Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Neverending War: The Forever War Book Review

"Tonight we're going to show you eight silent ways to kill a man." 

This is the opening line to Joe Haldeman's Sci-Fi novel The Forever War, and if you had picked up this book in a bookstore, read that first line, and it didn't entice you to read further, I'd be willing to wager that no book on this planet would interest you; not to mention you most likely have the attention span of a ferret and the intelligence of one. Okay, okay, I'm kidding ... but only slightly. 

The Forever War is a book that won a triple crown; it won the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus award for best Science Fiction Novel in 1975 and 1976. So this book is clearly no slouch when it comes to a trophy collection and garnering some respect. 

The Forever War is about mankind engaging in an interstellar war with aliens. While this might at first sound like a trite concept, Haldeman turns the story on its head by applying Einstein's Theory of Relativity. In the Forever War, mankind has unlocked the ability to travel near the speed of light by using black holes (called “collapsers” in the book) in a wormhole-like phenomena. So, while our protagonist might spend two years aboard a space ship traveling to a remote corner of the universe to take down aliens, he is not two years older when he reaches his destination; in fact, he's barely aged at all, but everything outside of the spaceship, from his perspective, has aged rapidly. You see, the war begins in the year 2007 and the protagonist, Joe Mandella, is drafted in his early twenties. But because time has progressed slowly for Mandella traveling near the speed of light, Mandella is still in his early to mid twenties when he is fighting the war in the 2100s-2400s. Hence the title of the novel, because due to relativity mankind has been fighting a war for so long that in makes the 100 years war look like nothing. Other implications of this idea include possible mismatches in technology between the humans and the aliens. For instance, Mandella and his crew might take off from Earth in the year 2100 and thus have a ship that has the year 2100's technology. But the trouble is that they might encounter an alien ship that is equipped with the 2200's technology, and thus be royally boned. This could also happen vice versa.

There are several other cool, speculative ideas featured in the novel. For example, when Mandella earns his leave from the military he returns back to Earth in the year 2070 only to find that the world is a very different place from when he left it. Haldeman takes on a Thomas Malthian view of the future where Earth is massively overpopulated and has exceeded its food supply, which has lead to several famines and for calories become the new form of currency. This has also led to political unrest, high unemployment, and rapid, uncontrollable amounts of crime. Those who can afford it must have bodyguards with them at all times lest they get mugged and/or murdered. Those without bodyguards are very much in danger, unless you happen to be like Joe Mandella and have quality combat training, but even then your experience with gang members can be harrowing. The world has become a place of deep despair, and Haldeman truly constructs a horrifying place to live. Because the world has grown more hellish than war, Mandella is forced to reenlist in the military.  

Further into the future, Mandella discovers that one of the ways mankind attempts to handle Earth's overpopulation is by making homosexuality the social norm. Even farther into the future, governments genetically construct their citizen's Brave New World style to grow up to be homosexuals. There's even an instance of the novel where Mandella finds himself to be the only heterosexual amongst a platoon of both homosexual men and women, leaving Mandella to be the odd man out and the one to be considered "abnormal, unnatural, weird, unusual" or what have you.

Oh and the Forever War is something of a love story, though it doesn’t start that way. Haldeman incorporates a pervasive “free love” policy amongst the men and women of the military. It practically seems like everyone has a different partner for each day of the week. While Mandella partakes in these activities for a while, he eventually meets someone very special, and enters into a monogamous relationship with her. I find the idea that in a society where it is the social norm to have polygamous relationships, but two people only want each other anyway, to be simultaneously interesting and enduring. 

This is not a pro war novel. Joe Haldeman is a Vietnam veteran and it's abundantly clear that in many ways the Forever War is a metaphor for the Vietnam War. Haldeman has some harsh criticism for the Vietnam War, the military, and the U.S. government. Mandella undergoes periods of self reflection through the novel, particularly when he kills an alien for the first time and ponders whether the alien's life and circumstances was really so different from his own. One imagines that Haldeman had similar thoughts as Mandella while in Vietnam. 

 “Once they had talked, the first question was ‘Why did you start this thing?’ And the answer was, ‘Me?” 

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars


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