Joe Haldeman, “The Forever War” (1974) – You have to be careful with science fiction picked out by literary gatekeepers. Sometimes they’ll try to convince you that Ray Bradbury is a great scifi writer, which even Martin Prince knows is bunk. Other times you’ll see the Library of America lionize Philip K. Dick with a big rollout of his novels, which was quite welcome. Joe Haldeman’s “The Forever War” began life as an Iowa Writer’s Workshop story and my copy features praise from Junot Diaz as well as an oddly-worded endorsement from Stephen King; none of these are great signs. The title itself has become a commonplace, a term for the War on Terror after journalist Dexter Filkins filched the phrase for a book of his own.
But I am pleased to report that “The Forever War” “checks out.” It begins with adherence to some simple premises: physics and military life are defined by certain constants. In physics, that’s the speed of light and relativity; in military life, boredom, terror, thoughtless chains of command and obedience. Haldeman plays out the combination of these constants with the scifi ur-trope of interstellar war with rigor and verve.
William Mandella, the narrator, was born in the seventies and sent to the space war against the alien Taurans in the nineties, but soon enough such simple temporal denotations prove insufficient. Spaceships travel through “collapsar” portals at relativistic speeds- Mandella and his buddies age a few months but years, decades, eventually centuries go by to the “objective observers” living on Earth and the rest of human society. This brings a new spin to the age-old quandaries of reacclimating to civilian society. Mandella comes back to an Earth overpopulated (this is seventies scifi after all, gotta have some overpopulation) and crime-ridden, eventually hops forward a few centuries after another collapsar jaunt to find nearly-mandatory homosexuality! What’s a guy to do?
Well, Mandella mostly stoically rolls with the punches and reserves judgment. Except for the the military hierarchy- that gets some judgment for being ignorant, tone-deaf, and sneaky, getting Mandella and his lover MaryGay to reenlist in the war through various designs. There’s some funny early parts where the military, presumably reacting to the changes of the sixties and seventies, encourages soldiers to curse at the officers ritualistically, to sleep with each other (this is a coed fighting force) and smoke weed, but that’s all just cosmetics over the eternal reality of the military. The fighting with the Taurans gets across the boredom-terror dichotomy veterans so often refer to, and there’s no glory to be had in this space-suited combat across kilometers with a foe who is deadly but whose heart doesn’t seem to be in it. In the end, the war was a big misunderstanding- one is tempted to say “like most wars” but that might be giving people too much credit.
Haldeman is a Vietnam veteran who was wounded in combat, and it’s been argued that “The Forever War” belongs in the canon of Vietnam War literature… I’m ambivalent about that- would “Lord of the Rings” belong in WWI literature? But either way an interesting question about an interesting book. ****’