I picked up the Forever War by Joe Haldeman (Science Fiction 265 pages) last weekend and finished it the day after I bought it. As a general rule, I try to stay away from military or war books as I tend to find them either ridiculous in the execution of basic military principles or because the content disturbs me. This is one of those rare books that made me really sit and think when I was done with it and I’m glad I purchased it for my own collection, as I’m certain I will wind up referencing it again at some point.
“The Earth’s leaders have drawn a fine line in the interstellar sand – despite the fact that the fierce alien enemy they would oppose is inscrutable, unconquerable, and very far away. A reluctant conscript drafted into an elite military unit, Private William Mandella, has been propelled through space and time to fight in the distant thousand-year conflict; to perform his duties and do whatever it takes to survive the ordeal and return home. But “home” may be even more terrifying than battle, because, thanks to the time dilation caused by space travel, Mandella is aging months while the Earth he left behind is aging centuries….”
The Forever War was originally published in 1974, which is important because of the global situation at the time, especially for the United States. Vietnam was still recent in the memories of the people, and it was not a conflict that the public at large had much (if any) respect for. The servicemen returning from combat were not treated the same way that those returning from Iraq or Afghanistan are treated today. They were treated with scorn and disrespect. I can’t even imagine what kind of lifestyle and adjustments those military personnel had to deal with and I hope to never see that in my own lifetime. This is relevant because you can feel the complications throughout the entire book relating to war, politics, and the actual military member on the ground.
When I first picked up the book, I wasn’t too sure how well I would respond to it, since the typical book of this nature usually doesn’t hold women in a very high regard. In fact, the main character in the fourth paragraph of the story already sets the tone for this kind of macho behavior when he describes the first female character in the story as, “Not bad looking, but kind of chunky about the neck and shoulders.” The very first encounter with a female in the book and he’s discussing how she’s not attractive in his eyes. Which is completely fine, as this is a realistic representation of what a military male might think like during that timeframe. Heck, I have no idea what kind of thoughts and mindset are common for guys of ANY timeframe. My point there is that it feels like a very genuine and realistic point of view.
I was a little more disheartened when Mandella’s unit arrives at a Stargate and I read the paragraph on page 45 that says: “The only area big enough to sleep all of us was the dining hall; they draped a few bedsheets here and there for privacy, then unleashed Stargate’s eighteen sex-starved men on our women, compliant and promiscuous by military custom (and law), but desiring nothing so much as sleep on solid ground.” This really got me thinking about what kind of military environment that would make if everyone was required to be promiscuous. I suppose that in a future that has space ships and advanced technology, everyone would be on some form of birth control, but doing field exercises for days, weeks, or months on end is exhausting. So imagine doing that and then having to partake of other physically exhausting activities when you never knew how long you were going to be able to rest for. Wow. That would be a rough world in my mind.
But I kept reading anyway, because the story intrigued me. I liked the use of technology here, where centuries could pass on Earth but you wouldn’t necessarily feel it because you’d be out in hyperspace and travelling and near-light or faster-than-light speeds. So the world you thought you were fighting for would be completely different and possibly completely unrecognizable by the time you returned. So what are you really fighting for? Why are you really conducting all these training exercises and missions if there won’t be anything resembling your home when you’re done? If all your family members and friends are long dead and buried, what kind of identity could you possibly have?
And as the story got closer to some sort of conclusion, I’m glad I stuck with it if for no other reason than to see the progression of society. “Breeding” becomes something awkward and socially inconceivable. I really liked how Mandella dealt with the changes in the other military members while still maintaining his own sense of self. It was an interesting spin on things, especially given the time the book was originally published.
Overall, the book has some very depressing moments but I felt that it was well done and it maintained a solid and believable narrative. Some parts were more difficult for me to get through, but I’m glad I just pushed through and finished the story. As I mentioned in the beginning of this review, it was definitely a book that made me feel very philosophical. I’ll most likely read it again at some point.