Book Review: The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman

Rating: 5 stars

I greatly enjoy science fiction as a genre, but I haven’t read nearly enough sci-fi novels to be considered any kind of authority on the subject. So when my partner handed me The Forever War and said, “Just read it,” I shrugged and said, “Okay,” thinking it was going to be action-packed light fare, its pages riddled with technobabble and laser beams.

Gentlepeople, naïveté is a dangerous thing.

Written in 1974 by Vietnam veteran Joe Haldeman, The Forever War is a poignant metaphor for the Vietnam conflict that also discusses xenophobia, what makes something or someone an “enemy,” otherness, loss and grieving, sexuality, imperialism, and the socio-political intricacies of martial law and police states. The basic premise is as follows: in the late 1990’s, scientists discover collapsars (wormholes) in space. While exploring the vast reaches of the universe, humans meet and become embroiled in a centuries-long war with an intelligent alien race called the Taurans. The novel begins in medias res, in the middle of this conflict. We follow the first-person narrative of William Mandella, an earthling physicist who has just been drafted into the war.

The most important narrative aspect in The Forever War — beyond the character development, philosophical meditations, and fabulous world-building — is the idea of time dilation. Collapsars, though they provide faster-than-light-speed transit between galaxies, also result in quite a bit of “lost time.” That is, William can serve in the war for two years his time, but in actuality (relativity?), on Earth, half a century has gone by. Or three centuries or a millennium, depending on how far he’s traveling. Mandella spends years in space with only about a 30% chance of survival, fighting a mostly invisible enemy that he knows nearly nothing about, yearning for home. But when he finally returns to Earth, he is as much of an alien as the aliens he’s fighting.

What happens when you leave, come back, and the home you knew is, at best, a distant memory? What do you cleave to when everyone you know and love is long dead? How do you fight an enemy so elusive that you’ve barely even glimpsed it? How can you keep fighting when there’s nothing left worth fighting for?

The Forever War may have its share of technobabble and laser beams, but it’s definitely not light fare… and though it was written and published upwards of thirty years ago, much of it is achingly resonant in this post-9/11 world. Highly recommend.

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One comment

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