Book Review: The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman

I have no intention of ever seeing nor fighting in a war first hand.


I can use my imagination to great effect and I have no problems imagining the horror and fear one probably has to suffer through whilst in a strange land killing their fellow humans. Especially with shows like game of thrones and the walking dead airing regularly.

That said, I find it hard to entertain the idea for very long. It’s not a pretty scenario to imagine.

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Joe Haldeman himself. This picture was taken during Finncon 2007 (Finlands biggest Sci-Fi convention

The Forever War, a science fiction novel by writer and ex-soldier Joe Haldeman, is a fantastic example of the work of someone who knows what they’re talking about. Joe Haldeman, a veteran of the Vietnam War, knows the horrors, fears, and psychological impacts that fighting in a war you want no part in feels like. In the Forever War, he excels at getting this across to the reader, albeit through the eyes of the equally unwitting ‘William Mandela’.

The Forever War is a story focused on the aforementioned William Mandela and his life-long (timey-whimey-spacey-wacey stuff aside) battle against the alien race known as the ‘Taurans’.

He goes to war as a grunt, a private, a lowest of the low soldier type. Yet he leaves a highly decorated, and relatively successful* Major.

*The fact that he makes it out alive is successful in my mind.

As you read this novel you become affiliated with the intimate life of Mandela, and all those close to him. You feel the pain he has when he comes back from his tour to find the world he knew had changed so vastly that he simply could not cope with the emotional turmoil of both its harsh brutality and the loss of close family.

He attaches to the one constant thing in his life: Marygay, his lover. They become inseparably in love and, quite simply, are a love story of the likes I’ve never read before. A truly inspirational tale of love in the strangest of places.

They go back to the world of war, a war they are well versed in. And they delve straight in. Inevitably they are separated and thrown into the fray apart from one another. Resigned to the fact that both are heading for the scrap heap of life, they focus on their military lives (although you assume that of Marygay as their rather sad goodbye is the last you hear of her until the last chapter of the novel).

 

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Whilst the masterworks covers are a little less stunning, the book reads just as epic no matter which cover you choose…

 

The last filings of the book focus on Mandela’s commission as a Major and the command he now has. This is the most alienating time for Mandela I feel, as he has truly come full circle; from the lowly officer-hating grunt he started out as to the very thing he despised the most: an officer.

Finding command is harder and more draining than he thought is tough, but not as tough as being in command of a unit that mostly want you, their commander, dead. He is, at one point, nearly killed by one of his soldiers’ ill-advised assassination attempts.

But throughout he stays true to himself, changing only as much as he has to whilst surviving. Against all odds, and using some rather stunning genius, he manages to survive and keep alive 22 of his first, and last, command. A reasonably impressive task considering the last fight they face (you had to read it, to believe it).

After making the 700-year journey back to stargate/home (through the time-dilating collapsar jumps and lightspeed), he finally returns to find the world he knew no longer existed. No economy, no family, no life, but most importantly: no war!

It was over, or so he was told by the now clone-fuelled human race.

It all seems like a bleak end to an otherwise cold, dark tale that seemed destined for a final chapter of Mandela bleeding out in some Tauran prison camp, or worse dead before he hit the ground. Yet what we get is a rather self-indulgent (if Mr. Haldeman allows) ending that both uplifts you and ties up all the loose ends you had. The love story of Mandela and Marygay even gets a somewhat fairy-tale ending that, in an otherwise warmer novel, would have looked way out of keeping. Yet it allows you to feel the joy of knowing that the character you’ve read so much about, whom you’ve pitied and rooted for the entire novel, does actually catch a break and get his shot at happiness.

 

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Collapsars are a collection of ‘doorways’ that allow high-speed transport across the galaxy in the Forever War.

 

Even if he does find out that his many years of service, and experience of hundreds of dead fellow soldiers, was all for nothing…

The Forever War is by far one of, if not the best science fiction novel of its ilk that I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.

It’s a book that I will forever remember reading and it has certainly had an unrelenting influence on me, as a budding writer.

So thank you, Joe Haldeman, for your service, for your creativity, and for passing on your experiences. You wrote a book that has not only been a classic since the moment it was published but one that will remain as such so long as there are people alive to read it!

From the bottom of my heart, thank you for this outstanding, personal, impacting piece of pure brilliance!

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