Forever War, The by Haldeman, Joe, 1974

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Though I am mostly known for loving the more cerebral and socially-oriented SF, there is a soft spot in my heart for really, really good action-oriented and military SF. The list of books that I consider good enough for my "Best Of" reviews that come from this sub-genre is actually pretty small. Ender's Game. Hammer's Slammers. One of those Honor Harrington novels. There's a few others, but the book that may be at the top of this particular list, for me anyway, is undoubtedly The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman. If you have never read any military SF before, you should give it a try. There are legions of books out there that really are just battle pieces, but military SF in the hands of a skilled author can be so much more than just that. The good stuff does center itself around battles, weapons and tactics and such; warfare, in other words. But it also should also give a good slice of military life, and work in politics and the reactions of the civilians either to policy, or conflict itself. Military SF authors, of course, also spend considerable time with the conflict. In this book its man versus alien, but the aliens are so....well....alien, that the conflict is somewhat like man versus nature or animals. Haldeman himself is a Vietnam veteran who drew heavily upon his experiences to inform this book. It is however much more than a rehash of that war. Its also an well-informed send up of military life, a tale of interspecies miscommunication, and a pretty original description of future human society that is held back by an unwinnable war.

The Forever War is the story of William Mandella, a highly educated infantryman in a war with a race of beings called "Taurans." The war started in 1997 after a couple of miscommunications with the Taurans by humans after accidental meetings in space. When the action of the story starts a naval war is roaring, and Mandella and his fellow conscripts are being trained for the first infantry campaign against the Taurans. Actually, that is a bit of misdirection. Mandella and his unit will be used for infantry attacks occasionally, but mostly they will be used for garrison purposes. They are to guard so called "portal planets," which are satellites of ultra dense "collapsars," which themselves are gateways to wormholes. The collapsars allow instantaneous transportation basically anywhere there is another collapsar to eject from, but the collapsar itself has to be impacted at near light speed, so travel still takes long amounts of time. As a result Mandella, after fighting in four campaigns, is effectively the oldest soldier in the army, at just over 2000 years objective.

Haldeman does not spare the military much in this book. I think that he also did a pretty interesting job weaving in apocryphal stories about the military’s perceived lack of humanity. For example, Mandella and his unit are given a post-hypnotic suggestion to ramp up their anger in the first confrontation with the Taurans that results in the horrible and brutal slaughter of the enemy. He also dealt with the more seminal aspects of military life, such as an inter-service conflict between the army and the navy (much like the same in Heinlein’s Starship Troopers), the pointlessness of expressing individual opinion or suggestion in a combat situation where officers have already made up their minds, and constant rule changing to keep experienced soldiers on the front line. Also in the end the whole war was one big colossal mistake to begin with. However, even though it was obvious to me that Haldeman was frustrated with his own military service, this is really nothing more than gentle ribbing and moreover, acceptance of the way things are when a war is going on. In fact Haldeman also changed some key characteristics of the military, presumable to make a service that worked better. He allowed women in the service for combat duty, and also conditioned recruitment of women to the more “open minded” ones who were OK with multiple lovers, and who willingly complied with the service's direction to keep order up and hormones low. Liberal use of drugs was also allowed, and because of bank savings and relativity, the soldiers were always able to do what ever they wanted when on leave.

One of the most interesting aspects of this book however is the picture of future Earth society. If you have not read the complete version of this book, with the previously excised middle novella reinstated, it may be time to pick it up again. The picture is pretty grim, but very well done. The war has severely limited Earth's ability to send out successful colonies, and the few that are established are mostly military reservations. As a result Earth becomes very overcrowded, and all the things that you think would come after generations of that are realized. Things such as chronic violent crime, euthanasia as a way out of social and financial problems rather than health issues, limited energy resources, ultra-high unemployment, centralized and ineffective political and resource control and severely limited medical insurance availability have completely transformed the entire globe, and affect cities such as New York, NY and Pierre, SD equally. Mandella only comes into contact with Earth a few times between missions, and because of relativity hundreds or thousands of years pass between visits. In the end Earth feels the need to drastically change genetics and reproduction, and ultimately gets a hold on the problems first by going to test tube babies that are almost entirely homosexual and thus not inclined to reproduce, then to nothing but identical clones. The clones were part of an appeasement of the Taurans when peace is eventually agreed to, but once the transformation is made a group mind really takes over, leaving a post-human citizenry that has no intention of changing back.

Haldeman has written two loosely related sequels to this book, but in my opinion neither of them are anywhere near as good. He has also over his long and distinguished career put out many good solid military SF pieces, but with the exception of a novella called For White Hill from 1996, nothing reaches the heights of entertainment that The Forever War does. Five out of five stars.

Copyright © 2007, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 5 star(s)

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