Thu
Feb 3 2011 1:14pm

Relativity, sociology, and a sweet love story: Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War

The Forever War by Joe HaldemanThe cliché thing to say about Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War (1974) is that it’s about Vietnam, but of course it isn’t. It does reflect Haldeman’s own experiences of being conscripted and being sent to Vietnam, of course, and it’s a better book for it, but what it’s about is how society changes over time, and how relativity can let one man see a long long chunk of time while not growing very much older. The war, the alien enemy Taurans, the army bureaucracy and the battles are all devices to get our viewpoint character William Mandella skipping across time and touching down briefly in a world grown ever stranger. What brings me back to it is Mandella’s engaging first person voice and Haldeman’s powers of sociological extrapolation. You’re getting a whole pile of worlds for the price of one here. It’s like those stories where somebody from the present finds themselves in the future—except that Mandella keeps on finding himself in the future again and again and again.

Wishy-washy spoilers, no real spoilers.

William Mandella is an American, born at about the time the story was written. He was conscripted in the Elite Conscription Act, which conscripted the fittest and the brightest—he already had his masters in physics. The story begins in the late nineties with his military training. This isn’t the late nineties as we knew them, this is the late nineties as extrapolated from 1974. Everyone smokes dope, and sexual equality in the military has led to mixed gender strike forces with random mixed-gender bunk assignments. Mandella, after a hard day’s training sighs “Why do you always get the tired ones when you’re ready and the randy ones when you’re sleepy?” Humanity is at war with aliens and has relativistic space travel with the aid of collapsars. Part of training is building a base on Charon in armour suits. But this isn’t very different from our world and we recognise Mandella as a very familiar viewpoint.

The shape of the book is that he goes out, and we get to see how the army is doing, and then he comes back and, as time has passed relativistically, we get to see how Earth is doing—and later, all of humanity including colonized planets. Everything changes, the only constants are Mandella himself and the war. In each section we are shown telling details and see Mandella overcome challenges.

The war is well written and well explained. There are battles with aliens, and they are interesting extrapolations of technology and far more realistic than anything you normally see in MilSF, because the soldiers spend most of their time bored. This isn’t a book that glorifies the military—but it’s a book written by somebody who knows what it’s really like being a soldier, and being a conscript in a war he doesn’t entirely understand why they are fighting.

One of the nifty things Haldeman does is with homosexuality. In the original army everyone is assumed to be (and pretty much commanded to be) straight, with the sleeping assignments and so on. The first time Mandella comes back, about a third of people are homosexual, and Mandella says he has no prejudices but is horrified by make-up on men. The next time, almost everybody is and he’s the only heterosexual on the ship he’s commanding, and he’s nicknamed “Old Queer.” This is a small thing, but it was daring in 1974 and Haldeman deals with it well.

The one-third gay Earth is the one we get to see in the most detail—it’s 2007. Mandella’s mother is alive but old, his younger brother looks like his father, everyone is living in arcologies and most people are unemployed but fairly happily creating art. There are lunar bases, they are colonizing other planets and fighting an interstellar war with aliens, but computers are room-sized and supercooled. It’s not what happened, but it’s cool to see. The same goes for the other futures.

The book is also a relativistic love story. Marygay Potter isn’t a well developed character, but Mandella’s clear love for her comes through and makes that aspect of the book work. I don’t want to talk about it too much because that strikes me as the one thing that really would be a spoiler.

Mandella has a very engaging first person voice, which is what carries the book, he’s got that confident confiding tone that keeps you reading.

This was Haldeman’s first novel, it won the Hugo and the Nebula. He has gone on to have a solid career in SF, publishing lots of books and short stories and terrific poetry, winning awards, and last year he was made a Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master by SFWA.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

27 comments
J Barber
1. J Barber
A book I'll have to reread soon, thanks for the reminder. I most vividly recall the moment when Mandella returns home for the last time to a world (and people) wildly beyond his comprehension (and mine).
Ty Margheim
2. alSeen
The two versions of the book are quite different in their 2007 story. The first I knew about a different version was when I was listening to the audiobook version and suddenly they are talking about being on Marygay's parent's commune. It was very odd as I could have sworn that wasn't in the book I had read years before. Then I found out about the new version.

The rest of the book is pretty much the same.
Pamela Adams
3. Pam Adams
Sigh. I don't think I've read this since about the time Mori would have. One more to add to the to-be re-read pile.
Michael Walsh
4. MichaelWalsh
In the current edition there's an "Author's Note" and an "Introduction" where Joe talks about the book and the various iterations it has had.
J Barber
5. cmpalmer
Ditto on wanted to re-read it now, but this review also reminded me of The Eternity Brigade by Stephen Goldin. I read it years ago and remember liking it, but I've lost my copy. It covers some of the same ideas of a soldier skipping forward through time into increasingly confusing circumstances, first through suspended animation and then through digital storage and recreation where the copies become mercenary commodities and every battle they survive makes them more valuable (and if they don't survive, they just spin out another copy). I don't know how well it holds up to my memories, but I'm about to find out since I see that Goldin published a revised version last year.

Does anyone else remember it?
J Barber
6. MeanGreen
I really enjoyed the dilation aspects of the book. Not only does it have the effect of utterly isolating the narrarator from humanity but it also adds to the intrigue of the war insofar as humanity could never be sure which enemy they would face; the enemy from their past or the enemy from their future.
Erick G
7. Erick G
This sounds like an interesting story, but I can't help but to think
of "The Time Machine" when you hear about someone blasting into the future and seeing how the world turned out. Now, before
anyone attacks me, I know its very different, I'm just pointing
out how it seems similar. I also have to agree that Haldeman was
very couragous in depicting a world where not only was it ok to
be homosexual, it was almost the majority preference. It is 2011,
more than 5 years than what he predicted, and yet it is still
frowned upon to be gay, and even harder for a gay person
to be in any armed forces. So as is the case with most science fiction of the past that tries to predict the future events and stereotypes, this one was sadly off the mark.
J Barber
8. DavidA Still
This is a wonderful book. I agree with what Jo has to say, but would add two things:

The book is very much about the Vietnam War (although not just about the Vietnam War, of course); specifically, it is about the draft during that period: The idea that a few people are randomly picked against their will to go to war, putting their lives on hold while the rest of society continues on as before. Mandella's life is taken away from him; it takes him the whole book to make a new life.

Second, this also seems very clearly a book that, if not in response to Heinlein's Starship Troopers, is very much in conversation with that book. Haldeman's voice and style are reminiscent of Heinlein's, and I think he clearly viewed Heinlein as a role model. Both books are in told in first person, both focus on mobile infantry in enhanced body armor, and both fight an implacable and inscrutible enemy impossible to communicate with. But I think Haldeman's military experience was different than Heinlein's and gave him a very different perpsective on the same issues. I think he wanted to show the problems lurking (or not even lurking, right on the surface) in Starship Troopers -- the dangerous celebration of military virtues for their own sake, the momentum that war gathers without regard to the reasons it began, and the easy acceptance that what humans do must be right and the aliens' side of the story doesn't matter.
J Barber
9. DavidA Still
To add to my comment above: In the context of the idea of the book in conversation with Starship Troopers, it is telling that the book is called The Forever War. That describes the internal action of the book, of course; but it also accurately describes the world of Starship Troopers as well. Starship Troopers ends with the war in full swing, and no prospect it will ever end until every Bug in the universe is exterminated -- in other words, it will never end.

Heinlein is one of my very favorite writers, but perhaps you can tell I don't care for Starship Troopers much.
Rich Bennett
10. Neuralnet
I think I have read this book 10 or 20 times over the years... It is probably my favorite SF/war type book. Even though the near future tech/society in the book is completely out of date now, it still feels like an authentic military experience and possible future overall. I think that is what I love about it... its definitely a sci-fi fantasy, but feels real in many ways. I would love to get Mandella's back pay at the end of the book.
Christopher Key
11. Artanian
This is one of those books that I just don't get the hype about. I read it when I was 16 or so, in about 1985 and it was meh. Then I reread it again when 'Forever Peace' came out and wasn't much more impressed. It's not the politics - an author's politics don't really bother me unless they use it as a club to beat you about the head (Cory Doctorow, I'm talking about you with "Little Brother", and I suspect that left-wingers would feel the same about Tom Kratman's stuff if they actually got out of their coccoon). It just didn't capture me enough to even bother reading the sequel. It's just a 70s timepiece that hasn't aged particularly well.
J Barber
12. a1ay
Second, this also seems very clearly a book that, if not in response to Heinlein's Starship Troopers, is very much in conversation with that book.

As is John Steakley's very good but rather odd Armor, in fact even more so.
Arthur D. Hlavaty
13. supergee
Actually, Haldeman's first novel was the mimetic War Year.
Jo Walton
14. bluejo
There's another version? Do I want it?
Janet Kegg
15. jmk
The Wikipedia article on the
book gives details about the different editions.
Janet Kegg
16. jmk
Whoops --my attempt to embed the url worked in preview but failed when posted: it's
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Forever_War
john mullen
17. johntheirishmongol
I remember reading Forever War when in came out and I wasn't as impressed with it as a lot of people were. I didn't have any problem with the time dilation effects, that made a lot of sense to me (similar to Tau Zero), but as a Vietnam Vet I have to say that his experiences were very different than mine. I felt sad for the writer, but not that enthused about the book. I had forgotten the whole gay thing. I think it sounded too silly.
J Barber
18. a-j
iirc, Haldeman has stated that The Forever War was definately not written as a response to Starship Troopers, but I may have dreamt that.

Personally, I preferred the version that was available in the UK in the '70s to the authorised edition that I read in the 1990s, but that could be nostalgia.
J Barber
19. Stuart Houghton
Lovely to see one of my favourite novels get an airing.

I have to say I read the book as being very much about Vietnam - not in the sense of it being an allegory for the actual conflict but more that the relativistic shifts that Mandella and co undergo were a brilliant metaphor for the disconnection from civilian society that many returning soldiers felt (and feel, it could apply to Iraq/Afghanistan just as easily)
Cathy Mullican
20. nolly
I listened to the audiobook of this last year. At first, it was very odd to read about the future of 13 years ago. There were a couple of other places that struck me oddly, too -- the videophones where you have to call the operator to get your messages, instead of using any kind of answering machine; I think human sexuality (on the population scale, not the individual scale) is not as malleable as he portrays it, though more malleable than some folks I've encountered think. Homosexuality as population control is unlikely in the extreme, IMO.

Overall, though, I quite enjoyed this book. Far more than Starshiop Troopers, which bored me. I wasn't aware there were multiple editions of the text; I'll be looking into that.
Ed Rafferty
21. BigBoy57
I did love this book when it first came out but it hasn't aged all that well - but then again neither have I.

My favourite Joe Haldeman book is "Mindbridge", I re-read it regularly but there is something about it that keeps it fresh and stimulating.
J Barber
22. Michael M Jones
Because my father (a Vietnam vet and SF fan in his own right) introduced me to this book when I was young, I basically consider FOREVER WAR and STARSHIP TROOPERS to be my favorite examples of military SF, and make a point of rereading or listening to them every few years.   Highly influential on my tastes when it comes to SF.  
Bob Blough
23. Bob
I think this novel has held up very well over time. Again, because the central character is so precisely drawn. Even now, I read every novel that Haldeman publishes and get all his collections, as well. In my opinion, he has gone up and down through the years (and what author of long standing hasn't?) but he is still on my list of favorite SF authors.
David Dyer-Bennet
24. dd-b
I suppose I should re-read this at some point. I read it when it was new, and thought it was okay, but didn't much go anywhere or say anything new to me. But it's still around, people still care, who knows; maybe I'll find more in it this time.

Also, since then I've heard Haldeman's war stories late at night in a small group in the con suite, and that might make a difference too.

I think people greatly over-estimate how much of Heinlein's Starship Troopers is any sort of polemic, and how much is just exploring the ideas. The bugs were clearly not impossible to communicate with, since they had some level of informal alliance with the Skinnies. Humanity hadn't succeeded in any communication yet, but we were still trying (and if we could pull the Skinnies over to our side, we should learn what they knew about that). While the idea of actual extermination is discussed, nobody seems to think it will be easy or cheap; finding a way to get along would be preferred by pretty much everybody in the book, it seems to me. And I don't recall much information about wars before this one; it doesn't seem to be the case that Humanity is in a state of permanent war before the bugs attacked us. I have no clear idea how long it was after the "military service to earn the vote" government came in that the bugs attacked us; I have the impression it was multiple generations, though.
Clark Myers
25. ClarkEMyers
Veering off topic - most information in Starship Troopers about wars before this one IIRC are intrahomosap and apparently more or less on this single planet - e.g POW discussion: just one and the timespan for merchant seamen's guild to analogize to federal service (which with Kings Point it might be in this country to say nothing of the RN Reserve and Volunteer Reserve?). The impression I have is that the elective single government based on federal - not necessarily military - service to earn the vote came into being planetwide during reconstruction after such an earthbound war and survived a substantial FTL expansion - Sanctuary and Iskander (that name survives nicely for a man who died young with no more worlds to conquer) and all the rest. I'm not sure that the start of the Bug War got much exposition from a youthful and uninformed - unformed? - narrator. Much of Starship Troopers is WWII in the Pacific with the numbers filed off frex including the ear lobe jewelry and so they started it and unconditional surrender might be surviving artifacts from the background noise.

Although there is good authority that Forever War (et. seq.?) doesn't have a happy ending are there any new thoughts at this remove and with the additional material?
Mitch Wagner
26. MitchWagner
ClarkEMyers: Although there is good authority that Forever War (et. seq.?) doesn't have a happy ending

That's the way I read the novel. Click here for big spoiler.
Nancy Lebovitz
28. NancyLebovitz
Something which struck me as uncomfortable about Starship Troopers is that the viewpoint character isn't just uninterested in politics, he thinks of this as almost a virture.

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