I am going to make a bold statement.
The Forever War by Joe Haldeman is one of the best novels I’ve ever read. Not just one of the best science fiction novels–one of the best novels, period. More than Dune, more than Foundation or Hyperion, and yes, more than Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I enjoyed it with the same fervor as other better-known works like To Kill a Mockingbird and One Hundred Years of Solitude. Yet to my surprise, not only have not many people read it, they haven’t even heard of it.
So let’s fix that.
The Forever War follows soldier William Mandella through an interstellar war against a seldom seen and barely understood enemy. In actual non-Star Trek space travel, to reach the enemy takes decades, even centuries. But thanks to relativity, Mandella ages only a handful of months due to time dilation at near light speed. (If you would like a detailed explanation of how this works, pick up a copy of Stephen Hawking’s seminal book A Brief History of Time.) Mandella experiences a millennium of war in objective time, which he subjectively experiences as a few years. He loses everyone he knows and loves to death, either through war or time, and suffers changes in government, the military, sexuality, and even language every time he returns home. And each and every time he returns, he is promoted, told he must serve for one more mission, and sent out again to a pointless war that claims the life of almost every soldier that fights in it.
Mandella is a fabulous character and a great filter to show this war to the reader. He starts out as a private in the 1990s, and by the end of the book a thousand years later, he’s a major after a few years of military experience and a total of four actual battles. He’s a war hero, the only surviving soldier from the war’s beginning, and is often treated as a quaint, eccentric relic of centuries past. At his heart he is a pacifist, and the last thing he wants to be is a hero or a leader. But the one time he returns to Earth leaves the service, society has changed so much that he re-enlists because he can’t adjust. His sexual orientation also adds complications along the way. At times homosexuality is condoned (a shocking idea in the 70s), encouraged or even mandated for population control, and he has to adjust to those attitudes each time he returns from a mission.
Haldeman’s prose is smooth and well-paced, and he does a fabulous job of handling the science in the book. Since time dilation is the major underpinning of the plot, he has to. One of my favorite scenes in the book involves a ship traveling at near-light speed toward a base the crew is supposed to attack. Not only do years pass outside between each turn the ship makes to avoid enemy missiles, but the missiles themselves improve with each shot. The enemy makes years of technological breakthroughs every few minutes the ship is en route. When the ship is finally hit, no one even knows what hit them because it’s so advanced. Haldeman injects poignant moments through science as well. Mandella forms relationships and love interests at first, but soon learns that if his friends and lovers are ever reassigned or stay behind on a planet, time dilation ensures that he will never see them again. This is hard science fiction at its best.
The best part of this book, though, is its commentary on war and society. It was written in the 70s when the Vietnam War was coming to an end. The war in The Forever War is even more pointless than Vietnam. Fighting a thousand-year war against an enemy you have never talked to, never even met except on the battlefield and with battles happening decades apart, is as close to stupidity as anything I can think of. This is the true power of good science fiction: it examines what is happening in our society today. Science fiction can accentuate any situation or philosophy in an otherwordly context, and expose the true ludicrousness or value of it. I see parallels in The Forever War to our current conflicts around the globe, and this book was written thirty years ago. It’s just as poignant now as it was then.
The only thing that detracts from the book is its cheesy ending. I may think it’s cheesy because it’s relatively happy, in contrast to the nearly hopeless tone of the bulk of the book. After several courses of rocks for dinner, a dessert of Vegemite is downright delectable. I’m sure if it was the ending of a more lighthearted book, it wouldn’t have bothered me as much. Even in this book, its effect on my opinion is hardly noticeable. And after taking a huge dose of reality delivered in a hard sci-fi package, giving the reader a ray of sunshine at the end does have its value.
The Forever War is not as well-known as other science fiction classics like Dune, 1984 or A Brave New World, but is just as poignant and meaningful. If you have even a passing interest in speculative fiction, The Forever War deserves a prominent place in your library.
William Reid is a freelance writer, editor and stay-at-home father of three. When not writing, editing or reading sci fi and fantasy (or changing diapers and cleaning up after a toddler), he loves cooking and playing board games.