us anything, it is the grand futility of warfare and how random events can lead to unthinkable costs, a theme which Haldeman extrapolates quite brilliantly. For me the only disconnect perhaps lie with the sparse characterizations. You should also give "Forever Peace" a read.the grand futility of warfare, the often random chains of events that lead to unthinkable costs (in both financial and human terms).

Deven Science   |   05 Oct 2010 @ 23:24

I feel like I’m having to defend not really loving the book on here. The time dilation that was used to come home to an unfamiliar world was very good, and very clever, yes. I totally agree. I was fine with most of the characterization, for the most part, and the settings off world were decent enough. My main problem had to do with the direction that he took the world in Mandela’s absence. It was an over-exaggerated world based on his pessimism at the time that he wrote it, that I don’t feel it realistic, or even plausible. There are dystopias that work, and can seem like a possible future, and they are all the more frightening for that, and this was not one of them. Keep in mind that this in coming from someone who has bee nto war and come home once, and who is about to do it again when I return next year. I have felt the disconnect, but I didn’t feel like the world had turned homosexual, or that I couldn’t walk to the store without a bodyguard.

Terry   |   21 Oct 2010 @ 14:58

I just finished the book and really enjoyed it. I liked how the time dilation was used. I wasn’t as excited about the homosexuality subplot, but when writers start to extrapolate changes in society out to the time lengths that Haldeman did in Forever War, I think there is a little room for being bold with the outcomes. In my opinion, this is the type of book that will always be relevant. I’m pretty interested to see how he follows it up with Forever Peace. I gave it a 9.

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