Monday, December 24, 2007

Review - The Forever War

The Forever War
by Joe Haldeman
1976 Hugo Winner for Best Novel
1975 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

The Forever War is unique among Hugo winning novels. Besides being the first reflection of the post-Viet Nam America's response to the military in these books it is the only Hugo award winning novel that is a direct rebuttal to another winner. Haldeman's novel is the dark mirror of Heinlein's Starship Troopers but it stands on its own as well.

The Forever War follows the military career of William Mandella who is drafted into a war in the far off future of 1996. While there is faster than light travel to use it often requires some travel at relativistic velocities so Mandella experiences centuries of a changing world and warfare in his few years of subjective service. Initially the interstellar war goes well for earth but it descends to a centuries long quagmire as each side advances technology asymmetrically and as high attrition wipes out those earliest veterans Mandella rapidly rises through the ranks.

Haldeman goes extensively into the changes in a society as it grows accustom to an eternal war and every time that Mandella returns from a tour the world has radically changed in his absence. These changes typically drive him to return to service despite his better judgment. The use of these science fiction changes makes it so that the reader can empathize with the disorientation returning soldier. It is by far the strongest aspect of the novel.

Haldeman drew on his experiences in Viet Nam and consequently the descriptions of combat are some of the most evocative that you are going to find in science fiction. Battles are not glorious action sequences where heroic actions sweep back the vile aliens. They're chaotic terrors; a point of view common now but almost unheard of in science fiction thirty years ago.

One thing that I found off putting is that the military in The Forever War condones soldiers raping each other as part of their service. Haldeman presents this as more loose sexual mores in the future where no one would object to just using someone else not interested in having sex but I read it as rather creepy. In the novel the only example we see is a woman forcing herself on a man which might be his attempt to mitigate it.

The narrative arc is very similar to Starship Troopers in that we follow a soldier from training to enlisted man to officer and Haldeman does his own spin on powered armor too. The difference is in the government. Heinlein's government is a largely benevolent organization (perhaps fueled by the fact that those running it are all former civil servants), the commanding officers are generally competent albeit strained, and the war is truly a just war along the lines of World War II. Haldeman's government (perhaps that should read "governments" since there are many of them over the centuries) is manipulative at best and outright corrupt at worst. While they're not so vile as to simply pitch human beings into a meat grinder they are more than willing to lie to veterans and induce psychological torments. The officers are often pretty terrible and the first close "battle" with the aliens make it seem very likely that they were massacring civilians. In essence Starship Troopers is like those old war movies where our side are the good guys and things are unambiguous while The Forever War is the modern war movie where things are rarely simple.

It is impossible for me to praise The Forever War highly enough. Despite some quirks with some of the societal impacts The Forever War remains among the greatest depictions of the military in science fiction. It was at the forefront in a change in focus that was occurring with military science fiction which continues to this day. Haldeman's characters are richly drawn and the prose is sharp. The follow-up novels lack the power of this initial novel but the the emotional wounds of the war were still fresh and it shows through.