Review: The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

Title: The Forever War

Author: Joe Haldeman


Publisher: Recorded Books

Format: Audio


I am very slow to pick up military stories. There seems to be some romantic notion that war is but a proving grounds for manhood. Each nameless enemy that is killed on the battlefield is celebrated and when the survivors return to their homes, they live happily ever after. Violence is glorified and the protagonist is completely just in his pursuit against an enemy (who also happens to be completely evil).

But this is not a description of The Forever War.

As the title suggests, The Forever War is not a short battle, but spans several generations. For William Mandella, the war is his life. He was a physics student when he was first drafted to battle an alien species called the Taurans, who were responsible for the destruction of the human’s colonial vessels. Traveling through a collapsar (worm hole), Mandella suffers the relativistic effects of FTL travel and ages much slower than those back on Earth.

Unlike most military science fiction, The Forever War is not focused on space battles, but the events in between. With each battle that Mandella fights, large amounts of time have passed and he must acquaint himself with new technology. Social norms also change over time. In the future, homosexuality is embraced due to overpopulation to the point that heterosexuality becomes outlawed. Unemployment becomes widespread on Earth, leading to inequitable rationing.

As I was listening to the novel through my iPod, I was envisioning an old military veteran reminiscing about the war. The reader (or listener?) is not live in the action, but rather is told rather matter-of-factly what happened in each battle. Mandella’s story focuses on the human side of war — telling stories of the men and women he worked with and how these relationships affected him.

I understand The Forever War to be a portrayal of Joe Haldeman’s experience in Vietnam and this is evident throughout the story. One wonders the alienation Mandella (and the author?) may have felt returning from war, being skilled as a soldier and trained in the sciences (to which he would later be very much out of date). His feelings for the usefulness of war also become apparent later in the novel.

The novel is somewhat dated, but still quite readable by today’s standards. The focus on the training, technology, and philosophy slowed the pacing down a little too much for my tastes, but the overall effect of the novel was very successful in depicting what I would imagine the effect of war would have on a man. I definitely consider The Forever War to be a must read for any science fiction fan, but it is not one to savor time and time again. I empathized with Mandella’s alienation from the modern culture and was left feeling uncomfortable through much of the novel. Fortunately, Haldeman manages to tie in the novel very nicely at the end, making The Forever War a satisfying and enduring read. I highly recommend reading it.

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