Book Review: The Forever War

Book Name: The Forever War
Author: Joe Haldeman
First Published: 1974
Nebula Award winner, 1975; Hugo and Locus SF Awards winner, 1976

Joe Haldeman, an American author, traveled a great deal as a child, living mainly in Anchorage, Alaska and Bethesda, Maryland. He married Mary Gay Potter (who inspired the name of the main character’s love interest in The Forever War) in 1965. Haldeman received his BS degree in Physics and Astronomy from the University of Maryland in 1967. That same year, he was drafted into the United States Army as a Combat Engineer and served a tour of duty in Vietnam. He was wounded in combat and received a Purple Heart. The ideas of the military and the culture shock that soldiers go through when returning from war in his award winning novel The Forever War were inspired by this combat experience. In 1975, he earned an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Currently, Joe Haldeman resides in either Gainesville, Florida or Cambridge, Massachusetts. Since 1983 he has been an Adjunct Professor teaching writing at MIT. He is a lifetime member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), and a past-president. In addition to being an award-winning writer, Haldeman is also a painter.

The Forever War begins with Private William Mandella, a physics student who is conscripted for an elite task force in the United Nations Exploratory Force that is being put together to fight a war with an alien species known as the Taurans. These aliens had discovered a human colony ship and attacked it and the people of Earth want revenge.

Mandella is sent first to Missouri and then to Charon, the last planet in our Sun’s solar system for basic training. Many of the young, genius soldiers are killed due to accidents in the hostile environments and the use of live ammo in training. Once they are certified for combat, they are sent into battle via wormholes called “collapsars” which allow UNEF ships to travel thousands of light-years in an instant for the passengers, but with relativistic consequences.

The UNEF’s forces first meeting with the Taurans takes place on a planet orbiting the star Epsilon Aurigae. It becomes a massacre, with the unarmed and unresisting Taurans being wiped out. The fighting continues with the Taurans gaining on them as the aliens deploy increasingly advanced weaponry against the earth soldiers. Mandella lives through his first two year tour of duty and is discharged back to Earth, along with his fellow soldier and lover Marygay Potter. The 21st century soldiers discover that while only two years have passed for them, several decades have passed on Earth. Mandella experiences culture shock as he attempts to re-enter a world where unemployment is high, rationing and violence is more commonplace, and homosexuality is encouraged by most governments as a hedge against overpopulation.

Mandella tries to find work as an instructor on Luna, but the military reassigns him to combat command, treating him more like a cog in a machine. He accepts the return to combat as being better than remaining on a planet where he doesn’t fit in and many of his fellow soldiers feel the same way. He survives the next four years of military service, almost more due to luck than any other reason. In time, he becomes the oldest surviving soldier in the war, gaining high rank due to seniority. He is separated from Marygay by UNEF’s plans and awaits to command soldiers who speak a language unrecognizable to him, who have a homogenized ethnicity and are exclusively homosexual because of the centuries of time he has passed via relativity. The men hate him because they must learn 21st century English to speak with him and the other senior staff and because he is heterosexual.

Returning to combat, Mandella and his soldiers battle to survive what is touted as the last conflict of the centuries long war. The time dilation continues back home. In the centuries that pass while Mandella fights, humankind develops cloning which results in a new collective species that calls itself Man. The new collective discovers that the Taurans are also a species of clones that communicate in a similar way that the new humans do. When Man gains the ability to communicate with the Taurans, it discovers that the Taurans were not originally responsible for the destruction of the colony vessels that led to the start of the war. The information renders the millennium-old conflict meaningless and the war is over. The soldiers are decommissioned, but there is no real place for them in the new order since they are not clones.

Man decides that a backup plan is needed in case the new cloned species of human proves to be a mistake. Several colonies of old-fashioned, heterosexual humans are established. Mandella travels to one of these, called “Middle Finger”. There he is reunited with his love, Marygay who had been using time dilation to age at a slower rate so that she might have a chance of being alive when Mandella arrives.

The Forever War remains as bright and relevant today as it did when it was written 35 years ago. At the time, it must have been thought of as a satirical send-up to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, considering that it was about a futuristic military with spaceflight, futuristic weapons and written from the point of view of a soldier, yet retained an anti-war theme and even featured a romance. The explanation of the effects of relativistic time dilation on the lives of the soldiers that experienced it was a first, making this a brilliant piece of hard science fiction. It is a book that has stayed with me for many years since I first read it during college. If you are a reader or writer of science fiction, it is a novel that you need to experience. It is a true classic.

The Forever War Book CoverThe Forever War series:

The Forever War (1974) (Nebula Award winner, 1975; Hugo and Locus SF Awards winner, 1976)
Forever Peace (1997)
Forever Free (1999)
“A Separate War” (2006, short story)
“Forever Bound” (2010, short story)

10 thoughts on “Book Review: The Forever War”

  1. One of my favorites! I bought the ebook version about a year ago to replace my original paperback copy that was falling apart. I’m anxious to see if Ridley Scott can do the book justice in film. Nice review!

  2. One of my all-time favorite books! A high-school friend snagged my copy from one of the English teachers…i still have it. Thanks for reviewing it!

  3. Thanks for the for the nostalgia, I first read this book back in the seventies and a couple times since but years ago. I think that I’ll see if I can find it again!!

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