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This was the 23rd winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel.
This review was originally published at The Nameless Zine in November 2020.
OK, so I thought I'd read The Forever War before. I hadn't, so this turns out to be a new one on me. I wonder if I got it confused with John Scalzi's Old Man's War, which I've certainly read and which has been compared to this on many occasions, enough that Scalzi felt the need to point out in his foreword to my edition of The Forever War that he hadn't actually read it until recently.
Sure, there are similarities, but I found the two books very different, not least because, while The Forever War is certainly a war novel, it doesn't do the sorts of things that war novels tend to do, because its message is very different. It's not just an anti-war novel in the sense that it carries an anti-war message but also in the way that it deliberately subverts the template of the war novel in a whole slew of ways.
For one, we don't get the big picture at any point in the novel. This is the future, 1997, and we future Earthlings are joining a war against Taurans. Why? All we know is that the Taurans have destroyed some colony ships taking us to the stars. The United Nations sends an Exploratory Force out on a mission with the twin aims of reconnaissance and revenge and what follows is a interstellar war that lasts for over a millennium.
For two, the soldiers are intelligent but the intelligence they work from is not. Every member of this elite squad is as fit and strong as you expect, but also has an IQ over 150. Our focal character, William Mandella, as an example, is a physicist in regular life. But by the time they've survived an intensive training regimen on Charon, a planet beyond Pluto, and they've reached a distant planet orbiting Epsilon Aurigae on their first mission, they still have no idea what Taurans look like. Is that a Tauran? Let's kill it, just in case. Is that a Tauran base? Destroy it, just in case.
For three, the ethics are seriously off. That potential base is in some sort of city, populated by intelligent creatures who may well be Taurans. But they're not armed or fighting, even when our Exploratory Force chases in with guns blazing. And we promptly massacre them all anyway, because those in charge trigger the impulse to hate in our soldiers through post-hypnotic commands. Once the assault is over, the soldiers are powerfully traumatised by what they've done.
For four, there's nothing particularly special about Mandella, except the fact that he doesn't die. As the war runs on, he survives the encounters he's thrown into, which so many others don't, and so he gets promoted. The suggestion is that, while he's clearly a capable soldier, the single reason he's our lead is that he didn't die. By the time the war ends, there aren't more than a handful of soldiers left who were there at the beginning.
I should point out here that he doesn't end this novel at a thousand plus years of age because of some future medical advance. It's the result of a lot of travel at insanely fast speeds. That first mission took eight months for the soldiers involved, but time dilation means that it's nine years on when they get back to base. The longer these soldiers spend at ludicrous speed, the faster the world back home moves forward. Mandella hasn't even reached my age by the time the Forever War is ended.
Which means that, for five, their return to Earth is a very obvious culture shock and that's much of the point of the book. Joe Haldeman served in Vietnam and this is widely seen as a fictional take on his service. While a major section in the early middle of the book was removed from its run in Analog magazine, it's the most telling section of the book, in which a soldier survives his first mission on an alien planet only to find that home is just as alien. This novel is about soldiers coming home from war even more than it's about soldiers going to war.
And, for six, while this is surely about Vietnam, there's frankly not a heck of a lot of what we would think of as war in it. We might assume that the soldiers we send to war spend their entire military service on the field of battle, killing the enemy and saving their compatriots, but that's really not what happens here. War in this book is mostly spent sitting around waiting, whether it's to get through training, to get to wherever they're supposed to go or for the action to actually start. Even when it does, the soldiers aren't always involved. Whenever there's conflict in space, they suit up and get into special tanks, so that their ship's computer can fight the battle for them, whipping through Gs that humans couldn't survive. Hopefully it wins and they can come out of those suits and tanks to wait some more. War to these soldiers is mostly Callisthenics and paperwork. I was reminded of the First World War quote describing war as "months of boredom punctuated by moments of terror."
For seven... nah, I can't go there because that would be spoiler territory. Let's just say that there's a very powerful, if not particularly unexpected twist, at the end of this book that serves as a serious commentary on the millennium that's preceded it. It's a gut punch of a twist and it isn't what war novels are supposed to do.
Even though this book was published very early in Haldeman's career as a science fiction writer, it's very cleverly written, not just as a war novel to follow his non-fiction memoirs of Vietnam, but as science fiction. This takes a lot of sci-fi war novel tropes and plays with them.
For instance, it's well known that war needs spur technological advance. There's plenty of that here, but what's invented five minutes after a ship leaves for a journey of light years doesn't help them until they get back, which could be decades later. That means that vessels could be wildly out of current spec in no time flat, even when facing an enemy who might be decades newer in tech. As the book runs on, centuries apply just as well.
What that means, for eight, is that the grunts on the ground could be as great at their job as any grunt has ever been, and they could be doomed to inevitable loss simply because they were sent a long way and they find themselves in the path of an enemy who didn't. That's a brutal truth in a universe like this.
While characters aren't the point here, we do get to know Mandella, not so much through what he does as how he reacts to the wild changes that surround him. One of the most crucial points of the book has nothing to do with war, really, and that's when he and Marygay Potter, his girlfriend and fellow soldier, are split up. He finds himself sent on a mission in this direction while she's sent on one in that, which in this time dilated setup means that they're never going to see each other again. It's a fantastic personification of the damage that war can do to the people tasked with conducting it. That goes double when we find just how much society has changed after one more extra-long journey. It's hard to imagine anyone more alone in a crowd than the situation that Mandella finds himself in.
I don't know if I can say that I like this novel, but I certainly didn't dislike it. It's a very pessimistic book, especially in that initially excised section, something that works well for a commentary on an era as much as a war. It's extremely honest, though, and very powerful. I may not like it but I'm not sure I'm supposed to. It's a book I can honestly say that I admire and appreciate and will likely come back to at some point. It would make an outstanding sci-fi film, should one ever get made (it's been announced often but not happened thus far).
It's a worthy winner, not only of the Hugo in 1976 but the Locus and the Nebula as well. For a commentary on its time, it stands up remarkably well to over four decades of time passed, which, as I've found, is not the case with all Hugo winners. This may speak to the Vietnam War, but it's just as applicable to the Iraq War and probably every other war there's ever been. It's timeless in its message and that's as appropriate as any comment I can make on this novel. Bravo.
Next up: the 1976 winner, The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman, which I believe I've read before but long ago.
Last update: 15th May, 2021