I have a confession to make. I haven’t read a lot of the classics of science fiction. Maybe I should have, but I haven’t yet. There are too many other things that catch my attention. I generally alternate between fiction and nonfiction books, and when I’m reading fiction, I probably read almost as many so-called mainstream as genre works. The Forever War, for instance, won the Nebula, Hugo, and other awards when it came out in the mid-1970s, but I had already started traveling by that time and read very little science fiction for years. Lo and behold, though, things come round, and this novel was on display at the library and I picked it up on a whim. I’m glad I did.
The Forever War tells of a future conflict between humans and an alien race called the Taurans. The conflict begins almost by mistake and escalates until, as the title implies, it seems to never end. Authorities draft the best and the brightest, such as the protagonist William Mandella, and send them out on tour after tour; when they come back in pieces, they patch them up and return them to the fray.
Haldeman has said that he based the book on his experiences in Vietnam. The cover of the edition I have shows what appears to be a U.S. army soldier walking through a tropical jungle. This has nothing to do with the plot of the book, as most of the action takes place on stark alien landscapes, and the Earth soldiers wear body armor that certainly wouldn’t look like what I see on the cover. Ah, well.
Instead of being a parallel to Vietnam, though, the book is more like a parable for any war, anywhere, that seems to go on forever and ever with no signs of stopping, with governments drafting and throwing cannon fodder into the fray, and soldiers obeying orders without really understanding what they are fighting about.
At one point, Mandella returns to Earth for a furlough between battles and is shocked at the changes it has undergone in his absence. Haldeman pays strict attention to relativity in space travel, so that though only months of subjective time pass on the soldiers’ tours of duty, decades and later centuries pass back on Earth. The world that they leave behind is gone forever and is replaced by a new world to which they cannot relate or adjust. This reminded me of when I returned to the United States after living overseas for thirty-five years. My country had changed, and I experienced intense culture shock and found it very difficult to fit in. In fact, I still have twinges of culture shock from time to time, and I wonder if I can ever feel comfortable in the land where I was born.
And so the soldiers carry on, through century after century and battle after battle, until obeying orders and fighting is all they know. It all builds up to a crescendo, and the ending is extremely satisfying. I’ll hold that back, though; instead, find a copy of the book and read it. You won’t be sorry.