The Forever War
By Joe Haldeman
Ridan Publishing, 2012
Recommended by Brian Capaldo
When I started this project, I wanted the results to be anything but predictable. I wanted to embrace whole new genres and discover a few flaws in the speculative fiction niche in which I’ve grown comfortable. However, like Hyperion before it, The Forever War has confounded my goals in the most insidious way possible: It’s proven to be an absolutely unimpeachable classic of science-fiction canon.
The story centers on Sergeant William Mandella and Corporal Marygay Potter, two soldiers fighting in humanity’s first conflict with an alien opponent. The book begins in the 1990s (which, in retrospect, had very few alien encounters, but the book was written in the 70s), but due to relativistic physics, each foray into alien territory takes William and Marygay further and further from the Earth and way of life they’re familiar with. As technology changes, war rages on, and becomes the only way of life either one can tolerate. Think The Hurt Locker, but with spaceships.
Although the story only has two big action scenes (and a third small one in the middle), the characters and dialogue are more than engaging enough to pull the narrative across over a thousand years of conflict. Watching human society evolve and change into something unrecognizable is downright frightening at times, although the ending provides a satisfying conclusion that makes the entire story worthwhile.
The writing itself is also far beyond reproach. In addition to having a great ear for natural, engrossing dialogue, Haldeman is a master of providing clear, detailed descriptions for the bizarre alien worlds, futuristic technology, and strange customs that the human race comes across. Initially, Haldeman wrote this book as an antiwar allegory for the Vietnam era, but its message still rings true today: War is senseless and ultimately pointless, but if you breed a whole generation of people for it, they won’t know any other way of life.
Of course, the book is not perfect, but most of its criticisms are nitpicks at best. The first forty pages or so contain some good action scenes, but much of the exposition necessary to understand them doesn’t come until after the fact. The middle section of the book can drag, as an event happens about 2/3rds of the way through that makes it seem as though the rest of the plot will be bleak and pointless (thankfully, the ending disproves this notion). There is also some uncomfortable and dated commentary on homosexuality, but it’s not malicious, just a little jarring.
If there’s a better military sci-fi story out there than The Forever War, I am not aware of it. Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein is arguably just as good, although if you want something closer tonally, go with The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. This is also a fictionalized account of an author’s experiences in Vietnam, except without the science-fiction veneer.