Joe Haldeman’s 1976 The Forever War is one of those rare novels, like Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama or Pohl’s Gateway, that runs away with nearly every major American science fiction award the year it was published. Winning the Hugo, Nebula and Locus, it is undoubtedly a combination of the book’s thematic elements and commentary on contemporary concerns (the Vietnam War) that won the book such high acclaim. And it is all worth it. Not the most stylistic or prosaic of novels, The Forever War nevertheless remains one of the best examples of how science fiction is capable of commenting on the human condition in relevant fashion.
The Forever War is the story of William Mandella, a student drafted into an extra-planetary war with the alien Taurans. Before being sent to the front, Mandella undergoes training of severe duress, a la Heinlein’s Starship Troopers or Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. Though a number of his contemporaries do not survive the training, nothing can prepare them for the experiences of actual combat. Returning to Earth years subjective time later, but decades, even centuries objective time later due to the dilatory effects of space travel, Mandella finds that what he left behind is not as it was. And this is only the beginning of his troubles. Civil hostility and locating gameful employment difficult, Mandella is soon back in the place he left, the military, and more war on the way.
Though the above paragraph may seem to contain a great deal of spoilers, much more happens in The Forever War. Haldeman, drawing on personal experience in the Vietnam War, incorporates situations and elements of society into his narrative that are strongly analogous of the times. That these parallels are painted in the colors of science fiction are what draw genre fans in and make the novel relevant. The themes of societal alienation, indoctrination, politics, post-traumatic stress disorder, psychology, and polemics all make a strong showing, anchoring the story in both social and personal conscientiousness.
But for as significant as the thematic content of The Forever War is, there remain some problems with the narrative. Prose predominantly the issue, Haldeman is not a born writer. His sentence structure and flow of words are not what one would label beautiful or compelling. But given that the story is told by a soldier, the rough, relatively simplistic description, and dialogue work well. Mandella’s insight and perspective, rather than being related in lofty, fluffy prose, are expressed in terms more similar to those a normal Joe conscripted into the army might. Intentional or not, for this book it works.
In the end, The Forever War is a novel that combines theme and story, action and introspection as equally important parts of the story. It is a great example of what makes science fiction a potentially powerful medium in which to express social concerns in an imaginatively analogous setting. Fans of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, Ursula Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest, and to a lesser degree, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game will find the novel interesting. Given the balance The Forever War accords entertainment with subject matter, readers of sci-fi in general will more than likely find their time well-spent reading the novel. The Vietnam War may be decades in the past, but its ideologies hang around, keeping The Forever War pertinent in the process.