The Forever War by Joe Haldeman is a 1974 militaristic science fiction novel which won the 1975 Nebula Award and 1976 Hugo and Locus Awards. The novel tells the personal war story of William Mandella and the developing interstellar war between Man and the Taurans.
Often cited as one of the classics of the militaristic science fiction sub-genre, The Forever War also serves to deliver a social commentary alongside the militaristic backdrop. The militaristic story elements are unique in that relativity (specifically time dilation) is not merely glossed over but is a key element of the story – it is to me the most interesting aspect of The Forever War.
The novel has distinct sections, splitting the military and social commentary between tours of duty during which increasingly long timespans pass on Earth due to the nature of time dilation – while FTL is used in the form of collapsars most travel is at close to light speeds. Further reading around the novel highlighted there were a number of different versions, the version I have read was the omnibus Peace and War edition which is classed as definitive, including a large middle portion outside of the active engagement which focused predominantly on social changes.
There are fairly obvious allegories with Haldemans service during the Vietnam War, which has a significant impact on the story – themes of pointlessness and disillusionment coming to the fore as strong motivating factors. Haldemans detachment is lessened somewhat by Margygay Potter, another soldier from Haldemans unit who shares the war with Mandella with the two forming a strong bond as a result of their increasing detachment from the world they know.
While I really enjoyed the time dilation aspect and how the nature of interstellar travel changes not only how wars are fought but also who they are fought for, I did not really enjoy the social commentary present in the story. The first return to Earth shows societal changes that did not seem to make any sense, capitalism replaced by calorie-ism and a movement towards a normative homosexual orientation for society as a whole is beginning to take shape – “heterosexuality is considered an emotional dysfunction” becoming a major theme. This last point was the most difficult for me, the “camping” up of the homosexual characters seemed unnecessary and Haldeman has stated he would re-write those scenes if he could. The most glaring problem I have with this are those characters seemed cut out stereotypes required to make a point rather than individuals in their own rights. I am not entirely convinced of the overpopulation and re-education programs being a necessity and that humans could be forced into something at odds with their nature (it would be akin to forcing all homosexuals into heterosexuals which is something we know doesn’t work).
Relativity and the time dilation were given the attention they deserve, their use was well considered and the implications well thought out. The concept of “future shock” whereby the enemy makes immense leaps in technology as an artefact of a relativistic war felt very real and added a healthy dose of the unknown. However I found the social commentary without insight and poorly reasoned – a large chunk of the middle section with Mandella and Marygay Potter felt like plot contrivance and had no overall relevance to the plot other than to position the pieces.
For me this classic just didn’t hit the mark and I expect the shorter version with less social commentary would have been preferable to me. What the novel does very well is to tell the personal human cost of war, what it means to be a soldier and what it means to fight in a war that means nothing to you and serves only to separate you permanently from the world in which you lived.