The Forever War

Joe Haldeman

I’ve read and enjoyed lots of Haldeman’s short fiction, but when I came
across this recent interview it reminded me that I hadn’t read The Forever War, although I had a kind of ghostly memory of it which might have been the result of reading it at an age when I was too young to really get it, or of having read an excerpt or a review long ago. So I downloaded the e-book, which is available from SF Gateway – if you’re my age and an sf nerd, you’ll have a Pavlovian response to the Gollancz-yellow typographic covers.

The novel more than lives up to its reputation as cracking military sf, although that’s not a genre I’ve really read much of – the descriptions of combat could have been written yesterday, although if they were there would probably be much more stuff about computer viruses and all-purpose nanotechnology, which is all to The Forever War’s advantage as I’m bored with the “computational turn” of sf. This is a seventies novel, so it uses the genre toolkit of its time, that peculiar bow-shock of plausible tech and recent astrophysics which actual science and technology pushes before it into its fictional amanuenses: low-temperature physics, “collapsars” (stellar-mass black holes), stasis fields and relativity played with the net up. The combat and training are as numbing an alternation of boredom with haphazard brutality as any actual modern battle, and the succession of alien worlds on which war with the Taurans plays out are free from the contrivances and cliches of planetary romance. (They also include two of my favourite astrophysical objects, Epsilon Aurigae and the giant star S Doradus.)

The most famous feature of the novel is the dislocation caused by time dilation, which stretches the main characters’ subjective timelines out over what become centuries back on Earth. Haldeman was in Vietnam, but the disjunction between the main character and his home planet isn’t played out in the political clichés of home-front contempt which have come to dominate how we think about that war: they feel like they would be applicable to any combat veteran. The most dated aspect of the novel is its treatment of homosexuality, which is promoted by the world government as a remedy for overpopulation. It’s not that it’s homophobic, Haldeman giving the impression of a decent open-minded straight dude doing his best, but its assumption that orientation is completely malleable, or that a majority-gay society would mirror our society’s homophobia, aren’t credible.

Another aspect of the novel’s treatment of sexuality which I disliked is the baseline 1990s military culture at the start: mixed-gender troops with mandatory partner-swapping which amounts to a form of enforced prostitution. This is the occasion of some fairly unpleasant humour and is on the whole no more convincing than the broader social changes later in the novel. (I ended up wishing that all the sex stuff had been written by another writer, Samuel Delany, for instance.)

It’s still a great book – one of the best of that subgenre of sf which uses relativistic time-dilation as a powerful metaphor for the friction between time as lived experience and time as history, something which gets to us all these days, soldiers and civilians alike – and deserves its reputation.

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