Friday 13 February 2009

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

This Hugo and Nebula award-winning story of interstellar warfare was first published in book form in 1974, but in a different version from the one the author intended. It originally appeared in serialised form in Analog magazine but one of the sections was felt by the book publishers to be too downbeat, so was changed. Not until 1991 was the book published with the excised section reinstated, and this is the version being reviewed here.

The Forever War is set in an alternate world, apparently similar to our own up to the Vietnam War (experience of which prompted Haldeman to write this book) then diverging rather radically to include interstellar space travel by the 1990s. However, the early explorers found themselves fighting the Taurans, an alien race very loosely humanoid in form. William Mandella is a college graduate drafted to fight in the war, and this first-person story follows his perilous and brutal combat career from one star system to another.

Haldeman emphasises the relativistic effects, which mean that a journey lasting only a few months in subjective time can result in a return to Earth decades or even centuries later. This not only means that the soldiers become increasingly cut off from Earth, where conditions change radically on each visit, but that weapons and other technology evolve considerably while they are travelling. It also means that if two lovers are posted to different star systems, they will never meet again.

I first read this about a decade ago, and recall admiring it more than I liked it. That's still the case, simply because the hero's situation is so grim and gloomy throughout. The combat casualty rate is frighteningly high, and society on Earth changes to become as dystopian as you are likely to find. Almost all of this book is very good indeed, the author's war experience providing a gritty ring of truth, emphasised by the laconic and cynical writing style, but for me it was spoilt a little by a rather bizarre ending which drifts more towards fantasy. The author suggests that clones would not only have perfect communication but would effectively have only one shared mind; a moment's thought would have revealed that identical twins (who are effectively clones), while often very close, are separate individuals. Despite this, The Forever War merits its awards and its place on the SFF Shelf of Fame; it is a true classic. But I felt a strong need to read something light and upbeat after finishing it.


Fred said...

I had read the book a number of years ago, perhaps decades ago. While it was an anti-war novel, I don't remember it being that depressing, but that may be because I had read the first published edition. I guess I should go out and look for a more recent edition.

Thanks for the information about the publication of the revised edition. It reminds me of what happened to Stephen Crane's _Red Badge of Courage_.

Anthony G Williams said...

The book does have a surprise happy ending - right at the very end - but for me that wasn't enough to dispel the general air of gloom!

Fred said...

I don't remember the ending--time for another visit, I guess.

bloggeratf said...

You can't have that happy of an ending in a book that for all intent and purposes expresses the futility of war. Having a satisfying ending would detract form the theme don't you think?

Anthony G Williams said...

Well, it does actually have a happy ending for the two main characters tacked on, against the grain of the rest of the story. What I disliked about the final part was that it switched from SF to fantasy over the cloning issue.

bloggeratf said...

Fair enough, I would stay away from the Dream Void series then since its about half Space Opera and Half Fantasy :P