The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

This Hugo and Nebula award-winning story of interstellar warfare was first published in book form in 1974, but in a different version from the one the author intended. It originally appeared in serialised form in Analog magazine but one of the sections was felt by the book publishers to be too downbeat, so was changed. Not until 1991 was the book published with the excised section reinstated, and this is the version being reviewed here.

The Forever War is set in an alternate world, apparently similar to our own up to the Vietnam War (experience of which prompted Haldeman to write this book) then diverging rather radically to include interstellar space travel by the 1990s. However, the early explorers found themselves fighting the Taurans, an alien race very loosely humanoid in form. William Mandella is a college graduate drafted to fight in the war, and this first-person story follows his perilous and brutal combat career from one star system to another.

Haldeman emphasises the relativistic effects, which mean that a journey lasting only a few months in subjective time can result in a return to Earth decades or even centuries later. This not only means that the soldiers become increasingly cut off from Earth, where conditions change radically on each visit, but that weapons and other technology evolve considerably while they are travelling. It also means that if two lovers are posted to different star systems, they will never meet again.

I first read this about a decade ago, and recall admiring it more than I liked it. That's still the case, simply because the hero's situation is so grim and gloomy throughout. The combat casualty rate is frighteningly high, and society on Earth changes to become as dystopian as you are likely to find. Almost all of this book is very good indeed, the author's war experience providing a gritty ring of truth, emphasised by the laconic and cynical writing style, but for me it was spoilt a little by a rather bizarre ending which drifts more towards fantasy. The author suggests that clones would not only have perfect communication but would effectively have only one shared mind; a moment's thought would have revealed that identical twins (who are effectively clones), while often very close, are separate individuals. Despite this, The Forever War merits its awards and its place on the SFF Shelf of Fame; it is a true classic. But I felt a strong need to read something light and upbeat after finishing it.

(This entry is cross-posted from my science-fiction & fantasy blog.)