Joe Haldeman: The Forever War

Private William Mandella is a reluctant hero in an interstellar war against an unknowable and unconquerable alien enemy, but his greatest test will come when he returns home. Relativity means that for every few months’ tour of duty centuries have passed on Earth, isolating the combatants ever more from the world for whose future they are fighting.

I also thought I would include the blurb comment by British author Peter F. Hamilton as I cannot improve on his apt summary.

Only a writer as skilful as Haldeman could use war’s dark glamour to lure the reader in and then deploy that same fascination to show the effect of this orchestrated barbarism on the human soul. A book about corruption, atrocity, hope, stupidity, and triumph. Throw in faultless advanced military technology, fascinating aliens, and a dangerously believable future Earth, and you have a book that’s near perfect.

First off, an apology. Whilst trying to write about this book I had drawn a complete blank whenever it came to facing my Evernote screen. It could be due to the technical knowledge escaping me a little but this has not been an issue before. My knowledge behind the military background of the plot was and still is distinctly lacking but despite this it somehow did not stop the inexorable pull to read the book cover to cover in the space of a weekend. It is a wonderfully paced book. I am finding the space and time element of this book fascinating. To the point where I am collecting scientific journals from anywhere and everywhere to try and wrap my non-scientifically-apt brain around the concepts, theories and hypotheses. To read it is one thing; to apply what you read is completely another.

In the beginning, I did think “Easy, I’ll write about a series of 73 books I have not read yet” and didn’t anticipate that I am no longer a happy-go-lucky student with acres of time to spare anymore. There goes the days of extensive research you could always find me doing. For this reason I will not be uploading the SF Masterworks books exactly in order, as the book I had planned to read for my next update – Cities In Flight by James Blish – was far chunkier than I was anticipating, so that will be more of an ongoing read. I also want to include some chatter about other books too. As well as keeping up to speed with my ever growing list of review requests; after all, how can you say “no” to reading predominantly brilliant books for free in exchange for a review?

Also, just a note to potential readers of The Forever War; despite my lack of comprehensive knowledge of the subject, I really enjoyed this book. It did not mar the experience in any way. I still very much recommend reading it even if it’s not exactly your usual cup of tea.

I digress.

Where to start with The Forever War? I hadn’t done much background research into the plot of this book before reading (in fact, very little) so I was unknowingly thrown headlong into the life of Private William Mandella, caught in the throes of a complex war-torn interstellar world. The plot starts by following Private William Mandella in the year 1997 during his training with other men and women with IQs over 150 and a certain aptitude for survival. Mandella is a cynical character, making it particularly entertaining to follow his life. I think The Forever War and Andy Weir’s The Martian (a book I am currently in the middle of, I recommend) have the protagonist’s character in common. This character formula in a fantasy based book works so well for me. Sometimes in an unbelievable scenario, a little bit of cynicism and humour can make it more believable in my opinion. It lends the topic stability and honesty, making me as a reader feel like the protagonist is on my side.

Mandella’s particular outlook on life is our guideline for the tone of The Forever War. A cynical attitude to the war by the partakers seems only appropriate as the reasonings for initiating the war seem entirely dictatorial and devoid of sensible reason to me. Do not fear, sense is found later on in the progression of the war, thousands of years later. In exact words, the war is seen as an example of “human stupidity. And shame.” Despite the storyline being rather tragic – it is war after all – the regular snippets of gallows humour more than make up for it.

By following Mandella through the time and space oddity that is the setting of this book, we get to see the span of the entire war despite it taking…hmm…a long time. If somebody would like to supply me with the mathematics of it then you are welcome to do so. My overview will be woefully lacking in the technical. To explain simply, as I understand it, the war is spread through the duration of generations but because of the combination of time, space and speed of travel, Mandella has in fact only aged through one lifetime. It also means that because of a time warp so to speak – those people who have experienced their fair share of live shows, don’t start dancing – when the enemy, the Taurans, pops out of one of these jumps, known as collapsars, they could be from any time period of the war; from highly evolved weapons and tactics of the war’s future, or tragically under-equipped as they were when they first began fighting in the past. Still with me? I had to do a lot of rereading through this time warp explanation section.

Mary-gay Potter is part of this group of elite soldiers we meet in 1997. Incidentally, she is the soldier pictured on the cover of the Gollancz SF Masterworks edition. As the plot develops she becomes Mandella’s hope, the only link he has with any kind of familiarity. The space and time realities in The Forever War result in Mandella returning from missions after generations have gone by on Earth, even though it has only been months for him. When he returns his world is not a familiar one. Mandella arrives to a new world system, with opposing values and laws each time he completes a mission. Mary-gay provides the only stability in his life. Although this book has a strong affiliation with war and conflict and it seems that much of the plot is set in some sort of war zone, the book’s focus is in fact more about the limbo in between duties and the relationship Mandella has with this every changing society. Personal values, laws, sexual orientation, family planning and lifestyle all take a beating with every tour of duty. The small nuances of daily life that cause these lifestyle changes to make sense for the common man are lost on the soldiers as they are left wondering what was wrong with the original system of living. I think for me the strangest changes throughout the book was the change of perception towards sexual orientation. Not for the reason of what they believed but because of the changeable nature of their decisions.

I wouldn’t call this a romantic novel by any stretch of the imagination but there is enough humanity in there among this world of clones, war and aliens to make the plot relate to the reader – the secret of great SF in my opinion. I also won’t give away the ending…but it did make me burn my toast in my focused concentration of scrabbling to turn the next page.

Happy reading…

Advertisements

REVIEW: Hillel F. Damron, Sex War One

I received a copy of the book from the author in exchange for a fair review. Here it is.

I was drawn to the topic of Hillel F. Damron’s Sex War One because a merge of a gender war within science fiction seemed like an intriguing and unusual subject to explore so exclusively together. Sex War One caught my attention and kept it. I was not disappointed. It turned out to be the kind of novel I rave about to all.

Sex War One takes place in the aftermath of a nuclear war, where all life is divided into perfect uniform colonies. These colonies are constantly seeking to improve in all things flawed, to the extent that they go against nature. They are aware that good and evil have not yet been eliminated in human nature and they recognise this as a flaw. We follow Underground-Colony B/365 and the Colony-Citizens within. In this world, the emotions and passions that humans naturally hold are gone right along with their individuality; they are qualities that are not understood in this world. There is no concept of love and gone is the natural conceiving of children or natural pregnancy. All babies are produced in labs and selectively bred. Men and women look alike even. So of course all hell breaks loose when our main man D.L. decides to keep and nurture the anomalous baby, Z.Z. who acts differently, thinks differently and looks contrary to the citizens. D.L. takes it upon himself to care for her personally, we can see from early on that this is a decision set up for failure. Z.Z. is nicknamed “the Monster” because of her nonconformity to colony life. D.L. quickly becomes questioned by the Colony-Citizens as soon as he starts treating Z.Z. as anything other than an experiment, the excuse he used to keep her. At the time of course he did believe it was an experiment even in his own thoughts but he quickly realises he has an attachment for the child. I found D.L.’s motivation for keeping the child in the very first place a little confusing considering the rigid and oppressive attitude of the colony and the attitude that has to be kept to by the Colony-Citizen individuals. I do understand that the attachment grew over time and perhaps just morbid curiosity is enough, as it is for most people in reality. This little display of human curiosity by D.L. shows that the Colony is not quite out of the grip of true human nature and warns of events to come. In fact, as soon as Damron described there being no individuality shown in society, alarm bells started ringing. You can’t stifle human individuality without consequences eventually showing themselves.

The depth and appropriateness of this gender conflict theme struck me. With feminism taking off in new directions, equality being an ever questioned premise and sexism debates between both genders being laced into media everywhere, I found this book to be a timely and futuristic epiphany. In our current society the future of gender equality is being questioned, just as it is addressed in this novel. There are so many opinions and arguments for every side of what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in the subject of gender and it was refreshing for this topic to be explored in a science fiction novel as the purely main topic. In science fiction there is usually some kind of reference to the differences in society, sex and gender because there are an important aspect of human life and so it has to be included. It is what the reader wants to read about, needing a futuristic take in fiction just as there are futuristic takes on weaponry, technology and gadgets.

I found it provoking that the dictatorship, stemmed from this eruption of personal feelings in a stifled society, came from a gender separation. Particularly as we are trying to move away from both matriarchal and patriarchal dominated societies, it really makes you question how equality will be achieved in our own future. Individuality makes all our opinions different. One person’s genius is another person’s fool. Despite best intentions, human nature – complete with human flaws and emotions – means that any search for perfection depends on the perspective of perfection. Damron questions the definition of perfection and where humanity stands in that definition. In Damron’s example of our future, is it the flaws that make us such a powerful species? Z.Z. seems to prove this. The search for the answer to this question, “what is humanity?” in Sex War One leads to matriarchal dictatorship. The maintenance of this ‘perfect’ society was only achieved by each becoming an emotionless being with no individual spirit. There is no passion, no emotion. It is an almost mechanical living.

There are few aspects of the book that smack of dramatised versions of real historical dictatorial events and periods in history. The novel addresses new directions and uses of historical dilemmas and problems; ethnic cleansing, cloning, gender inequality. I thought this was rather clever as the emotions of the reader are transferred from the real historical events to the appropriate similar fictional event in Sex War One. There is also a link back to historical feminist oppression throughout the book that I found interesting. This historical oppression is essentially why N.R. – the antagonist we love to hate – makes the move towards matriarchy that she does. This is her flaw. The description of certain female characters being ‘hysterical’ – an old term that in its original meaning applied only to women showing any displays of emotion. Women who were described as ‘hysterical’ were usually found in a mental asylum very shortly after being told they were emotionally unstable. An element of the book also along the lines of a resurrection of historical female oppression is S.O’s rape. Showing that even in this apparently more advanced matriarchal society, rape is used as a weapon in war. There is a conformity still to the old ways despite the ‘new era’. So, how sustainable is a ‘perfect’ society if the human flaw is still within us?

One theme of the novel that I found unexpectedly rang true was the insistence of the colony that they needed to get away from nature. When I thought about that it occurred to me that yes, the more successful the human race becomes in reality, the further we take ourselves from nature. The more successful we become in almost anything, the more man-made our life that we isolate ourselves with. For me this seems a shame – I do love the bracing outdoors – but it actually worked as a realistic concept for the future in this book through this reasoning. This was the method behind their ‘perfect’ society. Although, this concept was created in the extreme when N.R. takes control. N.R. desires what she calls an “anti-nature”.

I think my only criticism for the book is more of a false expectation, the expectation being that there would be more of a follow up on Z.Z., the outsider child. Z.Z. is an anomaly, different from all the others. She began all of the turmoil, creating the question that follows throughout the book, who is in fact the “Monster”? After the first chapter we don’t hear from her until the last pages of the book. I enjoyed the link from beginning to end and I can see that the mystery of her life is part of the illusion of her ‘outsiderness’. We are only meant to be concerned with the lives of the Colony and the developments there.

So, if you like disruption of the status quo through revolution with futuristic spins on real time issues this is the book for you. Throw in a few characters you love to hate and love to pity and you have Sex War One. For me at least, the overall message gleaned was that reading this book makes you appreciate the individuality we have around today. Without it, we get the plot of Sex War One.