The Forever War, written by Joe Haldeman, is reviewed by B C Turner.
The Forever War (1999)
Millennium, 254 pp
Review by B C Turner
War is a theme that dominates most generations. We see it on TV, read about it in history textbooks and even for the some brave individuals actually serve during a conflict.
The Forever War brings us a gritty and bloodthirsty conflict in outer space that echoes similarities to the Vietnam War. We follow the life of William Mandela who is conscripted into the United Nations Exploratory Force after interstellar war is declared in 1996. This conflict started after the discovery of a new species known as the Taurans. First contact does not go well, as the Taurans attack and destroy several Earth colony ships. The UNEF then deploys its ground troops to conduct a ‘search and destroy’ style operation.
We see the true horrors of war that we expect in any war story: the fatal accident in training, the indomitable enemy, endless killing and the changed man who comes out of the conflict with a different point of view. This is what one may expect after reading such romanticised views of war such as in the Sharpe novels, where Sharpe saves the day against the odds and returns to base where everything is familiar and he can fit into his surroundings with ease. However, Mandela does not have this luxury.
Our protagonist returns home with his fellow soldiers to find the world that he went off to save has changed drastically. This is not only due to the amount of time it takes to reach the conflict zone back to Earth, thus subjecting Mandela to a futuristic society which he naturally finds it hard to fit into, but there are also other elements to contend with. Overpopulation has meant that Earth has had to take some radical action to attempt to preserve itself, namely population control via the promotion of homosexuality. Additionally, mass unemployment and other draconian controls mean that Earth is becoming an increasingly dangerous place to live, not only due to extreme policy making, but also due to the ease in which a person can procure weaponry.
The culture shock forces most of the military to re-enlist to escape the very place they were sent from to protect. Mandela is then forced to be subjected to the old Odyssey problem of ‘being stuck between a rock and a hard place.’ He cannot return to Earth as the world he once knew is now gone and he is hated because in a world of homosexuals a heterosexual is now despised. The only solace for him seems to be a reluctance to survive whilst fighting in a war as a pacifist.
Due to the excessive amount of changes to attitudes and society one could place the label of space opera on this novel; however, I think it is the employment of such radical writing that forces us to consider possibilities that we find uncomfortable.
It was due to this uncomfortable reading that the novel had been heavily edited prior to the 1999 version. People had difficulty in accepting Vietnam and what some editors described as the ‘you can never go back’ mid-section of the novel. Attitudes have changed since the Vietnam conflict era and our view of what is taboo in literature has since shifted. This has created, in my view, a willingness to accept this full version of the novel.
The Forever War is gritty and uncomfortable; it will also be the closest thing that most readers, hopefully, will come to being in a war zone involuntary. It illustrates how war is horrid, violent and thoroughly unpleasant. It will make you think about isolation, war, radical change, and going against a moral structure; but as a society if we fail to explore ideas that are uncomfortable to us then how will we be informed enough to prevent them from happening?