The Forever War
by Joe Haldeman
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
After only a handful of short stories, Joe Haldeman established himself as one of the major SF authors with 1974's The Forever War, winner of the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and Ditmar awards. It can be viewed as a counterpoint to the Hugo winner I reviewed last month, Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers. Heinlein concentrated on the 'why we fight' angle, the necessity of the chosen few to sacrifice for the greater good, as well as the esprit de corps of the fighting unit. Haldeman looks at how the mentality of the military establishment is inevitably disastrous not only for the soldiers' fighting spirit, but for the well being of society as a whole. This was at least the third time I've read it, in different editions over the years. My current copy is a hardcover from the SFBC 50th Anniversary Collection. A mistake a lot of SF authors make is not setting their stories far enough in the future. The interstellar war against the Taurans begins in 1995, which was more than twenty years into Haldeman's future, but more than twenty years in the past for us now. The title is a bit misleading, since the war eventually does end, but it lasts between 900 to more than 1100 years, depending on whose perspective you reference.
A few years prior to the war, several collapsar fields were discovered, wormhole-like corridors through space. Some exploratory expeditions were lost, never to return to Earth, and it was speculated they may have been captured or destroyed by an alien force. An emergency drone from another expedition returns, and the analyzed data indicates its colony ship had been pursued and destroyed by an unknown ship near the star Aldebaran in the constellation of Taurus. The next ships sent out are heavily armed, and on the next encounter, the Earth force strikes first. The United Nations Expeditionary Force is established, and the Elite Conscription Act passed, creating the most intelligent fighting force the world had ever know. Next to nothing is known about the Taurans, so instead of recruiting skilled fighters, scientific knowledge and the ability to think and improvise under pressure is more highly prized. William Mandella was a physics professor who had intended to eventually transition into research, but the Army got him first. His training begins on the snow covered fields of Missouri, and consists primarily of constructing buildings using plastic components and adhesives that work at extreme low temperatures. Then his unit is shipped to Charon (at that time the fabled Tenth Planet, but that name was later given to the first verified moon of Pluto). From Charon they go to Stargate, which is near the first discovered collapsar. Plutonium-fueled tachyon drives had been developed to propel a ship to a high percentage of the speed of light, and once it enters a collapsar then exits another, its speed is maintained, the transit time between collapsars being effectively zero. Due to the effects of time dilation from near light speed travel, Mandella's first campaign against the Taurans seems to him just a few months, but it's been nearly ten years Earth time once they return to Stargate.
He gets a furlough to return to Earth, but conditions have deteriorated due to the war economy. Unemployment is high, and so is crime. He visits his now much older mother for a short time, then reconnects with a fellow recruit, Marygay Potter, who is staying with her parents on a farm commune in South Dakota. She is named for Haldeman's real life wife, Mary Gay Potter Haldeman. Conditions on the farm are a bit better than in Washington, but there is still danger from looters. They both decide to take advantage of the standing invitation to rejoin UNEF, and luckily are able to stay together on their next assignment. Very little progress had been made toward understanding the Taurans. None had been captured, and no ships or other materials recovered to be examined. It does seem they have learned from each encounter, since their tech advances at about the same pace as Earth's, so neither side can claim an advantage. Mandella had to continually learn new things as well. Not every journey utilized the same collapsar fields, and the variations of ship speeds means that some times they are resupplied by ships that have returned to Stargate or Earth more recently. Due to the war emergency, his original two year stint is expanded to five years, then later ten. He is physically only a few years older, but is continually thrown into contact with troops who were born hundreds of years after him, and thus he is continually confronted with major social changes, as well as changes in colloquial language. One thing Haldeman may have thought was a bold and shocking concept, as the population of Earth escalated, many people turned away from heterosexual relationships to homosexual ones, until eventually heterosexuality was considered deviant. Not inconceivable, but surely sterilization techniques were available, or other advanced forms of birth control.
Mandella says he is staunchly hetero, wants to maintain his relationship with Marygay, even though they have been separated, and might not ever reconnect because of the variable nature of collapsar travel. Earlier, it had been established that UNEF encouraged promiscuous relations between troops, although not between officers and enlisted. Most eventually settled into monogamous relationships. Before he and Marygay became a confirmed couple, Mandella had switched partners frequently, and on one occasion expressed a desire to be with another man, one who was popular with both genders. Either he didn't consider a brief exploration of bisexuality meant anything, or he later changed his mind, or else he was inconsistent or in denial. UNEF experienced a high attrition rate over the centuries the war lasted, Mandella being their longest serving soldier, even though he took part in only four enemy encounters. After the third, he underwent a comprehensive psychiatric examination. It was determined that he had a highly developed pacifistic nature, an assessment with which he was in full agreement. The only reason he stayed with UNEF is because by that time he didn't know anything else to do. Earth and its people were as alien to him as the Taurans. Plus, if he quit he would be court-martialed and executed. His last assignment takes place in another galaxy, the Large Magellanic Cloud, but the war officially ends without them being aware of it. By the time they return to Stargate it is 3138, and the war has been over for everyone else for 221 years. Subjectively for Mandella, he has served less than 6 years, but it's been a total of 1143 Earth calendar years.
Haldeman's only previous novel was the non-SF War Year, a semi-autobiographical account of his experience in Vietnam. This one expands on the concepts of the futility of war, at once an indictment against man's intolerance of the other, an alien race, as well as an even more harsh indictment of man's inhumanity toward his fellow man, his greed and selfishness, his impetuous tendency to strike out rather than try to communicate and reason. Mandella continually runs up against UNEF's pronouncements of policy, "Those are your orders" or "That's the way it's going to be." Basically, do as you're told, don't make waves, we know what we're doing, when in truth no one knows what's going on. It is years before anyone lays eyes on a Tauran, hundreds of years before one is studied, nearly a thousand before the details of the first encounters are understood. The old guard of the military-industrial complex were still in power when the war began, but if cooler heads had prevailed in the beginning, so much suffering on both sides could have been avoided. One of the more remarkable things about it is its brevity. A lot of current authors take a trilogy to do what Heldeman did in just a little more than 200 pages. It's a self-contained, stand-alone novel, even though you may see reference to the later book Forever Peace being a sequel. I haven't read it yet but intend to next month. From all indications it is only thematically linked, it does not continue the story of Mandella and Marygay. Forever Free (out of print, but on Kindle), does continue their story, but it pales in comparison to the original novel. I recall being very disappointed with its ending. But I'm sure The Forever War will long be considered one of the preeminent SF novels.
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