I’ve decided I’m just crazy enough to try to read every book that’s ever won the Hugo Award for Best Novel…and, of course, that I want to share this insane experience with all of you. This week we take a journey of a thousand years, or perhaps only ten, objective, as the human race fights in a relativistic furball with the mysterious alien Taurans. Sixty-odd posts of science fiction, speculation and social justice continue!
The Forever War
published in 1975
At the end of the 20th century, physics teacher William Mandella is drafted to be part of an elite fighting force battling the first extraterrestrial life encountered by the human race – the Taurans. While William spends his youth traveling at relativistic velocities between engagements with the enemy, the human civilization he leaves behind advances centuries. The Taurans might be strange and alien – but from William’s perspective, the rest of human kind is becoming increasingly alien as well…
Warning! Mild spoilers ahead!
I don’t read a lot of military SF; aside from the lovably campy Lensmen series and the first two Honor Harrington novels, Starship Troopers was my only real exposure prior to this. It’s hard for me to say, then, whether the parallels (and anti-parallels, so to speak) between The Forever War and Starship Troopers are deliberate, or simply reflections of the genre.
Military fiction has always made me uncomfortable, and I suspect it always will. A lot of that comes from my conflicting thoughts about the military in general; as a civilian and somewhat of a hippie, it all makes me very uneasy. The military life is not something I have ever wanted, though I will freely admit to knowing little about it beyond what I’ve gleaned from fiction. The culture presented in novels like ST and TFW and others is not appealing to me; it is very different from the culture in which I am comfortable.
I mean none of this as an indictment of military culture; although there are certainly problematic parts of, say, modern US military culture , I am not remotely qualified to discuss them. My point is that I often have difficulty engaging with military texts, because they represent an experience, a culture, and at times a worldview so different from my own. So I probably miss a lot of what is going on beneath the surface of the text, or even what’s happening at surface level.
Fortunately for me, Haldeman (and his protagonist, Mandella) has a degree in physics and astronomy. My kind of of people! The book is not as aggressively technical as some of the other recent Hugos have been, but it is faithful to relativity, and uses the consequences of the constancy of the speed of light to great effect. Even with the use of “collapsars” (Not a Real Thing, if you’re wondering) to circumvent relativity to the extent necessary to make space travel on the galactic scale practical, the soldiers in this interstellar war spend much of their time traveling at relativistic speeds. The time dilation adds up, leading to centuries passing on the home front while Mandella and his fellows age only a year or two.
This I can wrap my brain around. I have never been to war; never been a soldier; never faced the difficulties of re-integrating into civilian life. I don’t know how to get into that headspace. But I can think like a citizen of late-20th-century USA; I can experience something like the culture shock Mandella has whenever he returns from a campaign to a civilization that has had several hundred years to change in his absence. I can get a sense of the alienation of returning to what should be home, only to find out it isn’t anymore. Again, I lay no claim to understanding the experience of a soldier, but in using relativity as his metaphor, Haldeman has found a way for civilians like myself to access at least a little of that emotion.
…Not sure I’m making sense any more. Onwards to the review:
Race: Given the variety of surnames included among the soldiers and officers, Haldeman made an effort to represent a wide range of nationalities and ethnicities, in keeping with the fact that his fighting force is a global, not a national, institution. However, the two major characters – William and Marygay – seem to be white, and far too many of the surnames are European to actually reflect the global population. Unless something terrible happened to most of the non-white people of the planet (a common theme in ’60s-’70s SF; some vague cataclysm always seems to befall Africa in particular, but Haldeman describes no such event. Also, that trope needed to die about two days after it was invented.)
Gender/Sexuality: Interesting! The draft has been expanded to include both genders. I use the word “both” deliberately, as genders other than male or female are not considered, nor are sexual orientations other than hetero or homo. Haldeman does do some interesting things over the course of the millennium with which of the two orientations is considered “normal;” Mandella’s heterosexuality is considered quite freakish by some of his non-contemporaneous fellows. Apparently in the future “programming” of one’s sexuality one way or the other is standard (thus the ability of the government to make the entire population homosexual to control the population size), which gives me the squicks.
Other: Issues of physical and mental illness and disability are mentioned briefly but mostly skirted; none of the soldiers, Mandella included, want to think much about the effect the war is having on them, especially psychologically.
OVERALL RANKING: 7 out of 10 (rankings subject to change as my sample size increases).
Come back next week for more relativistic time-hopping when I review Forever Free, one of two sequels to The Forever War.