Haldeman, Joe. The Forever War.

NY: St. Martin, 1975.

There’s sort of a tendency to call any book more than a decade old, and which has been reprinted a dozen times, a “classic.” But this one, Haldeman’s second book and first science fiction novel, actually qualifies for that label.

Actually, Joe was a combat engineer in Vietnam (where he was wounded) and this novel is very much a result, psychologically and philosophically, of his experience of war. It also won him his first Hugo.

The story opens with Private William Mandella undergoing basic training in a Missouri winter before heading off-world, since the alien enemy he’s being trained to fight seems to like very cold planets. Like his fellow trainees, William possesses both a high I.Q. and graduate degrees in the sciences. They’re all victims of the Elite Conscription Act, which siphons off the best and the brightest — which will have a profound effect on Earth’s future, but they don’t know that yet. And so we follow them as they finally head out to face the enemy, having lost a substantial proportion of their number just preparing for war. At least, they’ll try to face the enemy, because no one has seen them before. But those colonial ships Earth sends out keep disappearing.

William and his mates undergo their first test of fire and sustain an extremely high casualty rate, but they all expected that. And William makes sergeant, and there are a couple more raids on enemy-held planets, and then it’s time to head back to Earth — where nearly twenty years have passed while William was aging only two and a half. And the world he and his girl, Corp. Marygay Potter, return to is nothing like the one they left. In fact, this relativistic effect has made the returning soldiers, the few who have survived, into near-aliens themselves. A short time back on Earth convinces William that the only thing to do is to re-enlist, but at least, as a combat veteran, they’ll make him an officer.

The story progresses with William and Marygay moving gradually farther and farther into Earth’s relative future as they concentrate on surviving, even when it means regenerating lost limbs. And throughout it all, there are bodies. Soldiers killed in training, soldiers killed by unfriendly fauna and flora, soldiers cut in half by enemy weapons, soldiers crushed by hull failures in their space transport. That’s obviously the point Haldeman wants to make — that war means death, and lots of it. In fact, he wrote this book partly in response to Heinlein’s likewise Hugo-winning Starship Troopers, in which war is depicted as uniformly glorious. And even while there’s something approaching a happy ending, this book makes it very clear that that is not ordinarily the case. Joe was there and he knows better. As I said: A classic. And with very good reason.

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  1. […] Haldeman, Joe. The Forever War. […]


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