The Forever War, Joe Haldeman

St. Martin, 1975 (2009 reprint), 288 pages, ISBN 978-0312536633

I have spent a good chunk of my reading time this year rereading a few Science-Fiction classics (Card, Heinlein, etc.), usually to disappointing results: Finding out that old favourites haven’t aged well since one’s teenage years is common enough that SF fans often use the expression “visited by the suck fairy” to describe how books seem to curdle on their own once reread with a contemporary (and often, more personally mature) perspective.

So it is that I’m overjoyed to report that Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War has not been perceptively visited by the suck fairy. It remains just as interesting now as when it was published forty years ago, and it has lost little of its qualities since then. (This being said, keep in mind that I was reading the 1997 “definitive” edition, notable chiefly for including a middle section that wasn’t in the version I read twenty years ago, along with a number of small fixes here and there.)

The story is familiar enough: An unwilling man is drafted in the war effort against an alien race, and (thanks to the wonders of time dilatation) ends up living through the ensuing multi-millennium war. Through his relatively contemporary perspective, readers find themselves pushed farther and farther in an equally alien future. There’s military action, romance, savvy SF devices deployed well and hard-hitting enough narration to make the novel instantly gripping, even from its classic first line (“Tonight we’re going to show you eight silent ways to kill a man.”) It’s not an accident if it’s from a Vietnam veteran who was wounded in combat.

The lineage that The Forever War owes to an entire tradition of military Science Fiction (most notably Heinlein’s Starship Troopers) is obvious, as are its intentions to subvert some of the inherent heroism in the genre. It’s notable, for instance, that the protagonist of the book isn’t a particularly good warrior, and that his only notable feat of military prowess comes very late in the novel—until then, he accidentally survives through luck and caution.

Interestingly enough, it’s that grounded view of military service that has allowed The Forever War to survive through the decades. War, Haldeman seems to be saying, is not noble or glorious when you’re the grunt on the frontlines: it’s a scramble for survival, it’s something that separates you from your loved ones, it’s in service of other people who may not care all that much about you. The profound sense of alienation that carries through the novel was partially meant to reflect the aftermath of Vietnam for its veterans, but it still carries a potent charge today when measured against other more triumphant military-SF novels. In many ways, The Forever War is both a veteran’s novel, but one that can be readily understood, and championed, by readers without a minute of military service.

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