Saturday, December 31, 2011
The Bookshelf: The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
I try to keep abreast of all the classics of science fiction literature, but it gets difficult sometimes. Joe Haldeman's The Forever War came out when the genre was going through a lot of changes in response to the times and to new literary trends, and it's certainly a product of that era. But it also manages a timeless feel, defying the traditional jingoistic slant of military sci-fi with a story that shows the real horrors of war, horrors psychological as well as visceral. Though a grim and intense read, it's also a very heartfelt human story.
The book follows the story of Mandella, who starts out a private in Earth's army, fighting against a distant and barely-known race called the Tauran. The war is taking on planets orbiting collapsars, collapsed stars which act as portals for interstellar travel. Travel is hazardous, the planets themselves are hazardous, and mere training produces a number of casualties, and open fraternization is pretty much the only means of reducing stress the soldiers have. Mandella has a close affair with a woman named Marygay, and when the two survive their first term they hook up again on Earth, and eventually fall in love. But Earth itself changes by decades each time they leave (thanks to relativity), and it's clear that society itself is in a bad state, basically economically dependent on the war continuing ad infinitum. Eventually it seems the best option for both of them is to re-up.
The Forever War was published in 1974, when American media was still wary of dealing with the subject of Vietnam. Haldeman, himself a vet, had a hard time selling the book as a result, but while the book isn't an allegory in the strict sense, Vietnam pervades it. The war is a seemingly endless conflict with no clear state of victory against an enemy rarely actually encountered, and it's hard not to connect the dots. Of course it also describes our current engagements pretty well, except in the book it's implied the wars are holding up the economy whereas we can't even make a profit off the MIC anymore.
What really makes the story work is the use of relativity as a metaphor and vehicle for the difficulty veterans have re-integrating into society. The world becomes increasingly foreign and unwelcome to Mandella, as social pressures change basic customs and taboos. Increasing age discrepancies make forming relationships difficult, and Mandella and Marygay try to stay on the same wavelength as long as possible, but eventually the military separates them.
It's mostly grim stuff, but Haldeman carries the story along with wry humor, matter-of-fact descriptions of increasingly fascinating developments, and a genuine flair for thrilling action. Though it's in some ways an anti-war book it's still military sci-fi, and the battles are suspenseful, terrifying, and make fascinating use of the strange physics and other properties of the hostile worlds they're fought on. You never get the sense that the author is falling back on notions of how war works here on Earth- he's sweating the details.
What makes this book work so well is that underneath all the craft, it's a sincere attempt to convey the experience of being a soldier, both the horrors and the mundanities and the little pleasures that get them by. Mandella clings to a hope that he will one day eventually be free of the war that's defined his life, whether or not the rest of society follows suit. That hope provides a thin thread of humanity strong enough to take the reader through a difficult and rewarding experience.