The Forever War (1974) by Joe Haldeman – 06/07/2020

Publisher: Gollancz, an imprint of the Orion Publishing Group Ltd (as part of SF masterworks series) Cover Design: Based on illustration by Chris Moore/Artist Partners

‘”Tonight were going to show you eight silent ways to kill a man

                  The guy who said that was a sergeant who didn’t look five years older than me. So if he’d ever killed a man in combat, silently or otherwise, he’d done it as an infant.

                  I already knew 80 ways to kill people, but most of them were pretty noisy.

A science fiction classic, closely based on the real-war experiences of its author, who served between 1967 and 1969 as a combat engineer in Vietnam. Haldeman was severely wounded and received the Purple Heart. At college he studied physics and astronomy, and he puts his knowledge of the cosmos to stellar use in The Forever War.

This is a fantastic book. Peter F. Hamilton, who authors the afterword of the SF masterworks edition, is quoted on the cover calling it ‘damn near perfect’. I can’t disagree. On one level, it is a gripping war novel (with humanity locked in a seemingly unending conflict against the ‘Tauran’ aliens). Haldeman uses his science fiction setting (which is realised in astonishing detail) to create a more impactful story, which explores the futility of war, and fallibility of man. What keeps you turning the page though, right from the opening paragraph, is how much Haldeman makes you root for the central character and narrator of the story, William Mandella.

You really do care about him. And it is his reassuringly sane mind which keeps the story grounded, while the terrifying effects of relativity cause the rest of humanity to become ever more alien. It is this side-effect of interstellar travel, based in existing scientific theory, which is used by Haldeman to express in sci-fi format the yawning disconnect between battlefront and homeland he experienced while serving in Vietnam. In The Forever War, each tour of duty, typically lasting less than ten months, may result in ‘time dilation’ of decades relative to the rest of the cosmos. This causes earth, and indeed the military practice of the United Nations Exploratory Force (UNEF) in which Mandella serves, to change radically between tours.

For Mandella, who is born in 1977 (and from whose perspective the story is told, to the extent that the book is divided into sections labelled according to his changing rank), this means returning home after his initial tour, to an Earth ravaged by famine and infighting, where calories have become the sole unit of currency, and homosexuality is encouraged by the government to control population growth. Haldeman deftly communicates Mandella’s bewilderment, and the lack of compassion he receives from much of Earth’s population, who see the ongoing war in largely economic terms (by providing considerable employment in a job-starved economy), rather than as a just fight. When the parents of both Mandella and his long-time partner Marygay are killed, one by a curable illness and the other by bandits, their last threads of connection to their homeland are severed, and they re-join the military.

Haldeman’s realisation of a future earth is believable, which of course, makes it ten-times more terrifying. And this mix of realism and fear are key components in the intricate universe he crafts. While the earth he depicts, even at the story’s beginning of 1996, is certainly not our own, it is one the reader can relate to. Yet this is clearly a harsher world. The United Nations appears to rule Earth with dictatorial power, and human life is not nearly as precious. And while the liberal application of ultra-violence is probably to be expected in a war novel, the way Haldeman makes death appear par for the course is troubling, and gripping.

As the story progresses, those elements of humanity familiar to the reader ebb away, just as they do for Mandella, the experience of the key protagonist mirroring that of the reader. Haldeman writes the novel in very matter-of-fact tones, allowing his extensive scientific knowledge to build verisimilitude. However, the book has a darkly comic edge, provided almost wholly by Mandella, whose reactions to his changing world provide a satirical tone. This allows Haldeman to explore the stupidity and corruption at the core of both the war itself, and his future society; all through the eyes of his immensely likeable central character.

The universe here is undoubtedly brutal, Haldeman depicts it unflinchingly, but the mirror in which we see its lunacy is Mandella, a figure who keeps us anchored to a kind of humanity with which we, the readers, are familiar. As a result, having survived astonishing peril, you are desperate for Mandella to get the happy ending he deserves. You realise, that by the end of the novel (which is well into the third millennium), as the sole likely survivor of the 20th century, his death would mean the end of humanity as we, the reader, know it.

Altogether The Forever War is a dazzling book. Initially luring you in with its promise of a war story and reluctant conscripted hero, it becomes part romance, part dystopian vision of a future earth, part social commentary, and an examination of war’s futility. Haldeman explores our capacity for stupidity and violence, but also for love, all with a hint of black comedy.

I read it in two days, and was gripped from start to finish. To no longer be in the company of Mandella left me feeling a bit lost, to be honest. Loved it, loved it, loved it.

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