Forever War

I finally read Joe Haldeman’s classic sci-fi novel The Forever War after Ta-Nahesi Coates went bananas for it and I found it in front of me all of a sudden.  I’d given it a shot before, didn’t get far, then ripped through it.  It appears there is a small cottage industry in comparing it to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, which I’ve also started and never finished.  Similarities: deep space galactic war, common footsoldier in basic training and on, foot soldier wears superamazing battle suit.  Variances in politics, but since I haven’t read the Heinlein I am muddy.  Apparently the fascism lovingly/ironically slathered over the Paul Verhoeven movie did not come from the book.

Found myself thinking as much about A Canticle for Liebowicz, like the Heinlein written a generation before.  More in the sense of time passing and society (whatever it may be) altering or declining.  The treatment of homosexuality, the scant flick-through of a wretched Earth planet, the changing verbal tics, are well-used by Haldeman to show changing time, plus what I assume is a reasonable take on what space travel must be like considering relative time.


If I had to mark any shortcomings, I’d perhaps wish for more of William Mandella’s childhood remembered, his memories of people other than his mother (who appears directly) to give emotional weight to the incredible passage of subjective and real time in extreme space travel, so aptly displayed in the novel; and the ending seems to undercut the narrative.  There is an embarrassing passage ascribing our hero’s last name as an illiterate reading of the Buddhist mandala, and then the twee detente with the BEMs, not to mention a love-conquers-all reunion with his lover.  These come off as soft-skulled hippie-isms, very much of their era.

But: wouldn’t we be better off had we simply grokked what the North Vietnamese wanted?

I see Haldeman’s point.  The man, of course, lived through that crap.  Yet I find it despairingly interesting that it’s not what I felt was fulfilling.  I wanted bleakness, because the novel has a chillingly bleak undercurrent, even beyond the abject state of Earth when he first returns.  The way time passes, and the way William increasingly has nothing to fight for, as his past, memories, and culture are worn away, is amazingly done.  I don’t think it’s a dislike for the maudlin that makes me dislike the ending so much as the era I’ve read it, the softly but drillingly paranoiac War on Terror and rise of evangelism, where we are infected for some reason by a sense of things that ought to be working fine falling apart.

I think a better finale would have Mandella die in the last onslaught, never knowing what happened to Potter.  At least the war actively going on forever, drawing greater and greater tech on both sides, with no communication between them other than at weapons-point, beyond the stars and at great distance.  There is something alarming, chilling, awe-inspiring, and ultimately deeply satisfying about that kind of end.  Something nice and suffocating.


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