Reviewed by MIKE TOONEY:
JOE HALDEMAN – The Forever War. St. Martin’s Press, hardcover, 1970. Ballantine/Del Rey, paperback, 1976. Avon, paperback, 1991 (includes material excluded from earlier editions). AvoNova, paperback, 1997 (author’s definitive edition). Sections were originally published in Analog SF as four shorter works; “Hero”, “We Are Very Happy Here”, “This Best of All Possible Worlds”, and “End Game.” “You Can Never Go Back” was published in Amazing Stories and eventually became part of the paperback version of the novel.
William Mandella, the child of hippie parents, gets caught up in events way beyond his control. Just before a battle he pauses to reflect:
Then what the hell are you, we, am I answered the other side [of my mind]. A peace-loving vacuum-welding specialist cum physics teacher snatched up by the Elite Conscription Act and reprogrammed to be a killing machine. You, I have killed and liked it.
Like all draftees, William didn’t ask for this, but now that he’s in it he knows it’s kill or be killed. Such is the way with all wars. High-flown rhetoric about “why we fight” sells newspapers, but when you get right down to it, you fight for your life and your buddies’ lives—and not necessarily in that order.
From all reports, an alien race known as the Taurans (what they call themselves is anybody’s guess) have attacked an Earth transport without provocation and a state of war now exists. So it should be a simple matter to track the Taurans to where they live and reduce them to less than nothing with tachyon bombs, right? Not quite. It was recognized centuries ago that infantry is the queen of battle, meaning that no matter how many ships and planes and bombs you throw at them, sooner or later somebody has to occupy and hold the enemy’s terrain.
Enter William Mandella, reluctant hero. The Forever War chronicles Mandella’s wartime experiences from raw recruit to company commander, his battles (which are never glorious), his love for Marygay (which is marked with pain and keen loss), his injuries (which include mutilation), and his reactions to the changes wrought by time on the culture he left behind—for, while he and Marygay struggle to survive, back on distant Earth, things are getting stranger . . . and stranger . . . and stranger . . . .
The best writers—SF authors among them—are able to transport the reader to a time and place and culture that either once existed or exists only in their imagination. Haldeman succeeds by limiting us to Mandella’s perception of events; William’s wry and laconic narration convinces us of the plausibility of the advanced technology he dazzles us with even as we realize with our logical faculties how unlikely all of this is.
There’s high-tech aplenty in The Forever War: tachyon drives allowing high-speed movement through normal space at velocities nearing the speed of light; interstellar travel through “collapsars” (collapsed stars, which have since been commonly termed “black holes,” permitting instantaneous passage through what are now called “wormholes” connecting to other collapsars); battlesuits that recycle everything, making it possible for troopers to stay in them for weeks (not really a pleasant prospect, just ask Mandella); stasis fields that dampen electronic systems, thus necessitating fighting with bows and arrows and swords (!); and acceleration pods that make it possible for the frail human body to withstand upwards of twenty-five gees — of course, you’re totally incapacitated and in a near-coma, but at least you won’t wind up looking like a bowl of salsa that’s been slammed into a wall. And let’s not forget Heaven, which William and Marygay get to without dying.
Since the tachyon drive permits near-light-speed travel, Haldeman makes the most of Einstein’s relativity theory, hanging two important plot points on it—which we won’t reveal. But think about this: As you may recall from that physics class you might also have slept through, Saint Albert tells us that the faster you go, the slower time passes for you, while in the outside universe time passes at its normal rate.
The spaceships in The Forever War travel from collapsar to collapsar at relativistic speeds, taking weeks, months, or even years in transit; but once they enter the collapsar they exit at the other end in the smallest fraction of a second—in one instance jumping 140,000 light-years in the blink of an eye. This implies that the folks on the ship seem to age more slowly than the people back on Earth—and that means kids like William Mandella grow older just a few years at a time while centuries are passing back home. Imagine Christopher Columbus returning to Spain this afternoon and you’ll get an inkling of what Haldeman is up to.
The Forever War was awarded a Nebula (voted by writers and editors) and a Hugo (voted by fans) back in 1976. We believe it was as much a zeitgeist vote — most Americans were fed up with the conflict in Vietnam, a kind of “forever war” that never seemed to end — as an acknowledgement of the quality of the writing, which is nevertheless quite high for the usual “hard science fiction” novel.
The Forever War invites comparison with Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. Many believe Haldeman was writing a rebuttal to Heinlein’s book, but Haldeman is reputed to have denied it; so the jury’s still out on that.
Joe Haldeman, a Vietnam War draftee and Purple Heart recipient, is still producing fiction.