Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Book Review: The Forever War

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman1
1976 Hugo Award Winner for Best Novel and 1975 Nebula Award Winner for Best Novel 

Awhile back I did a review of another Haldeman book, Camouflage, another award-winning novel which I found extremely underwhelming. Needless to say, I was somewhat worried in approaching The Forever War. At the same time, all the summaries of the book I'd heard made it sound extremely interesting. The basic concept is this - a physicist, William Mandella, is drafted into the military to fight an alien race which has attacked human vessels, but who no one has ever seen. The war begins, and due to time dilation, a few years of war time for Mandella become thousands of years back home. As Mandella returns home, he must deal with the isolation the war has brought on him. 

Haldeman himself is a physicist and a veteran of the Vietnam war, so I also thought his experience should add well to the story. So how would things turn out? On the one hand, an interesting concept and a writer who knows his subject; on the other hand, a very underwhelming book by the same author.
When the book first started the worst seemed confirmed. The military training the characters went through was absurdly over the top in the lack of care showed by the soldiers's superiors (live ammo training, etc.) and the book looked like it was going to sink into the juvenile use of sex so many sci-fi authors seem to fall into. 

Thankfully, I stuck with the book, and my initial impressions were completely wrong. With this story, Haldeman undoubtedly knows what he's doing. Even the sex that initially worried me was, as my friend pointed out to me when I was half-way through, far too deliberate to be "juvenile" and ended up playing an extremely important role in the alienation experienced by the characters. 

I'm still not sure what I think about the stories ending, but either way it's not really important.  The book isn't so much about a narrative, but about the effects of the Forever War on Mandella and the Earth. We follow him closely, and in many ways experience with him the disillusionment and alienation of the war. 

This is an excellent book, and in many ways it feels like a science fiction book ahead of its time. I recommend it to those interested in creative uses of science fiction tropes and in a soldier's perspective on war. 
1. I actually listened to this one as an audiobook and the reader was quite excellent.