Haldeman’s SF classic ‘The Forever War’ proves to be timeless in more ways than one

November 27, 2012

In 1974, Joe Haldeman published a science fiction novel called The Forever War. Its subgenre, military science fiction, made it a clear heir to Robert Heinlein’s classic 1959 book, Starship Troopers. And just like its predecessor, Haldeman’s work also became a revered science fiction novel.

I did not read Forever War until this fall, and I’m sorry I waited so long.

The book is the first-person account of William Mandella, who had wanted to become a physics teacher. His plans changed when the world government began drafting Earth’s intellectual and physical elite for the United Nations Exploratory Force. (“Emphasis on the ‘force,’” Mandella wryly notes.) The organization’s purpose is to guard Earth and its fledgling colonies against a mysterious alien race that has vaporized a colony ship.

Beginning in 1997 — remember when it was written! — The Forever War tracks Mandella through basic training, an early ground campaign against an enemy outpost and subsequent assignments.

Haldeman, who wrote this book as a master’s thesis, per Wikipedia, has enough sense of how the world works to interweave exciting bits with rather duller bits. Some of the early chapters deal with the rigorous exercises Mandella’s unit undergoes on the remote Plutonian moon of Charon.

“You might as well regard all the training you got on Earth and the moon as just an elementary exercise, designed to give you a fair chance of surviving Charon. You’ll have to go through your whole repertory here: tools, weapons, maneuvers. And you’ll find that, at these temperatures, tools don’t work the way they should; weapons don’t want to fire. And people move v-e-r-y cautiously….

“But you might as well know that I won’t be displeased if as few as fifty of you, half, graduate from this final phase. And the only way not to graduate is to die. Here. The only way anybody gets back to Earth — including me — is after a combat tour.”

That’s a training officer speaking, and if it strikes you that he takes a rather different approach than the military does today, I agree. Haldeman, of course, wrote this book in the Vietnam War era, when the powers that be seemed to view troops as rather more expendable than they (arguably) do today.

Whereas there was no real science that I recall in Starship Troopers, Haldeman plays with physics in his story. Some but not all of that occurs outside the military action, such as when Mandella contemplates the physics of collapsar jumps, which has helped humanity access to the stars.

With The Forever War, Haldeman contemplates the shape of things to come in both war and peace. In one section, Mandella leaves the military, having met his minimum service requirement. But he finds that the planet and society to which he returns are not the ones he left behind.

The book’s title alludes to relativity, specifically time dilation. Put simply, as a starship moves faster, the passage of time on board slows down. Others experience years and decades even as travelers at high speed age only a month.

As Mandella’s voyages continue, he finds that the new young soldiers who serve with and under him are as different and strange to him as Earth was when he took his leave many, many years ago.

I mentioned earlier that the book has some duller bits. Although Mandella’s adventures are fantastic in many ways, he doesn’t always end up coated in glory. His failings as a commander at one point lead to many of his soldiers’ deaths. One of his missions must be aborted before it starts thanks to circumstances entirely beyond his control.

Without giving too much away, I’d say that Haldeman wraps up The Forever War in a fashion that is both tidy and touching without seeming artificial.

Haldeman has written two sequels to this novel, per Wikipedia. I’ll seek them out. In the meantime, any other science fiction fans who have yet to read The Forever War should put it at the top of their lists. Over and out.

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