I fell in love with fantasy at a young age, and I’ve read widely in the genre over the years, but I came to science fiction a bit later in life, when I discovered the Culture novels by Iain M. Banks. There are a lot of science fiction classics I’ve never touched on, and I’m finally trying to get around to rectifying that oversight. I decided to start that project with The Forever War, which has apparently been a formative influence for a number of authors whose works I enjoy. Since I’m drawn to anyone who writes with a healthy dose of cynicism, I can see why.
William Mandella begins the story as a private in the United Nations Exploratory Force, sent to Charon for a harsh regime of training — learning to use their spacesuits in deadly environments and combat conditions kills many of the trainees in and of itself — before being deployed against the mysterious alien Taurans, whose first contact with humanity erupted into violence. Mandella’s military career will last less than a decade, yet take over a thousand years, thanks to the effects of time dilation. Humanity can use so-called ‘collapsars’ to travel vast distances at faster than light speed, but the journey between collapsars has to be done at near light speed. The soldiers return between deployments to an Earth that has vastly changed and socially decayed, and loved ones who have aged decades or passed on altogether.
For the first three-quarters of the book, the use of time dilation is its greatest strength. I’ve never served in the military but I’ve known enough ex-military folk and read enough war memoirs to have an idea of how big a hurdle reintegration can be. The increasing social and temporal consequences of losing years or decades make the perfect vehicle through which to amplify, and to render relatable for those of us without a military background, the experience of displacement that returning veterans in our real world suffer. It’s interesting that for a book with so much hard science fiction in it, collapsars aside, it works best when the science and the combat are shunted to the side and the focus is on Earth. Mandella and his girlfriend’s return to a violent mid-21st century society and their aged parents contains some brilliant perspective on the profitability of war and the chipping away of values a society at war uses its conflicts to excuse.
Mandella is a bit of a bland personality, though one with enough wry (and very true to most of the military folk I’ve ever known) humour to be an agreeable narrator, but it’s the kind of story that is perhaps best served by a protagonist that forms an empty vessel into which the reader can pour their own identity and vicariously experience his future-shock. Sort of a gruff, well-armed Bella Swan, if you will. (I’m sorry.)
It’s a book about war, and so you’re in for an unsurprisingly large amount of combat. While I found the examination of the psychological consequences a bit more compelling than the technical details of hitting aliens with lasers, it’s really well-written combat. It’s detailed and elaborate without getting buried in the kind of hard SF jargon that will leave the layman’s brain dribbling out of his ears, and my biggest takeaway was that it takes some real talent to convey, as Haldeman does, the feeling of how tedious it must be to constantly juggle high-adrenaline situations with waiting around to live or die, without also making it tedious to read about.
It’s the last quarter where it all falls apart a bit. The time jumps that have been getting longer and longer reach a level which I suppose serves as the best way to fully illustrate the scale and futility of the war, but when you’ve got a novel where the best thing going for it is its superb analogy for the difficulties of veterans’ reintegration with non-military society, it weakens the overall point when you take your character beyond the reach of anything that tied him to that society.
The book also has a very strange take on sexuality and gender relations, some of which is less successful than the rest. In a portion of Earth’s future there’s a don’t ask don’t tell parallel in which homosexuality has been engineered as the human norm to prevent biological procreation — humanity’s growth rate is machine-controlled and new foetuses that are required are artificially gestated — and Mandella’s ‘deviant’ heterosexuality is met with mixed levels of tolerance, and it works in a sort of heavy-handed way which I think would have come across as both bolder and less awkward in its slightly limited understanding of gay persons in its year of publication. I understand and appreciate what the author was trying to do there, anyway. But the earlier part of the timeline makes a lot of mentions of sleeping rosters and mandated free sexuality between the enlisted men and women which goes bafflingly unexplained. It comes across as a little juvenile in its attention to the detail of who is sleeping with whom (answer: the hero, with everyone) but not why anyone is mandated to be sleeping with anyone.
None of the faults are damning. I set out to read a science fiction classic, but what I got was more than that. It deserves attention outside of the field of science fiction for its germaneness as a war classic, as well. I know that the author is a veteran of Vietnam, and that there’s a great deal of relevance here for that generation, but I think it’s also highly applicable to today’s culture with our wave of veterans from conflicts in the Middle East, and the many who live with, love, or would like to understand them.