- What: The Forever War
- Who: Joe Haldeman
- Pages: 365, soft cover
- Genres: Science fiction; classic literature
- Published: 1974
- The lit: of 5 flames
I’ve always said sci-fi wasn’t really my “thing.” I don’t gravitate toward it at the library. I don’t look for the best sci-fi lists. I just click with other genres better. Enter the picture: Kyle, my partner of three years (whaaat?) and a huge sci-fi nerd. When we started dating, he was reading a gargantuan from Stephen King about a virus that wipes out the world.
Yeah. Not quite my thing.
But it is Kyle’s. Apocalyptic warfare? Intense technological enhancements? Human-erasing bugs? That’s him. I’ve read exactly one sci-fi novel in our time together (Station Eleven, ). So it was only natural that when I closed the cover on Eleanor Oliphant a few weeks ago while sitting next to BF that he suggested I read one of his favorite sci-fi novels: The Forever War. I relented, but he reminded me how I always say I’m going to read one of his books and don’t (truth) and convinced me that the story’s undertones of the Vietnam War, in which the author served, would captivate me.
Ugh he knows me so well.
Fine. For BF, I will read sci-fi. The things you do for love.
“I felt my gorge rising and knew that all the lurid training tapes, all the horrible deaths in training accidents, hadn’t prepared me for this sudden reality … that I had a magic wand that I could point at a life and make it a smoking piece of half-raw meat.” — Mandella in The Forever War
Let’s start with a disclaimer before we summarize: Space creeps me out. I think it has something to do with a religious upbringing, but the thought of floating forever in space — forever in itself freaks me out — and of other galaxies we can’t even fathom? It’s all just a bit much for me. And relativity? Shivers.
Well Kyle failed to tell me that 75% of this book would take place in space. Gee, thanks.
William Mandella is a physics student who is drafted by the United Nations Exploratory Force (think of one giant government on Earth) to fight in space against the Taurans, an unknown species that “attacked” colonists ships from Earth. Mandella is chosen, just like the rest of his comrades, because of his high IQ and health, not because he ever wanted to fight a war. While in space, he and his crew must travel to different planets and galaxies; therefore, due to time delation — that’s the relativity stuff — Mandella thinks he’s been in space for only two years when it’s actually been 27.
When Mandella’s tour is up, he returns to Earth with his lover, Marygay Potter, who fought side by side with him in space. However, because of the time divergence and the impact of the war, the pair returns to a much different place than what they left: It’s militarized and dangerous, the global currency is food, and homosexuality is encouraged (remember that this was published in the 70s). After being gone so long, how can two people be expected to come back and reintegrate into a different society? That’s asking a lot from our troops. Plus, Mandella and Potter are bored. After experiencing battles in space, what else is there for them on Earth?
Mandella and Potter reenlist and must face combat yet again; however, they are separated into different battalions and realize that because of relativity, they may never see each other again — or at least see the partner they once knew.
“If they could condition us to kill on cue, they can condition us to do almost anything. Re-enlist.” Mandella’s colleague in The Forever War
The rest of the book carries existential tones because our main character has realized there’s not much to his life anymore. He knows he’ll just go through the motions until the day he dies. He doesn’t care about fighting or defeating the Taurans; he recognizes the war for the moneymaker and careless mistake that it is. But what’s left for him on Earth?
There were many themes in The Forever War that reflected America’s relationship with Vietnam, and Kyle was right: It did intrigue me. A war that made no sense and seemed to last forever. A narcissistic government that couldn’t clean up its own mess or protect those who fought it for them. An enemy who we couldn’t understand, but did we even try? Soldiers who suffered from PTSD and reenlisted because of boredom and hopelessness. A retrospect of shame. Men who simply got promoted for seniority rather than ambition or skill.
Whoops, that’s a different topic, but it resonates nevertheless.
This story resembles a modern-day social commentary, especially with the pressure we put on veterans after returning from war, as well as our lack of understanding. It begs the question: What more can we do for them to better reenter society? Furthermore, Mandella’s relationship with life — and his lost sense of purpose — is much deeper than the actual plot, and in this, Haldeman speaks more truths and invokes more feeling than most of the books I’ve read this year.
“I was disgusted with the human race, disgusted with the army and horrified at the prospect of living with myself for another century or so.” Mandella in The Forever War
So why only three flames?
It’s not my discomfort with sci-fi and space. Yes, it exists, but I dealt with my fear of portals and planets. Fighting through discomfort is not a problem for me. My issue with this book is definitely personal, though, and not necessarily a reflection of the story. I’m simply not used to sci-fi concepts and language. It’s not easy to understand “collapsars” and “nova bombs” or the crazy suits the characters wear.
This confusion overtakes the other appealing qualities of the book. It’s hard to really get into something when you continually Google terms or ask your boyfriend for a clarification. The final battle of the book? I still don’t understand what happened there.
No, I didn’t fly through this book or feel a deep connection with it. I do appreciate, though, its impact and courage, how it embeds such serious themes, and how it can still feel relevant more than 40 years since it was released. This time around, it really was me and not the book. Maybe in a few years, I’ll feel a little more heat from The Forever War.
Alright, BF: What’s the next sci-fi book you recommend? I’m ready to be intrigued again.