Until I found The Forever War on the shelves of my favorite used bookstore, I’d never heard of this author, let alone this book. Then through sheer coincidence I discovered a couple of favorable reviews from two book bloggers I often read. Isn’t it strange how these things often work out? Well I’m pleased to report that this awesome piece of classic science fiction deserves all of its accolades.
The year is 1996, and Earth is in the midst of an intergalactic war against a mysterious alien race known as the Taurans who have destroyed several of our exploration spaceships. Scientists are able to go further into space thanks to the discovery of collapsars, neutron stars that allow near instantaneous travel from one point in the universe to another. Earth’s best soldiers in the war consist of highly educated men and women most of who hold advanced degrees. Private William Mandella is a bight young physicist who has been drafted into the army to serve on the front lines of the most gruesome war in human history.
Mandella is initially unprepared for the rigorous training required. Most of the soldiers don’t survive the deadly training exercises. If this wasn’t bad enough, there’s also the issue of severe time dilation. As the war continues, the soldiers must go further and further into space. While a journey to one of the portal planets may only take a few months (thanks to the collapsars), time moves much slower than on Earth. This means that while only a short time has passed for Mandella, entire decades may have already passed back home. Throughout the novel, Mandella returns home only to discover challenges far greater than just fighting some aliens.
Haldeman doesn’t shy away from the violence in this book as this novel is based on the author’s own experiences fighting in Vietnam. There are several parallels such as fighting a completely alien civilization that seems nearly impossible to fully defeat. Haldeman also draws connections to how soldiers in Vietnam must have felt on returning home to a world they didn’t recognize and the severe displacement they must have experienced. As a sci-fi novel, Haldeman is able to take his concepts even further and yet they don’t feel so unbelievable. There are teaching machines that can cram an unbelievable amount of knowledge into the human brain in a matter of days. There’s also severe government conditioning right before a battle where the soldiers are implanted with false memories of the Taurans, meant to ignite severe hate and fuel motivation. Incredible spacesuits can protect the body against damage from extreme speeds of space travel. There are plenty of battles against the Taurans, both on the ground and in space. Although military strategy isn’t my cup of tea necessarily, the battles were some of the most intense I’ve ever read. More than the actual fighting, what really sold me on this book were Mandella’s experiences back home in between battles.
When he first returns home, Mandella can’t believe all of the changes to his home. Several decades have passed, and Earth is a dystopian nightmare with violence and drug use galore. The book uses the term “future shock” to describe how soldiers struggled to adapt to the differences in culture. Rather than continue to live on this unrecognizable world, Mandella would rather reenlist and return to space.
One of the most interesting facets to the book were the importance of sex and sexuality. In the beginning, there is a lot of casual sex among the soldiers (distraction from all the death). As time dilation sends Mandella further into the future, homosexuality becomes more common until it gets to the point where all humans are homosexual, and Mandella is practically the outcast because heterosexuality is considered an “emotional dysfunction” that is easily curable. Since this book was written in the 1970’s, there is a somewhat old-fashioned attitude towards homosexuality as a big deal rather than no deal at all. I found it interesting that in the far future, government scientists would condition human beings to be homosexual, mainly as means of population control. Despite his attitudes towards sex, I found Mandella to be a likable character and hoped that a happy ending could be found for this man out of his own time.
There’s also a bit of romance in this book as well. One of the main plots of the story involve Mandella’s relationship with fellow solider Marygay. The chances of them having any type of future is slim due to the mortality rate of the war. There’s also the issue of time dilation when they both get sent off to separate missions. In fact, there’s a heartbreaking scene where the two are desperately having as much fun as possible on a planet called Heaven because they know they will have to say goodbye to each other soon.
Although it took me some time to get into the book, once I did I was hooked. I highly recommend The Forever War as a gripping work of science fiction.
“Surely cowardice had nothing to do with his decision. Surely he had nothing so primitive and unmilitary as a will to live.”
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