The Forever War, Joe Haldeman (St. Martin’s Press, 1974)

ForeverWarCoverIRead(Military Science Fiction, Science Fiction, Post-Colonial, Identity)

Grade: Β — (Beta) Fantastic book within the genre, probably worth reading regardless of which genre’s you like, but has a setting or style that may not appeal to individuals who are not fans of a given genre. 

 In brief:

The Forever War is the classic future soldier’s story by Joe Haldeman and serves as one of the two pillars upon which Military Science Fiction stands.[1]  Inspired by Haldeman’s experiences in the Vietnam War, it not only tells the harrowing tale of men and women at war, it is also one of the best tales of the difficulty of returning from war that can be found regardless of genre.  This is truly a marvelous book that should really be read by anyone.


the-forever-war-coverOLDThe story starts in the near future (well okay the past now, 1997 in fact, but it was the future when it was written) and spans a thousand years into the future. Faster than light (FTL) travel exists, but though a ‘jump’ style technology that involves approaching a ‘collapser’ (which sounds a bit like a black hole) at a near light speed.  This creates a time dilation that serves as the foundation of the increasing alienation the characters undergo as the war goes on, and thus the book’s title.

In Depth:

The premise of Joe Haldeman’s masterpiece, The Forever War, is that in order to fight an alien race that humanity has engaged in hostilities with, a draft is imposed that conscripts highly educated individuals with IQs over 150. The tales begins with a brutal basic training that involves EVA work in a low-G, near-absolute zero environment, with a brilliant examination of the problems that physics create for someone just moving around in such an situation.  From here we get into the meat of the tale, which does not just involve some great combat scenes and fascinatingly grim views of conscripted military life, but more to the point, the nature of the growing alienation that the soldiers feel towards the rest of society as the war progresses.

joe-haldemanNow, to understand the core of this book, one must understand just a touch of near-light physics.  To totally over simplify the concept, the closer to the speed of light one goes, the shorter time passes for you, but the rest of the universe moves on at their own pace(s).  So, if I were to travel near the speed of light, only minutes might pass for me, while years pass for people on earth.

Using this principle to embellish the theme of his tale, Haldeman not only describes the impact of war on people, but also does a wonderful job of illustrating the problems of returning from war.  As the main character, William Mandela, fights on through his war, time stretches out behind him and decades, and later centuries change as he is in transit.  Not only does society not understand the nature of the war Mandela is thrown into, it changes drastically, while he does not.[2]  To this end, Mandela not only must cope with the changes to himself that occur due to his experiences in war, but a society that seems increasingly alien to him as time moves forward.

forever-warModernCoverAdded to this, of course, is the impact that such relative time travel has on combat.  Each time the soldiers jump, they really are travelling one way into the future.  Thus, they end up fighting enemies who have advanced technologically, while they have only aged a few days or weeks.  All thrown together, this makes for a rather unpleasant war.

Indeed, this grim view is one reason why The Forever War is so frequently contrasted to Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers.  While the latter is told first person from the tale of a gung-ho volunteer soldier who takes everything at face value, the former is told from the perspective of a conscripted soldier who is disillusioned even before he enters combat.  Yet such comparisons are often unfair to both books, for the subtlety of Heinlein’s book is often lost and the nature of Haldeman’s work beyond its war-time components is equally ignored.  To that end, while similarities clearly exist, each tale holds more to it.[3]

ForeverWarcoverImightHaveReadIn fact, the full version of the book that is now available goes into the experience of Mandela during his brief period back on Earth and out of service, and if you ask me (which if you’re reading this, you kind of did), this is the most important portion of the story. For while many readers find it a bit dull, it is central to Mandela’s tale: it explains how alienated he and his fellow surviving soldiers are upon returning to Earth.[4]  It illustrates the difficulties of returning home after years of service, and that is what the book is about: not what a future military should or should not be like, but what it is like to be a soldier.  Coming home is an important part of that, at least one hopes it is.

So, in short, The Forever War is a marvelous book that depicts the difficulties of being a soldier and returning home.  I would highly recommend it to any reader.

[1] The other being Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein (see review)

[2] Imagine if you will, a soldier from 1973 suddenly finding himself in a society of 2012.  Now imagine that soldier was from World War II, World War I, The American Civil War, the Napoleonic Wars, etc. etc. etc.

[3] Indeed, it is clear that both authors have (or in Heinlein’s case, had) great respect for each other.

[4] There is one other element of this book that I feel I should discuss, which is the nature of homosexuality as it is portrayed.  In brief, there is a bit of the book where in order to fight overpopulation, the government begins to encourage homosexuality, and over time, being homosexual becomes the norm.

Now first off, the easy bit: there is a scene where some of the new gay soldiers are shown as having feminine social traits (that is, they use make up etc.) and Haldeman has, it seems, expressed an embarrassment in how this was portrayed.  Of course, it was written in the very homophobic 1970’s and so, a bit of temporal cultural understanding should be given to the author.  We are products of our culture, and that culture changes.

This brings us to the second point, could you induce homosexual behavior through socio-cultural pressure?  Well… mmm…. There are lots of theories about homosexuality, but the prevalent one today (which does seem to make sense) is that most, if not all homosexuals are born that way and don’t become gay due to some social or psychological mechanism.  So, to this end, it might seem impossible to turn someone gay through cultural pressure.

However, I would like to point out that for centuries many homosexuals were forced to repressed their sexuality due to cultural pressure.  This was so effective that many individuals ended up with strong elements of self denial and/or self-loathing. Many gay or lesbians lived (or still do live) lives as straight, refusing to accept their own sexual nature.  Indeed, homophobia is often suggested to be linked to repressed homosexual desires.  To this end, I would suggest that given enough time and resources, a government could change the nature of people sexual behavior, though not necessarily one’s actual nature.  This could readily result in a homosexual social norm, and a society that was as heterosexist as the one Haldeman showed.

About Thomas Evans

I'm a writer of mysteries, espionage, and speculative fiction. In my previous incarnation I was an archaeologist specializing in gender and identity in Iron and Bronze Age Europe. Mostly, however, I was known for my works with the use of geomatics, multiscalular spatial analysis and landscape theory within archaeology.
This entry was posted in Classic Sci Fi, Conspiracy Novel, Far Future, Identity, Military Science Fiction, Near Future fic, Part of A Series but can be Read without reading previous volumes, Post Colonial, Ripping Yarn, Science Fiction, Space Opera, Stand Alone Novel, Ultratech, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Forever War, Joe Haldeman (St. Martin’s Press, 1974)

  1. The forever war is classic SF in that it uses science fiction to put an aspect of the real world into a high focus. In this case the idea that even when a soldier makes it back he/she can never really go home. The space combat ideas were interesting with basically both crews going to into hibernation in acceleration couches and the ship’s computer fought the battle. If you woke up a couple of days later, well your ship won. The effects on someone where one of those couches failed was unpleasantly realistic. Also the time dilation meant really whatever equipment was in the field was effectively obsolete and there was always the potential to run into an opponent more technologically advanced so no matter how competent or brave the characters might find themselves in a no win situation which again I found interesting.

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