Wednesday, April 09, 2003

Mini-review: The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
After Cory Doctorow mentioned Joe Haldeman's classic sci-fi novel The Forever War on his blog the other day, I knew that the time had come that I'd finally have to buckle down and read the sucker. The Forever War is one of those books I'd been meaning to read for a long time, but had never really gotten around to. Being such a fan of military sci-fi, it seems odd that I've never read it; my book shelves are stuffed with tomes by Jerry Pournelle, Gordon Dickson, and David Drake, and yet Joe Haldeman's thinly veiled parable about the Vietnam War has until now escaped me. What with the war in Iraq now raging, I knew that the time had finally come for me to give it a look.

But, enough with the preamble. What did I think of it...? Well, I have to admit that my feelings are mixed. Haldeman's novel certainly has some very emotional moments. The books strongest points occur as the protagonist William Mandella finds his homeworld becoming increasingly alien due to the effects of time dilation. Though I've long been familiar with this peculiarity of relativistic time, Haldeman brings out wierd situations that arise as two cultures wage war across vast interstellar distances. The Earth forces have to plan movements centuries in advance to compensate for the time it takes for their troops to arrive. People assigned to different task forces will soon find themselves separated forever, as their different trajectories put literally thousands of years between them. Mandella soon learns that the Earth he once knew has faded long into history, though his subjective experience tells him he's only been away for a matter of months.

The descriptions of combat and military life are likewise riveting. Haldeman's book portrays very little of the gung-ho cameraderie of most military fiction. The Forever War is very grim and stark in its portrayal of military life, and the uses to which society puts its soldiers. Though based largely on Haldeman's experiences in Vietnam, the lessons of The Forever War are applicable to just about any conflict you'd care to name. The book's alien menace, the Taurans, are surprisingly absent for much of the narrative. In fact, the main character only faces them in actual battle twice. Several altercations resort in disaster before battle is even properly joined, and so the actual toe-to-toe battles one would expect are conspicuously absent. This isn't such a bad thing, however, as Haldeman's story is driven more by the 'soldier's experience' than by raw combat.

Problems arise as Haldeman speculates about the future of sexuality, a complaint that I've learned I am not alone in levying. Though I can't say that I was offended by any of Haldeman's ideas, they just seemed a bit unrealistic. At the beginning of the book, sex is more or less compulsory between shipmates, as Mandella and his fellow recruits choose who to bunk up with on a nightly basis, at one point erupting in an all-out orgy. I can't say if Haldeman saw this as the natural result of women's increasing role in the military, or if he's just a horny bastard, but either way, I found it a bit odd. Things get wierder when Mandella finds the Earth becoming increasingly homosexual, a lifestyle encouraged as a means of population control. Sterilizing people at birth would seem to be a much more reasonable alternative, and easier to enforce, but this is never really mentioned. Haldeman's presumptions about the future take other puzzling turns as well, but I'll leave those up to you to discover.

Though I came away from The Forever War a little underwhelmed, I still regard it as a fine piece of military sci-fi. It contains a number of fascinating ideas that really marinate in your head after you put it down, and that's about the best you can hope for from any book.

posted by Musashi | 11:29 PM --> link
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