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Joe Haldeman – The Forever War

January 7, 2014

99. The Forever War by Joe Haldeman (1974)

Read By: George Wilson
Length: 9h 21 m (288 pages)

Genre: Science Fiction

Started: 08 December 2013
Finished: 19 December 2013

Where did it come from? The library.
Why do I have it? It has shown up on so many essential/best of sci-fi lists that I figured I should give it a go.

Bye mom! Going off
to fight aliens! Be back
in a century!

Summary: Private William Mandella may be a Midwestern boy, but he’s been enlisted as part of an elite military group that is being sent to fight the newest threat to humanity: an alien race known as the Taurans. Not much is known about what the Taurans look like, what their capabilities are, or where they live, but Mandella and his unit must prepare to fight them regardless. But before they can fight, they have to get there, using new technology to travel vast interstellar distances nearly instantaneously, but there’s no way of knowing what they’ll find when they get there, or, given the relativistic speeds they’re travelling, what they’ll find on Earth once they get back.

Review: I can see why this one’s a classic, but it just didn’t really do it for me. I will say that I certainly didn’t actively dislike this book, and it had some cool ideas that I quite enjoyed. But military sci-fi just isn’t really my thing, Old Man’s War notwithstanding, and the story never really pulled me in. I should have learned that lesson with The Lost Fleet, but alas.

Actually, my reactions to The Forever War and The Lost Fleet were pretty similar. Best things first: I think the idea of relativistic speeds and interstellar distances and how they affect things like battles and wars and soldiers and veterans is a really, really neat idea, particularly for someone who grew up watching Star Trek, where they routinely blithely ignore that part of physics. I loved the concept that by the time you’d traveled to engage your enemy, it had taken you months but they’d had centuries, so your technology would always be hopelessly outmatched. I also thought this was a really nice treatment of the “can’t go home again” problem of relativity, where you come back the same age but all your loved ones are 10, 20, 50 years older than when you left… or more. There’s obviously a clear parallel to veterans here, not only in the war parts of the story but also in the idea of returning home to a world you no longer recognize. (Given the time frame, it’s clearly supposed to be a Vietnam allegory, but I think it would probably be applicable to veterans of various combats – not that I have any personal military experience against which to judge.)

However, on the other hand, I didn’t find the story part of the story particularly compelling. The writing is smooth enough, but it’s fairly episodic – battle sequence, techy spacesuit stuff, travel, some interpersonal bits, some economic bits, more travel, more techy stuff – and doesn’t feel like it connected terribly well. Worse, I had zero connection with the main character, and even the more interpersonal bits totally failed to spark any emotional resonance. Intellectually, I was interested in the concepts, but viscerally, I didn’t really care whether or not Mandella found the Earth too different to deal with, or whether he and his girlfriend would be separated forever or not. Also, I get that attitudes towards homosexuality, particularly in military contexts, were probably very different in 1974, but there’s a distinct homophobia about Mandella (and thus about the book as a whole) that bugged. 3 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: If you’re a fan of military and/or classic sci-fi, or stories about soldiers, or are very interested in the practicalities of near-light-speed travel, then it’s probably worth checking out. There are plenty of people out there who would enjoy it, and it’s not bad, but it wasn’t for me.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: A Good Stopping Point, Layers of Thought, Ready When You Are C.B., and more at the Book Blogs Search Engine.
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. January 7, 2014 9:00 am

    Great review! I don’t think I will ever read this, though. I’m still starting with the very basics/essentials of sci fi. I have yet to read Stranger in a Strange Land nor Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (never in at the library nor will anyone loan it to me.)

    • January 11, 2014 12:45 pm

      Care – Oh no! I *heart* Hitchhiker’s Guide so hard… I will keep my eyes peeled for you the next time I’m at the library booksale! I read a fair amount of “classic” sci-fi as a kid/teen, since that’s a lot of what my dad had on his shelves. But there’s a lot that I’m still getting around to.

  2. January 7, 2014 9:08 am

    Very interesting view. I enjoyed the military sci-fi elements of the story so much I haven’t even noticed that the rest is kind of ‘dry’. But I’m a huge nerd, so there’s that. :D

    • January 11, 2014 12:47 pm

      AJ – To each their own! Military books generally just don’t do it for me, regardless of their genre, unless they’ve got really compelling characters to go with it.

  3. January 7, 2014 9:22 am

    I am not a big fan of military books but this cover is amazing.

    • January 7, 2014 6:56 pm

      Glad someone else thinks that too – I picked it as my favorite cover of books I read in 2013.

    • January 11, 2014 12:47 pm

      If I’d been reading a physical book with this cover, instead of listening to the audio, I have to think I’d have gotten the Vietnam parallel much sooner.

  4. January 7, 2014 1:47 pm

    I put this on my list as a sci-fi catch up book, probably like you – books that are part of the “canon” that I missed (for me because I only recently discovered I liked it!). I’m not sure I’ll be a huge fan though after reading your review. Sounds like something I should get out of the library.

    • January 11, 2014 12:48 pm

      Meghan – I’d say that’s a safe bet. It’s really clear why it’s part of the canon, it’s just not quite my cup of tea.

  5. January 7, 2014 6:55 pm

    Thanks for linking to my review! I enjoyed it a lot more than I expected I would – and thought the episodic nature of the book worked for it. He has so many ideas going on in the book and yet doesn’t get bogged down in them. I was also a little uneasy about the main character’s reaction to homosexual characters, but this interview with Haldeman helped me better understand what the author was going for: http://www.spacedoutinc.org/DU-12/Haldeman.html

    • January 11, 2014 12:56 pm

      Christy – Interesting interview! I think Haldeman’s distinction of “anti-war but not anti-soldier” was a good one. And while I get Haldeman’s point about the homosexuality as a means of further isolating the protagonist, my problem was not with the depiction of homosexuality per se, but with some of Mandela’s attitudes towards it.

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