Daniel Roy (triseult), has contributed over 50 reviews to WWEnd including this, his fifth GMRC review to feature in the WWEnd blog. Daniel is living his dream of travelling the world and you can read about some of his adventures on his blog Mango Blue.
Great SF stories stand the test of time by transcending the period from whence they emerged. The Forever War, oddly enough, is timeless precisely because it is firmly rooted in a key period of world history. It manages to evoke, to this day, the horrors of Vietnam and the pain of returning veterans, and in so doing transcends them into a timeless discussion about the futility of war and how it uses up human lives.
I first read The Forever War in comicbook form, thanks to Marvano’s amazing adaptation. Being a Belgian work, and thanks to its ligne claire style, the adaptation felt more universal, less rooted in the American war experience. The novel itself, though, is firmly American. You can glimpse the mind of a male Vietnam war vet as the story unfolds. This may not make the novel as universal as the comicbook adaptation, but it makes for a more powerful reading because of its roots in the American experience.
That’s not to say it’s a bad thing. It’s another great example how even SF writers should write what they know. A lot of the SF concepts work perfectly as allegory for the soldier experience, including the painful culture shock of returning home. The second part, during which Mandella returns home to a world he no longer knows, is gripping and powerful. I bet it must resonate a great deal with veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq.
The protagonist’s voice is dry and not given to literary flourish, which grounds the story in gritty realism. The writing of violence and blood during the first contact between Humanity and aliens is told in a dispassionate tone, and we can feel the echoes of pain and trauma extinguishing apparent emotion. Not once do we feel William Mandella is at home in his environment. He’s forever the alien, displaced by war and time.
Then there are parts where the novel shows its age. For one thing, the story is awfully obsessed with sexual orientation. The idea of a future society where homosexual relationships are the norm is interesting, but it feels somewhat dated and close-minded that this is mostly used to illustrate how our very heterosexual hero is different from “those people”. It’s not cliché and there’s no hatred, but it definitely feels as if gender orientation was used specifically to otherize future society and provide future shock for the red-blooded American hero.
I remembered this story in vivid detail from reading it as a comicbook in my adolescence, and rereading today I can understand why. It’s nearly timeless, it’s filled with great SF ideas, it’s pretty strong on the science parts, and there’s a great amount of pain and healing taking place over the course of the story. It deserves its spot as a SF classic, but also among the great discussions in fiction on the pain and trauma of war.