The Forever War is a classic sci-fi novel written by American author Joe Haldeman, first published in 1974 and in constant publication since, including foreign language translations. It won the Nebula Award in 1975 and the Hugo and the Locus awards in 1976.
The Forever War was adapted into a Dutch graphic novel in 1988, drawn by comic book author Marvano, with text and dialogue by Haldeman himself.
A film adaptation has been lingering in project development hell since the early 1980s, with the film’s rights constantly changing hands. In 2008, the film rights were secured by Ridley Scott’s production company, with Ridley himself slated as the director; however, his on-and-off involvement dates as far back as 1983, right after his production of Blade Runner, first as a hired hand director and now as the project leader for the film.
Often grouped with the military science fiction sub-genre, the novel aspires to more lofty ambitions than just showing off imagined futuristic techno gear or enacting fast-action scenes blowing up alien ass.
As such, it’s often regarded as a deconstruction of those very tropes and memes while still delivering the assorted futuristic high-tech gear and the protagonists kicking alien ass. There’s war, but there are also consequences; moreover, these consequences are not limited to the impact on the protagonist alone, but the larger canvas of humanity itself as well.
The Forever War tells the tale of William Mandella and the peculiar war he’s in.
When space explorers are killed seemingly without warning by an alien race called Taurans, interstellar war begins. Space soldiers are conscripted among the brightest, most educated, and healthiest college students, the kind of people who would make great astronaut material. Their training is gruesome and severe, taking place both on Earth and the extremely harsh conditions of Charon, a fictional planet beyond Pluto. Mortality among the recruits is high.
Mandella is part of the first group that Earth sends against the Taurans. Voyages between the stars are done via collapstars, celestial objects of wormhole-like properties; however, those are located at the very outskirts of each star systems, so traveling there takes months or even years. The collapstars create relativistic distortions, so even though the mission spans months and years in the soldiers’ eyes, those on Earth perceive it as decades or more. This adds to the risk of the combatants finding themselves outdated and facing an enemy who has enjoyed decades of technological advancement.
Mandella’s first mission is brutal and, though deemed a success, causes heavy casualties on both sides due to hypnotic suggestion that made the soldiers extra-aggressive and reckless. Strangely, the enemy had been quite unresisting when the humans opened fire.
Mandella returns to a world he barely recognizes. Due to time dilation, decades have passed in the two years he was on this mission. Society has changed quite a bit, the whole Earth is in the grips of a severe economic crisis due to expenditure on the war effort, and even his family sees him as a stranger they can’t connect to anymore.
The only person he can relate to is his comrade-in-arms and occasional lover Marygay Potter. After enjoying accumulated back pay on an extended vacation, they go live with her parents, who now live on a farm like many have done to avoid famine; however, the farms are constantly raided by bandits, and after a dramatic fight against marauders, Mandella and Marygay realize they have nothing to hold them to this new world. They decide to re-enlist with the military.
Mandella and Marygay depart further from the Earth they fight for with each mission, until even the human race is no longer recognizable and they become more and more alienated, both figurative and literally. Each mission exponentially decreases their chance of survival.
Author Joe William Haldeman is a Vietnam War veteran, drafted into the US Army in 1967 where he served as a combat engineer. Just before being drafted, he received a Bachelor of Science degree in Physics and Astronomy by the University of Maryland. Haldeman was wounded in combat and was awarded the Purple Heart, and after the war, he received a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing by University of Iowa.
The Forever War is heavily influenced by war experience as well as his education in physics, astronomy, and literature. Haldeman’s knowledge of astronomy and physics gives the novel its own flavor of realism with its creative use of real-life physics for a unique depiction of space warfare and the dangers it entails.
By serendipity, the novel depicts a planet beyond the orbit of Pluto called Charon. In 1978, after the publishing of the novel, a moon orbiting Pluto was discovered and named Charon. Although an incredible coincidence, the Charon depicted in The Forever War is not Pluto’s larger moon.
The collapstars depicted in the novel are very much like what is now known as wormholes, though in the novel they are natural objects. The inevitable time dilation effects gives the novel its major premise and is milked for dramatic effect – each time a soldier goes on an interstellar combat mission, they experience time significantly shorter than the much longer time span experienced by those left behind, where months or a year in-mission is equivalent of decades or even centuries of Earth time.
Most sci-fi stories of the space opera/military space war variety try to ignore or dismiss the effects of time dilation in interstellar travels that involves faster-than-light speeds. This is one of the few stories that incorporates the phenomenon and uses it for dramatic effect. It also serves as a metaphor for a common effect experienced by soldiers who have fought overseas: their sense of alienation when they return home, often finding it different and strange compared to the world they used to know.
Another real life physics element that the story uses for tension and drama is its unique depiction of ship-to-ship combat. Due to the enormous distances of space, ships engage in combat from hundreds of thousands to millions of kilometers away, firing volleys that take days or weeks to reach their targets, the chance of survival depending as much on the automated weapon systems’ efficiency as the quirks of chance. The soldiers transported in the ships, therefore, experience prolonged times of desperate helplessness during space engagements.
Despite this, ground combat is by no mean a relief. The time dilation can cause the combatants to face against an enemy which might have benefited decades of technological advancement. To compare this with something from our universe, it’s similar to if you had departed to your mission as a WWI soldier just to reach your destination facing an enemy soldier of WWII, the Vietnam War, even of today. The gap in technology could be crippling.
Haldeman also uses his background knowledge for a realistic look at the nature of war and how it affects the lives of both the protagonists and the whole of humanity itself. While the novel is great on its own, the historical context of the Vietnam War gives us a richer understanding and insight into the story and its themes.
The enemies are an alien race called the Taurans, named as such because it’s a catchy name to be used in war propaganda. Unlike humans, they are hive creatures, and this is noted as one of the reasons the two species cannot communicate. This difference is an important element used as darkly humorous irony for the climax of the story.
Failure of communication, propaganda over rational understanding, conditioning of individuals, and controlling/engineering the masses for cold, practical wartime needs are subjects heavily criticized in the story. The novel also has a less then favorable opinion of the demonization of the enemy that is done in times of warfare.
The Forever War also alludes to the common experience of soldiers at war, with long stretches of morale-destroying boredom interrupted by brutal combat violence, death, and destruction.
The story fuses the scientific paradox situation with real-life war issues when the high-tech weaponry proves less than ideal when faced with a particular combat situation or when former tactics and weapons deemed archaic are resurrected due to the quirks of technological advancement. This situation was a trademark of the Vietnam War, and Haldeman’s later Vietnam period novel, 1968, sheds more light on this element we find in The Forever War.
The first American soldiers sent to Vietnam were equipped with weapons that proved obsolete compared to some of the more modern Soviet-equipped weaponry of the Vietcong. While the U.S. Armed Forces were equipped with the most advanced weaponry made by the American arms manufacturers, they proved to be inefficient to the local conditions of the war. This was insufferable to a point when some American G.I.s opted to use old WWII weapons or those captured from the enemy instead of what they were sent with.
A similar situation happened again in the 2011-2014 Afghanistan War, where older 7.62mm caliber combat rifles were brought back to service when the 5.56mm assault rifles, the bulk modern day weapon of choice, proved inadequate to many of the difficult conditions of the war.
In Haldeman’s experience, the Vietcong itself often used tactics that were completely alien to American fighting doctrine, and it was as if the Americans were fighting an enemy they couldn’t comprehend – an enemy whose culture, morality, and mentality differed so much from their own. Most combat situations had them fighting an invisible enemy hidden in the mountain jungles of Central Vietnam, a contrast to the more visible enemy armies of WWII. The effect was demoralizing.
When the soldiers returned home, be it on leave or after discharge, they returned to a world and society they often had difficulty reconciling from what they knew before.
The novel expands all of this into an interstellar conflict of mass proportions from compounding disadvantages: an alien race the humans can’t communicate with, extremely dangerous conditions, time dilation alienating the combatants from the very thing they were fighting for, enemies of unknown numbers, and far advanced technology.
In the book, the advancements in technology created “stasis fields,” energy shield-like apparatuses that prevent penetration from anything traveling faster than pace velocity, thus negating the use of nuclear, energy, kinetic, and high-velocity projectile weapons. This results in reverting to throwing spears, stabbing weapons, and ancient history phalanx tactics. The irony is constantly brought up by the protagonist.
Beyond the premise, the war, sci-fi tech elements – the typical things that make this sub-genre appealing – the thing that will probably hook the reader to this story is the protagonist of the story, William Mandella. Although he is sometimes used to expose Haldeman’s own views of world and war, Haldeman manages to avoid the Mary Sue trap of encompassing an ideal form of himself in the character. The result is an unusual hero for this type of story.
Mandella is a veritable intellectual who is as quick of mind as he is a bad ass on the battlefield. He often finds himself fighting for absurd and stupid reasons, having to deal with less than ideal circumstances that could have been made better simply by better planning or smarter leadership. In his first mission, he is able to rationalize the absurdity of the hypnotic conditioning he was subjected to, yet he can’t prevent from acting accordingly.
Later on, when he is distanced from the human society by centuries, he is looked upon as an archaic relic and a pervert due to the differences of costumes and morals; this issue is compounded when, due to promotion, he becomes commanding officer of a unit made of soldiers born centuries after him from a very different society (like, imagine a modern day soldier under orders from a Napoleonic War or a medieval officer… yeah!)
Included in this culture clash is the difference in sexual politics between Mandella and the various epochs he lives through. He is, literally, a man out of his time for most of the novel, and thus is faced with the inevitable prejudices.
This novel has a fine-tuned balance between being a compellingly plotted story and a character piece and is successful as both. Not to mention, the battles described are thrilling.
The Forever War is by far Joe Haldeman’s better-known work and probably the most emblematic and insightful in regards to him as a person. Haldeman returned to the Vietnam War, this time without the allegory of science fiction with 1968. Those two novels make for quite an unlikely but inevitable companion piece due to their direct influences.
The Forever War has a quasi-sequel (less a direct sequel but more in spirit and themes than setting) with 1998’s Forever Peace, a direct sequel with 1999’s Forever Free, and 2006’s short story, A Separate War.
This is a short YouTube clip about Haldeman and his influences on The Forever War:
It has been said that The Forever War is an answer and even a rebuke to Robert E. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. There is validity to this notion. Both novels have the similar premise of a space war as seen from the level of the infantryman, the grunt in the field. What differentiates them is the tone and the attitude toward the military institutions. And this can be deduced by a look at both authors’ lives.
Heinlein and Haldeman have their U.S. Military service in common, Heinlein in the Navy and Haldeman in the Army. Both were trained in sciences and engineering, but Heinlein never saw combat. He was discharged in 1934 due to pulmonary tuberculosis, years before the outbreak of WWII. Haldeman, on the other hand, was conscripted to the army and sent to fight in the Vietnam War, where he experienced the horrors of war first hand.
I believe this resulted in their different views of war. Heinlein served during peacetime as an officer and never saw combat, so he retained an idealistic vision of warfare and a clear definition of friend and foe. Haldeman experienced the much more murky nature of the Vietnam War as a low rank soldier, the life of the grunt in the middle of “the shit.”
It’s fair to say that without Starship Troopers there wouldn’t be The Forever War, but the two are pretty different in their portrayals of war and most importantly, the personality of their respective protagonists. Some could even say that it says something about the reader depending on which novel they prefer. For the record, Heinlein loved The Forever War, as told to me by Haldeman himself.
I once had the privilege to exchange a short correspondence through emails with Haldeman in the late 1990s, which started when I wrote to him in praise after recently discovering his better-known novel. We discussed some subjects related to the novel and the state of the world at the time. He proved to be a very accessible man, eager to engage with his readership.
He had recently visited my country for a sci-fi convention – which unfortunately I failed to attend – and was fascinated and in love with some of our local fish dishes like bacalhau (salted codfish) and caldeirada (fish stew). Since he is an enthusiastic amateur cook, I asked my father (a skilled home cook) for his recipes for Bacalhau À Brás and Caldeirada de Cação and sent the English translations to Haldeman.
It was a fun little human moment between me as a reader and a known, famous author. In a modest way, it shows the human communality between us all, regardless of age, culture, or nationality, and something that could have only happened in this era of nearly instant electronic communication. It’s very much like living out a scenario of a sci-fi story in real life and foreshadowed my own future dealings and friendships created through sites such as this very one, where I can engage with people from other nationalities and walks of life.
The Forever War is a classic of the sci-fi genre and deservedly so. It is one of my favorite sci-fi novels.
Thanks to the quirks of human history and the nature of humanity, constant dialectic repetition of the same mistakes is nowhere so well expressed than through the famous quote from essayist George Santayana: “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” This novel has remained as relevant today as when it was first published in 1974, not just because it’s a great read, but also due to the circumstances of today’s world where we have just as many parallels to the novel as they did during the Vietnam War.
And it’s a fantastic, fun read – great literature lasts into the future.
This is AsimovLives signing off. Have a better one.