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Review of Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War
As humans expand beyond Earth and begin traveling through space at nearly the speed of light to colonize other planets, they encounter and come into conflict with an alien civilization dubbed the Taurans. William Mandella, along with the rest of Earth’s most promising minds, is drafted into military service to be sent into deep space to engage with and defeat the Taurans.
Given the physics of space travel, however, Mandella and his comrades hardly age at all while decades and even centuries pass on Earth and the colonized planets. With each campaign, Mandella realized he’s losing whatever connection he had to protecting Earth as it becomes less and less recognizable over time, and the perpetual, senseless conflict with the Taurans never seems any closer to victory. Mandella desperately clings to the few vestiges of his life that give him any reason to continue even as the Earth government, the war, and physics work to rob him of those reasons.
The March of Progress
The most obvious thematic movement in the novel is the examination of how these soldiers lose connection to the very thing they’re fighting to protect. The people Mandella meets after returning from each engagement are just as alien as the extraterrestrials he fights (116-33, 172, 187-90, 225, 258-60). When he is given a command position later in the novel, Mandella is a social anachronism, hundreds of years older than any one of the troopers in his command. His leadership is more the result of having survived through the previous campaigns rather than any individual quality that would mark him for command. As the war continues he has less and less of a connection to any of the human beings serving with him, and aside from his personal feelings of obligation and duty, nothing anchors him to give him real concern for the course of the war.
Related to this increasing disconnection is the theme of how personal concerns are betrayed by impersonal systemic structures. When Mandella is about to be separated from Marygay, one of the few remaining people he knows and cares about, he is told the “Strike Force Command plans in terms of centuries. Not in terms of people” (177). Mandella’s commitment is tenuous enough, and the idea that after all his sacrifice, his personal concerns for another human being don’t matter is heartbreaking. In a way, this theme makes The Forever War a science fiction predecessor to works like The Wire by David Simon or Generation Kill by Evan Wright, both works where individuals are forced to make moral compromises on behalf of larger institutions like the Baltimore Police Department, a family of drug dealers, or the United States Marine Corps. In Mandella’s case, in order to protect all humanity, he is forced to disregard his own and that of people he loves. This spiral of dehumanization begins when Mandella is drafted, and immediately after being told he’s among Earth’s best and brightest, he’s forced into training with an extremely high mortality rate.
Tangentially, Forever War clearly critiques a future where a fear for safety leads to an embracing of fascism to obtain security. It starts with Mandella being conscripted to fight an unknown enemy for reasons that remain obscure to him and most other humans. As he states once, “the enemy was a curious organism only vaguely understood [....] The most important fact about the war to most people was that if it ended suddenly, Earth’s economy would collapse” (139). The fear of the Taurans drives humans to eventually cooperate because with a common enemy the war “would unify humanity rather than dividing it” (261). All of this work is done in the name of security; a few might oppress the many with all dissent being squashed through control of resources, compulsory military service that leaves few survivors, and a monopolization of force.
As The Forever War continues, the readers can see through Mandella’s experiences that honest communication and personal connections are the only things that have the power to save people.
Early in the novel there it a lot of information regarding time dilation and the physics of space travel, which may become irritating when readers would rather learn more about the characters. The importance of this information is that Mandella knows it as a trained Physicist, but his knowledge becomes increasingly antiquated through know fault of his own, resulting in the reader having sympathy for him as a realm of study he enjoys is slowly lost to him. As he becomes alienated, the reader feels it too and understands the personal stakes. Similarly, some readers may feel the end wraps up too quickly and perhaps too neatly when it gets explained. As Mandella points out, however, “It sounded a little fishy, but I was willing to accept it. I’d accept that up was down if it meant the war was over” (262). By this point, Mandella and the reader have endured so much that they are ready for the end even if they are suspicious of it.
The impact on science fiction of The Forever War also becomes apparent in terms of explaining the quasi-fascist future government, the physics and logistics of space travel and military equipment and operations conducted in space. Its clear the novel was influential in the development of everything in science fiction from the Empire and Stormtroopers in Star Wars to Master Chief John-117 in the Halo franchise.
Not only is The Forever War a good sci-fi novel but also a good anti-war novel in the same tradition as Joseph Heller's Catch-22 or The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer. Along with Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein, it is likely the foundation of military science fiction.
Haldeman, Joe. The Forever War. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 1975.
- Book Review: The Forever War
I review Joe Haldeman's science fiction book, The Forever War.
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© 2012 Seth Tomko