Fiction Reviews

The Forever War

(1974/ 2006) Joe Haldeman, Gollancz, 7.99, pbk, pp XX, ISBN 0-575-07908-8


This is one of Gollancz's 10 greatest SF novels of all time. Private Mandella is conscripted to fight in the 'Forever War', defending humanity against the Tauran menace. He is to do this on some lonely outpost in the Galaxy. The only way he can get home alive is after a combat tour. All fair enough. However there is a catch. Though he will only age a few months, the near-speed-of-light interstellar journies to and from the combat zone itself will last a century or two. He knows that when he gets back everyone he knew will be dead and even society will be unfamiliar, and so he will probably re-enlist. Indeed, after a number of tours of duty, when he retires, as a veteran it is unlikely that anybody at home will even speak his language...

Joe Haldeman is himself a Vietnam veteran, and his experiences are echoed in this novel (and indeed a number of his other works). This makes The Forever War one of the classic examples of how SF as a genre provides a mirror at which issues of the day can be explored with the safety of a certain distance. It is quite easy to transpose the aliens for the Viet Cong and the future society back on Earth as those keeping the home fires burning, unaware of the true horrors of the war, who have little feeling for their returning warriors. Equally it is possible not to pick up on any of this relevance and read the story as straight SF. Either way The Forever War is an absolute classic and an example of first class science fiction and indeed features gripping battle scenes with at times the officers facing as big a threat from their own men as the enemy.

Has this novel dated in the past one-third century? Not as much as you might think, and indeed hardly at all. Some might quibble over the future society portrayed, Jon Courtenay Grimwood did in his review of this novel's re-print in The Guardian ( 9th September 2006) but I have to say I feel this is more than a little unfair. True the portrayal is simplistic, but then we only get the briefest glimpses of these as our disaffected-with-the-new-civilian-life protagonist is off again on another tour of duty. Furthermore (without giving too much away) we are currently a few decades or so(?) away from beginning to take control of our own genetic make-up, so as a biologist I am not going to criticise Haldeman on these grounds.

The Forever War has garnered tremendous respect within long-standing SF readers ever since it won the Hugo for Best Novel in 1976. Also it made it to the top 20 Concatenation all-time book poll and came top of the annual Locus readers' poll (Award) for Best SF Novel. Its sequel, Forever Free (1999), sees Mandella, his lover and former comrades in arms uneasy in the future and so hijack a ship to relativistically travel further ahead in time. While Haldeman's Forever Peace is quite another story set in the near future that also explores military-civilian issues and worthy in its own right.

For those who have only been reading SF for a few years and/or who are outside of North America and so who may not yet have come across Haldeman then be assured that he consistently turns out at least above average novels. I have yet to pick a duff one up. The Forever War though has to be his classic and even if, for our guide Essential SF Tony and I had not devised strict fan-appeal criteria and so was in, this novel by rights should be included in anyone's collection of essential science fiction. Recommended with absolute surety!

Jonathan Cowie

Also reviewed on this site, Haldeman's Camouflage and The Coming and the duology Peace and War which features the follow-up novel to The Forever War and the collection of short stories A Separate War and other Stories that features the sequel short story to The Forever War.

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