The Forever War

October 3, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

foreverThe Forever War by Joe Haldeman


This is my first time reading The Forever War, which surprises me. A few years back, I embarked on a classic science fiction reading project (Dune, Foundation, some Alfred Bester, etc.), and Haldeman didn’t come up at all, despite this being considered a classic of military science fiction. It wasn’t until I read John Scalzi’s Old Man War that I knew about Haldeman’s book.

Interestingly, Scalzi wrote the introduction to the edition I read and revealed that when he wrote Old Man’s War, he hadn’t read The Forever War, which surprises me. OMW feels so much like Scalzi’s take on the book that it seemed impossible that he wasn’t drawing inspiration from it. OMW hits some of the same beats and notes, sometimes at the same tempo, that without that introduction, I would never have believed it.

Much has been written about The Forever War, but it’s a science fiction novel about war in outer space against an unknown enemy. Haldeman writes about the effects time dilation at faster-than-light travel has on people, partly to illustrate how alien home life can be for real soldiers returning from their own tours. It’s no secret that The Forever War was Haldeman’s way of writing about his own experience in the Vietnam War, but even if much hadn’t been made of it already, readers would pick up on it easily.

The story is a little complicated, due to how it portrays some military habits, and how it portrays the main character, William Mandella. It was published in 1974, so it’s important to view some of the story as a product of its time, but it’s hard to tell if Haldeman is using satire to prove a point, or if he’s reflecting his own feelings on certain subjects. In one notable scene he casually mentions that the female soldiers in the war are required to be available for sex, and it’s hard to tell if it’s commentary or wish fulfillment. It comes across as sexist, but is it intended to? What’s the commentary, if there’s supposed to be any?

It’s also hard to tell what Haldeman is saying about homosexuality in the story. Mandella comes across as homophobic, though the story isn’t overtly so. It doesn’t speak out against it, but neither does it support it. The story presents it as a choice (in an overpopulated future, homosexuality is recommended as a form of birth control), and it also shows Mandella having a hard time accepting it of his own mother. Her story is also complicated, since at the time in the story when she takes a female companion, it’s not required to be homosexual. The government encourages it, but doesn’t offer any kind of incentive for choosing to be so. She’s presented as old enough not to worry about birth control, so why make that choice? It suggests that she was a closeted lesbian when Will was younger, and the changes in attitude allowed her to come out, but it’s not stated explicitly, when several other points Haldeman is making are clearer.

Mandella’s travel from one star system to another allows him to see these changes from day to day when in fact decades are passing outside of his time in battle. When Haldeman has him encounter gay troops for the first time, he presents them stereotypically effeminate, which is unfortunate. Later, the troops are presented without stereotypes, but his first thought when he takes command of his own all-gay platoon, his first thought is “They looked normal enough.” I think Haldeman is taking an inclusive approach to presenting homosexuality, but it feels more complicated because of how he portrays them through Mandella’s eyes.

Yes, a lot of the themes are satirical, and the views on sexuality should be viewed through that lens, as well as through that of the time they were written, but there’s a perspective of the author’s that bleeds through and feels wrong. It’s not just the symbolism of “the country changed so much while I was at war, and now I can’t cope”; it’s how Haldeman portrays it all that makes it feel like he doesn’t understand it at all.

I tracked down a copy of “A Separate War”, a novella Haldeman wrote in the 1990s to tell the story of Marygay, William’s lover and fellow soldier, who is separated from him when they’re given command of their own platoons. I can see readers wanting to know what happened driving the demand for the story, but I didn’t see that the novella added anything to the story to be necessary. The first several pages recap a lot of what we knew from The Forever War, and the battle that Marygay sees isn’t much different from what William sees. The only difference is that when Marygay is presented with an all-gay platoon, she dives into it herself, where William adamantly resists it. Near the end of The Forever War, one of the gay men in Mandella’s platoon decides to “go hetero” in the far future, since it’s apparently something that can be turned on and off. Again, I’m not sure if Haldeman is attempting to make a statement about sexuality here, but it’s unclear, and the stereotypes he uses further muddle the point.

I like the story, and I like the characters, but how I feel about a lot of the points Haldeman makes is complicated. I’d still recommend it to anyone who hasn’t read it (especially to anyone who enjoys Robert Heinlein), but I’d be sure to offer caveats that some parts of the story feel dated. At the very least, the story encourages discussion, but it’s also a story that presents the futility of war through believable, sympathetic characters. It has a deserved reputation as a classic.

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