You ever watch a movie from the Vietnam era? There’s this lingering feeling prominent at the beginning that the narrative will set you up to feel for this batch of characters and then kill most of them in super brutal ways. There will be gore, and you won’t be surprised at the presence of the gore, but the gore will still surprise you when it shrieks out of the brush in all its naked glory.
This was my first impression of The Forever War by Joe Haldeman. Written in 1974, the novel went on to win both the Hugo and Nebula awards. The novel tells the story of William Mandella, a physics graduate drafted to fight an interstellar war against the Taurans, an alien race suspected of destroying several spaceships carrying human colonists. I went into this story knowing it was a commentary on the Vietnam War. What I didn’t expect was it’s accessibility to someone who did not live through the Vietnam era (such as myself) and the feminism featured therein. Spoilers ahead.
I have not spoken at length with a war veteran, nor have I read in-depthly about the experiences of war veterans after they return from a tour, but I do understand the general sentiment that a soldier has a rough time adapting to their previous life because of their experiences during their tour. It’s not their world that changes, it’s them. Haldeman flips this sentiment and changes the world the soldiers return to. Because of time dilation (the book’s vocabulary), the soldiers sent on the first campaign to Aleph-null return twenty years in the future. Not only are things different, but Earth is an honest to goodness dystopia. Anyone with any intellectual potential is drafted into the United Nations Exploration Force (UNEF). Those left behind are mostly uneducated and unemployed. No one travels anywhere without a bodyguard and/or a personal weapon, and the government regulates everything from jobs to the distribution of medicine and food. Mandella and his partner Marygay Potter are unable to cope in this new world and so re-enlist to UNEF to finish their time.
Various parts of the novel strike me as direct commentaries on the Vietnam War: officers lack adequate combat experience and the lack of humanity of the UNEF leaders. Mandella was only in one campaign and promoted to 2nd Lieutenant. In that second campaign, he is maimed before he can fire a gun yet still promoted to Major for his third and final campaign. Mandella expresses doubt at being a Major with inadequate combat experience, and his sentiments are probably shared with other officers who may not have a cushion of combat experience to help out the troops. Which means any survival done on the battlefield in space is a result of sheer dumb luck. Which makes the war ever more terrifying. Which makes me all the more terrified for the soldiers drafted in Vietnam because that was probably the sentiment of returning veterans at the time: all survival is a result of dumb luck.
Then there is the UNEF. The book does not explore the people who run it, how it’s run, who makes the decisions, and the factors that back those decisions. Instead, UNEF is seen as a commanding force that will not be disobeyed. I can only assume that Vietnam soldiers felt this way about the United States government.
The aspect that separates this novel from a fun military science fiction novel is the lack of follow up of several plot threads seeded in the first section. The campaign of Aleph-Null introduced people who scored high on the Rhine extrasensory test, which tests for ESP/psychic ability. Psychics are never mentioned again after the campaign. One of the objectives of the first campaign was to capture one of the Taurans, the alien enemy, and bring it back alive for experimentation. Though a failed objective at Aleph-Null, any scientific research or discoveries regarding the Taurans is made off the main stage of the narrative. Finally, the war ends because human clones and Tauran clones can communicate with each other somehow. Whether it’s because clones of all species share a psychic link is never explored, though I’m sure someone somewhere wrote an academic essay claiming as such.
The narrative not following the plot threads of the previous paragraph proves to me that this story is not meant to be a fun romp through space. Instead, the focus on Mandella and his experience throughout the entire Forever War, background to the main action though it was, proves that this book is social commentary. The fact that it was written in the 1970s tells me it was originally written as a commentary on the Vietnam War, but I wonder if the same sentiments can be applied to the current War on Terrorism in the Middle East.
Finally, I was surprised by the feminism presented in the novel. The first female character is introduced in a classroom setting asking a question about how to silently kill a man. The first sexual encounter in the book is initiated by the woman. Mandella is a perfect gentleman throughout the book, even during a scene towards the end involving his very drunk female medic. During the first campaign, there is an even 50/50 split between male and female soldiers. For the rest of the book, it was rare to find a male background character. And the women characters were not sidelined into traditionally female orientated roles either, seen in jobs such as Life Support Specialist and Staff Sargent in addition to Medic.
There comes a time in the book when everyone born after 2007 is coded homosexual. For Mandella’s third and final campaign, he is the only heterosexual on the ship earning him the moniker Old Queer. I think this is meant to be a commentary on homosexuality during the 1970s. Mandella does not attempt to persuade a woman to bed him in the second half of the novel, which is good. However he does not explore homosexuality himself. Maybe he was coded heterosexual by his culture and didn’t realize it! Maybe he was secretly bisexual. Alas, this is not the case and the already thick commentary of The Forever War is one layer thinner.
Final thoughts? The social commentary of The Forever War by Joe Haldeman was not lost on me, whose experience with the Vietnam War era is mostly through movies and television. However, the commentary could very well be easily applied to today’s world, forty years after the novel was published, which explains my accessibility to it. Overall, I was hooked from page 1 and read all 250 pages in a 24-hour period.
The Forever War by Joe Haldeman is recommended for people who like military science fiction and people who enjoy analyzing the literature they read.