So I’m on a relativistic shuttle, waiting for you…. I never found anybody else and I don’t want anybody else. I don’t care whether you’re ninety years old or thirty. If I can’t be your lover, I’ll be your nurse.
Hey kids, you know how people keep using that word allegory, and you’re never really sure what they mean, and they probably aren’t even sure what they mean?
This. This is an allegory.
If there’s a reason we have the phrase “deceptively slim” in our book reviewing vocabulary, it’s for books like The Forever War. This thing won the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards. No mean feat, that. And for the first little bit, I couldn’t figure out why. Joe Haldeman gets off to a slow start, with a book that is refreshingly familiar in the way it lampoons the gung ho enthusiasm with which an conscript army gets sent off to be slaughtered in the name of politics and the economy. It’s Vietnam, only in space.
Or is it?
I think the quotation I used to open this review shows that The Forever War is actually a love story, where the lovers are not merely starcrossed but starscattered through time and space.
We don’t learn a lot about William Mandella the person prior to the war. We know he was a physics teacher; we meet his “younger” brother and his mother, and that is about it. The start of the war marks an epoch for Mandella, even though by his subjective reckoning, the Forever War lasts less than ten years.
The Mandella we initially meet seems to be a man of few convictions. He was conscripted into the army. He doesn’t put up a fuss. There is a fatalistic quality to Mandella’s actions and remarks—he is seldom happy about what is going on, but he never seems able to stir himself to do anything about the situation. He is, indeed, a terrible leader, as he himself remarks on numerous occasions. Really the only thing that makes him stand out is the charmed life he leads: he hasn’t managed to die yet.
In this way, Haldeman, of course, remarks on the impartiality with which war strikes down officers and enlisted personnel, heroes and cowards alike. War is like the honey badger: it doesn’t give a shit. And for all the fancy technology both UNEF and the Taurans have, neither can alter such a fundamental apathetic constant of the universe.
Haldeman spends little time exploring the motives behind the war. The inciting reason is something along the lines of “Our ship blew up. The Taurans were there. We should do something. War is doing something. We should do war.” It’s like the worst false syllogism ever—but that, of course, is the point. War, as they say, is good for absolutely nothing—except as an economic machine in which human lives are the lubricant.
However, if you’re looking for science fiction with intense ground battles and descriptions of sexy powered mecha suits, then this is not the book for you. There are a few action sequences, but Haldeman opts for a more realistic approach to space combat. He invokes relativistic velocities, logistical computers, acceleration couches, and even probability tables. This is space combat as it probably would be, not the sexy space combat we see in science fantasy shows. And I give mad kudos to Haldeman for spending the time to explore what trying to fight at relativistic speeds might entail. I love the idea that, because of all this relativistic travel, you’re encountering an enemy who is either decades or centuries ahead of or behind you, technologically. Blows my mind.
Where I went wrong at the start of the book, actually, was assuming this would be more about the minutiae of war, the battles and the experience of boots on the ground, than it is. To be fair to me, that’s kind of how Haldeman sets us up at the beginning. Mandella and the new recruits are all training for ground operations by day and having randomized free-lovin’ sex by night. Man, those 1970s….
Fortunately, the rest of The Forever War corrected my interpretation. By the end I started to understand why this book has received so much acclaim.
In addition to the wealth of discussions we can have about warfare, we can also talk about the portrayal of sex and gender here. I suspect by 1970s standards it was fairly avant garde. The way Haldeman posits a fluidity of sexual orientation, including cultural and social shifts normalizing homosexuality over heterosexuality, reminded me a little of Samuel R. Delany’s work. Like Delany, Haldeman is notable not just for mentioning such lifestyles but actually challenging the heteronormativity of the author’s contemporary society.
By our standards today, some of the way Haldeman deals with gender roles remains problematic. Sexual orientation is decisively dichotomous (with the possible exception of Kahn, who, if we can give them any kind of label, might be considered pansexual). And although Haldeman joins Delany in portraying alternative sexualities, he doesn’t go so far as to deconstruct gender identity much—men are still men, women are still women, and there doesn’t seem to be anything in between.
Still, I have to give Haldeman credit for the way he handles gender roles. Women in this book are just as capable as men, with just as much diversity in attitude and behaviour. There are weak women and men, strong women and men, thoughtful women and men, and so on. All of Haldeman’s characters are people rather than stereotypes of class, race, and gender, something that is to his credit as a writer.
Despite these elements, however, The Forever War is not so much transgressive as it is expressive of hopes and cautious optimism. After all, as I said earlier, it’s really just a long con culminating in a heteroromance for the ages. Mandella and Potter finally find each other and get a postscript baby in a galaxy. They live on one of several enclave planets with other heterohumans on tap as breeding stock in case the main Man, Kahn, discovers a flaw in its many-and-sundry clones.
This is the part where you might be wondering if, somewhere between page 180 and 210, you nodded off and drowned (because you were reading this in the bathtub like me—you mean you don’t read in the bathtub? How odd). That last development seems like it comes out of left field—but I kind of see it as the logical extreme of the type of progression Haldeman was showing each time Mandella swung back towards Earth. And that’s not the only possible resolution, but it was one way to puncture the cyclic equilibrium of destruction and rebuilding that Earth underwent while UNEF played soldiers with its excess population.
But I digress.
Mandella and Potter’s romance is rather low-key. They start off, like everyone else in their basic training, as randomized sleep partners. Gradually they become a couple. For a little while, as Mandella remarks, it seems like they stay together mostly out of inertia: by being posted to the same assignments and by virtue of, you know, not dying, they happen to be the only people left alive from their time period. Relativity and war have taken care of everyone else. I understand how that could be a powerful bond, more powerful even than physical or emotional attraction.
I swear that the only reason Haldeman hammers us with repetitive explanations of what these relativistic voyages are doing to Mandella and Potter is so that when they get split up, it’s immediately tragic and poignant. Mandella spells it out for us (in case you were nodding off in that bathtub again—stop doing that), but that doesn’t undermine the pathos at all: they will be inextricably separated, forever.
Of course I had peeked at the last page and knew they wouldn’t be….
But that letter from Marygay, the one with the quotation I used above, is probably one of the best things about this book. It just has such a spirit of optimism about it. When William reads it, realizes what it signifies … it’s as if the weight of those centuries that have passed him by lifts from his shoulders, and he becomes a person again rather than a cog in the machine. I would have liked to see his reunion with Marygay in person, rather than an epistolary epilogue—but that might just be me.
The Forever War hasn’t jumped to the top of my list as far as war novels go. But I’m glad I read it. There’s something to be said for classics that are short: if they don’t live up to your expectations, then you haven’t wasted much time—but if they do, then you can re-read them again and again without feeling like you’re reliving every Russian winter Tolstoy spent writing them. The Forever War falls into the latter camp for me. I haven’t decided if I’ll check out the sequels, but I’m sure I’ll come back to this book some years from now, and see what else it has to show me.