On Friday, May 17th, the Classics of Science Fiction Book Club met and discussed Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War. Haldeman’s military science fiction, originally published in 1974, is considered by some to be a response to Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. While Heinlein’s book is easily read as casting military is a positive light, as the ideal path to self-improvement and active citizenship, Haldeman depicts the effects of military service a bit differently. Likely due to his being a veteran of the Vietnam War, Haldeman’s fiction is steeped in political, cultural, and moral conflict, exploring the implications of clashing civilizations through the experiences of the individuals caught in the thick of the fray.
The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
The Forever War follows William Mandella, a student of physics conscripted into the elite ranks of the United Nations Exploratory Force (reserved only for those with an I.Q. above 150) in preparation for an interstellar war with an alien species, the Taurens. Mandella lives through 1,200 Earth years over 4 subjective years, rising through the ranks from private to commander, experiencing the rapid transformation of a world left behind physically by space travel and mentally by extreme time dilation.
Our group agreed that Haldeman’s prose is exceptional and his ability to communicate a complicated emotional experience in a few words or a described action generates within the text an almost palpable density. This density, the emotional depth and complexity of Mandella’s experience in The Forever War, is largely due to his brutal honesty. The combat scenes and subsequent deaths are delivered in a matter-of-fact style. Death simultaneously reads as an all-consuming horror and a reality as natural as breathing. While Haldman is not the only author to handle death in this fashion, remembering the time period during which Haldeman was writing and The Forever War was published gives his frankness an edge imbued with the horror that swept through most of the U.S. in response to a war televised in a way that no military conflict had been before.
Another triumph of Haldeman’s work lies within the relationships between soldiers. One example is the love and companionship between Mandella and MaryGay Potter, whose love survives the brutality of war, interstellar travel, future shock on their home planet, and a multi-light-year sized wedge driven between them. Likely drawing again on his own experience with his wife, Haldeman presents a commitment between the two that is intertwined with an acceptance that either one of them could be gone in an instant and the other would have to persevere alone. Another relationship Haldeman explores honestly is that between the low-ranking officers and their commander. Separated by military rank, generations, and eventually language (after Mandella has “lived” over 1,000 years and English has evolved into an unrecognizable dialect to him), Mandella experiences both sides of the private/commander relationship, swinging from being the former and hating the latter to being the latter, hated by the former
Haldeman’s The Forever War tops my list of favorite mid-20th century science fiction. The text is a literary achievement in its character depictions alone, providing the reader with an exceptional character in Mandella to whom a reader can still relate. The exploration of the effects of war upon an individual’s life experience, translated through the mechanics of time dilation and extreme future shock, is unique and powerful. Underpinning the more abstract and powerful themes is a thoughtfully delivered, easy-to-follow plot that makes it easy for a broad range of SF readers to experience what Haldeman has to offer.
Join us next month on May 21st at 7pm for a discussion of Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men. Stapledon takes on a 2 billion year time scale, exploring 18 different iterations of humanity in his classic, genre-defining text written in 1930–a classic of 20th century science fiction if there ever was one.