Writing about Reading: The Forever War

March 24, 2013 § Leave a comment

Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War is one of those landmark science fiction classics that any good sci-fi reader should have read a long time ago. Either I’m not a good sci-fi reader (HA!) or I’ve just been distracted by other, equally landmark SF titles, because I didn’t get around to reading Haldeman’s book until recently.

I didn’t know much about the book when I bought it, other than it was categorized as “space opera.” From the introduction, I learned that Haldeman had a hard time finding  a publisher for the novel because it was heavily influenced by his time in Vietnam, and publishers in the early 70s didn’t think readers wanted books about Vietnam. Boy, were they wrong.

The plot centers around Mandella, who we first meet as a private in the space marines, going off to train on the outermost world in our solar system, Charon. From there, we follow Mandella through his career as he reluctantly advances in rank and continues to fight—for 1,000 years.

Maybe it was knowing that Haldeman drew on Vietnam for this book, but several times throughout The Forever War, I was reminded of the novels and short stories of Tim O’Brien — particularly The Things They Carried and Going After Cacciato. Like O’Brien, Haldeman’s book isn’t about battles and killing the enemy so much as it is about the time in between the battles and the experience of being a soldier in a seemingly senseless and endless war. It’s about coming home to a society you don’t recognize anymore, about being an alien among your own people—or, more accurately, about “your own people” being the aliens.

The Forever War is simultaneously dated and relevant to right now. Haldeman’s interstellar war began in 1997, so right away the story seems a little musty. But the experience of being a soldier—be it in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, or on a distant planet in the far future—that doesn’t change much. You train, you fight, you lose friends and parts of yourself, you fear, you dread, you love, you hope, and you sometimes die. If you make it home, you find that home is a strange, alien place into which you no longer fit. If you’re lucky, you’ll find someone waiting for you to help you make sense of it all. If you’re not, well, you probably end up going back to the war.

In his foreword to the edition I read, John Scalzi sums up what makes The Forever War a classic:

“The first is that it speaks to the time in which the novel first appeared. There is no doubt that The Forever War did this … The second thing is tougher, and that is that it keeps speaking to readers outside its time, because what’s in the book touches on something that never goes away, or at the very least keeps coming around.”

As much as we wish it to be otherwise, it seems that there will always be war. And as long as there is war, Haldeman’s novel will remain relevant, and thus remain a classic.

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