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…

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