The Forever War is touted as one of the best science fiction military novels ever written. At least, that is how I’ve always heard it described, and so going into this one, I was expecting lots of gritty Vietnam-inspired fighting and combat. And I got that. However, what I also got was an amazing mixture of science and societal evolution that made the fighting even more entertaining and the story as a whole well worthy of its “One of the Best Sci-fi Novels of All Time” tags.
The story follows along behind a young man named William Mandella, who finds himself “drafted” into the world’s military force to fight an unknown enemy from deep space. So, naturally, the first part of the novel highlights his training, integration into the military, and the initial combat with the enemy: all of which was very entertaining. What was even more amazing, however, is the story of the evolution of Mandella’s Earth, as this societal change turns him from a normal, red-blooded, twentieth-century man into a fossil of an age long gone. All due to the disruption of time from space travel!
There are lots of things to love about this novel, but I’ll restrain my enthusiasm to just two.
One, I really thought Mr. Haldeman did an excellent job of portraying societal change over long periods of time. We all know human society changes, but usually it is so slow that older people never live long enough to see themselves transform from the human norm to the exception to the norm. However, here Mandella experiences this very thing first hand, finding that he is an alien among his own kind and an object of ridicule from new recruits, who label him a fossil of a passed age – even though he is only in his late twenties. But Mr. Haldeman does not stop there, but shows how these new recruits are themselves relegated to the trash heap of societal change. Something that clearly highlights that no one’s role in society is safe from the slippage of time and keeps the narrative interesting throughout.
The other thing I love about this book is that Mandella is an ordinary soldier. He isn’t one of those quick-witted characters who suddenly become the general of the war; or the person outwitting all the lifelong diplomats and generals of the aliens; or some genetically modified killing machine with a super computer in his head. Rather, he is an ordinary man, who finds himself learning how to be a soldier and trying to do practical things to keep from being killed – including being lucky. In fact, Mandella never seems untouchable; his triumph readily anticipated; or his spaceship already fueled to carry him to his happily ever after. Nope, until the last page, I really wondered if things would turn out okay for this very real and very human soldier.
The only thing I had a problem with was the ending, because it was a little sappy. However, I can’t harp about it very much, since I really, really wanted a decent ending to the story. I never expected a fairytale, happily ever after ending, but what I did want was one that at least left hopes for some small portion of happiness for everyone.
As many reviewers have already stated more eloquently than I, The Forever War is a great sci-fi story. It is an experience that mixes testosterone-filled, military excitement with insightful, societal changes, adds in a bit of political corruption and warmongering before ending with a dash of hope. And my only regret is that I did not read it sooner in my life.