Monday, January 25, 2010

1976 Hugo, Campbell, and Locus, 1975 Nebula - THE FOREVER WAR by Joe Haldeman

Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War is probably the most highly regarded military sf novel. It begins a lot like Starship Troopers. A young man from Earth, William Mandella, is drafted to fight an alien menace. He goes off to boot camp, which is highly dangerous, and, as in Heinlein’s novel, includes powered armor. Then, he and his unit deploy to a distant planet to fight the strange aliens.

There are a couple of twists after this opening sequence that do differentiate the novel from Heinlein’s, however. First of all, it’s pretty clear that not all is as it seems. Rather than the simplistic aggressive force that Heinlein’s “bugs” represented, Haldeman’s aliens are more complex and mysterious. In fact, it’s not entirely clear why Earth is at war with them. And, rather than the heroic patriotism of the space marines, Mandella and his fellow soldiers are miserable, occasionally cowardly, fight amongst themselves, and regret killing. In other words, it’s an anti-war military sf novel. It’s not surprising that this novel was written in the wake of the Vietnam War, or that Haldeman served in Vietnam.

From what I’d heard of this novel, I thought the anti-war message was really the novel’s focus. It’s actually subtler than I expected, and there are times when this does read like a typical military adventure story. The main twist and the real focus of the plot is the fact that Earth’s fighting forces are subject to relativity. As established by Albert Einstein, if you travel near the speed of light, time moves much more slowly to you relative to the stationary position you left. Thus, when the infantry deploys to their first alien planet (aided by shortcuts through space called “stargates”), the mission takes several months for them, but twenty years pass on Earth. As a result, a lot of the novel involves Mandella and his fellow soldiers adjusting to massive changes in society every time they make it back from a mission.

The first mission begins in 1997 (The Forever War may be the champion of bad futurism, placing interstellar travel and power-armored space infantry just years away from his mid-70s vantage point). Then we get the standard-70s dystopia in 2007: overpopulation, starvation, pollution, etc. From there, we learn of big changes in world governance, population, and, most dramatically, human sexuality, as the centuries fly quickly by.

I’m not a fan of military sf, so the long training and combat scenes, which make up more than half of the novel, could be a bit of a slog, and I’m not quite sure that this book lived up to the hype. But it was an enjoyable read with some entertaining ideas thrown around.

Grade: A-


  1. I actually enjoyed this one. My first thought was of Gunbuster with the similar use of relativistic physics. Could the boys at GAINAX have read this?

  2. I'd totally forgotten about that aspect of Gunbuster. Wasn't that all in the crazy black and white episode?

    But yeah, I'd say it's definitely possible. I'm going to mention how much American sf novels seem to have influenced manga and anime when I get to Gene Wolfe in a few weeks (though Starship Troopers is another obvious one).

    This is supposed to be Ridley Scott's next film, by the way, and he claims to have been inspired by Avatar...

  3. Ryan,
    I just finished this book last night and I'm in agreement with your assessment. There has been a lot of hype and I was not blown away like I expected/hoped but it was a solid story overall.

    In his forward, Haldeman mentions the bad time setting for FW and suggests that you treat it like an alternate history. That helped me enjoy the book a lot more. I'll have to try that trick when I read other classic SF.

    A film version sounds interesting especially one by Ridley Scott. I wonder what changes he'll make to it? Move the time forward surely. Will it be tied to a current war? Let's hope the script is better than Avatar's and the effects equally good.

  4. I missed the forward somehow, but I agree that is a good way to read these books that are really far off (Heinlein's old stuff works really well that way, especially since he created a multiverse for his books later on...).

    Agreed on Avatar (which maybe I'll review when the Hugo nominations come out in a few months - I'm sure it will get a nomination). I think having this novel to work with will help - get rid of some of the repetition and I think this could make a great movie...though things seem to resolve too quickly at the end.