In a sort of theme of futuristic sci-fi war dystopias (see Ender’s Game and Old Man’s War), I’ve decided to read Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War. It’s a famous book, and over 35 years old at this point. It’s most commonly compared to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, but that’s a rather facile comparison, especially today when we all know better.
Last year, the movie District 9 came out to great acclaim; the most common complaint was that its symbolism (hint: it’s an allegory for apartheid) was too ham-fisted and obvious. The Forever War is a little like that, except instead of apartheid, the book is an allegory for the Vietnam War, and most particularly the reacclimation of those who fought in it to post-war civilian life.
The story follows William Mandella, an exceptionally bright physics major who is conscripted into service in the United Nations Exploratory Force, a space-going organization turned war machine when a mysterious alien race they call the Taurans attacks several human vessels. After a rigorous basic training in icy Minnesota, Mandella and the rest of the first round of recruits is further trained on a planet called Charon, where a good portion of them are killed in the dangerous terrain.
What comes next is the narrative crux of the mission: Mandella and his fellow soldiers are sent via collapsars to distant parts of the galaxy; the benefit of the collapsars is that they are able to transport people at almost c, the speed of light. The downside is that traveling at such a speed generates relativistic effects, and by the time Mandella returns home after the battle (in which the humans obliterated a confused and spastic Tauran “army”), a decade has passed on earth, even though it’s been a mere two years from Mandella’s perspective. Imagine his surprise to find that the world no longer exists as he remembers it: after a number of political upheavals, famines, and other nasty business, homosexuality is officially encouraged by the government in order to reduce overpopulation, universal currency is now food (or a kind of “food allowance” that can be traded, etc.), and all sorts of small but important cultural reference points have shifted.
By now, it should be obvious what Haldeman is doing; namely, he’s drawing parallels between the alienation of returning Vietnam vets after a year or two away and the alienation of these future soldiers after a more damning ten years away. I must admit, it’s a rather clever narrative device, not least of which because time dilation is a fascinating concept (and critically underexplored/underexplained in the novel, might I add). I first saw it used in Dafydd ab Hugh’s Endgame, and it’s a ready-made way to introduce technological conflict into any story that includes near-c space travel.
I don’t mean to sound dismissive of Haldeman’s symbolism: remember that The Forever War was written in 1974, when the folly of our treatment of vets wasn’t the foregone conclusion that it is to readers a quarter century later. It was somewhat ballsy, and not a little prescient, considering that veterans in just about every era (including those of our current war in the Persian Gulf) face these psychological problems, but it’s even more difficult with a war (or “conflict”) as poorly-understood and fractious as our incursion into southeast Asia. In reality, Haldeman’s treatment of the subject was well done, as was his technological base. Even early on, I was impressed by the care the author showed for getting his science right, or at least plausible: in Mandella’s early training on Charon, a constant danger was falling in one’s suit, since any contact of the heat radiator fins of the suit with the prevalent liquid hydrogen would cause a large explosion. Haldeman’s attention to detail in explaining this phenomenon—and likewise to other science topics, like the time dilation—was satisfying to a fan of hard science fiction like myself1.
The book doesn’t end with Mandella’s first return to earth after 10 years; in fact, Mandella’s stint with UNEF lasts for close to a thousand years from the perspective of Earth, which is not only a little mind-boggling from a personal perspective, but must be a bear to coordinate logistically. By this point, the “time dilation qua shell-shock” point would be exaggerated, but by the end of the book, Haldeman avoids belaboring such a point, instead wrapping up the plot with a somewhat predictable but decent ending that’s both satisfying and a little melancholy. It is a bit reminiscent of Ender’s Game (or vice-versa, actually, since The Forever War was published first), but less hawkish, ultimately more concerned with the ethics of technology than the ethics of warfare. It becomes clear as the novel progresses that the war it describes is a peripheral narrative: though it commands the attention of UNEF for a millennium, readers will become aware that its folly is self-evident. Far more interesting are the speculative changes wrought by another thousand years of human progression, which I won’t spoil by divulging here. Needless to say, I think Haldeman’s eye for culture is what engenders—or what should engender—the frequent and cloying comparisons to Starship Troopers.