Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,

The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman

Second paragraph of third chapter:
The troopship was a converted “cattlewagon” made to carry two hundred colonists and assorted bushes and beasts. Don’t think it was roomy, though, just because there were half that many of us. Most of the excess space was taken up with extra reaction mass and ordnance.
When I last read this in 2003, I wrote (WARNING - SPOILERS):
William Mandella is a physics graduate, drafted in the year 1997 to fight an interstellar war against the unknown Tauran enemy. Because the battlefields themselves are light-years away, Mandella spends most of the book slipping forward into the future thanks to time dilation, and thus becoming progressively more alienated from the society which he was recruited to serve. But he falls in love with a fellow soldier (the army of 1997 and later years being gender-balanced) and despite all obstacles they get back together. The book ends with a birth announcement from the happy couple - a narrative closure which is also used by Mary Gentle at the end of her medieval fantasy war novel, Ash: A Secret History.

The sequences portraying life as a soldier, in training or in a combat situation, are gripping and unforgettable. Haldeman has put a lot of his experiences as an actual soldier in the Vietnam war into the book. William is his own middle name, and Mandella almost an anagram of Haldeman (see his interview with Spaced Out, the Australian gay and lesbian sf club). Mandella's lover has Haldeman's wife's maiden name, Marygay Potter. The two colossal strengths of the book are the portrayal of the psychological experience of combat, and the depiction of the progressive alienation of the soldiers from the rest of humanity, culminating in the awful revelation that the war was basically a mistake.

As a civilian veteran of Balkan and Irish conflicts myself, I'm not unfamiliar with the psychological effects of war on the participants, and Haldeman gets it right. In a sense the protagonists of The Forever War are relatively fortunate in that there seem to be very few civilian casualties directly resulting from the conflict. Not that they see it that way, as the casualty rate among military participants is huge, and our hero gains rapid promotion merely for staying alive (though as a highly intelligent graduate he must have been officer material anyway). (Brandon Ray subsequently pointed out on rec.arts.sf.written that this isn't necessarily so, since all the recruits were enlisted by the Elite Conscription Act.)

The military stuff seemed well thought out. I particularly liked the gimmick of the stasis field, within with electricity doesn't work so our soldiers have to resort to edged weapons. The science behind it may well be rubbish but the military implications were sensibly developed. (And anyone who doubts that the military could possibly jump at shadows to such an extent as to wage war against an enemy that wasn't in fact an enemy should consider such recent events as the US military's hysterical reaction to the International Criminal Court and its bizarre fixation with National Missile Defense, a project that will cost vast amounts of money to defend against a threat that is vanishingly unlikely to transpire.)

However despite the undeniable power of the core message of the book, much of the packaging is flawed. The book begins in a world where interstellar space travel has been developed by 1997, which now seems optimistically premature to the 21st century reader. The first edition, which actually won the Hugo and Nebula awards, features a section set in a future Geneva where the UN is now based - a Geneva where the local population has suddenly started speaking German! And although there may some day be a gender-balanced army which tolerates soft drug use, encourages other ranks to say "Fuck you, Sir!" to officers, and enforces (hetero)sexual activity among its recruits, this seems as unlikely now as it must have done in 1975.

The book's biggest problem - and this has often been acknowledged by Haldeman - is its handling of sexuality. In a year when Samuel R. Delany's Dhalgren, Joanna Russ's The Female Man, and Robert Silverberg's The Stochastic Man were pushing the boundaries of the portrayal of sex in science fiction, The Forever War's take on the issue seems rather unimaginative. The 1997 army enforces one-on-one heterosexual activity, with daily rotation of partners, among its personnel, none of whom appear to be particularly upset by this. A few decades later, the entire world has become homosexual as a means of population control, which seems rather disproportionate. Mandella sticks to his heterosexual guns, and does not appear in the least tempted to try it the other way (unlike the hero of Frederik Pohl's Gateway which also won both Hugo and Nebula, two years later).

And the ending, where our hero retrieves his lost love while the rest of the human race has surrendered its identity to a race of bisexual telepathic clones, seemed to me on first reading simply silly. I may be being unfair to the author here. Haldeman retorts in the introduction to "A Separate War", in the Robert Silverberg-edited collection Far Horizons, that:
The Forever War does not have a happy ending. Marygay and William do get back together - the book ends with the birth announcement of their first child - but they're together on a prison planet, preserved as genetic curiosities in a universe where the human race has abandoned its humanity in a monstrous liaison with its former enemy.
That's all very well as an explanation (twenty years on) of what was in the author's mind when he wrote it, but it doesn't really come across on the printed page of the book where the happy ending appears to be the point of the narrative. And it isn't sufficient, to this reader anyway, to justify the proliferation of homosexuality followed by the telepathic clones as a part of the metaphor for the alienation of Mandella from the rest of the human race; by today's standards this is either naive or offensive.

To an extent we should forgive the book its anachronisms; we still enjoy Shakespeare's Julius Caesar even though his depiction of Roman life (with clocks, hats and doublets) is rather different from ours. The flaws are real, but the passion is real as well. The Forever War is not a timeless classic, but it is a classic of its own time, and will no doubt continue to be read for its passion rather than its predictive accuracy. And after all, sf would be a very boring (and small) genre if it was actually rated on its ability to predict the future!
I can't find whether the novel was published before or after the fall of Saigon in April 1975, but the experience of the Vietnam War of course crucially informed the Zeitgeist. I have to say that going back to it now, I found the book’s take on gender and sexuality so far off kilter that it is difficult to see past that to the intended core message on the dehumanising effects of conflict. I guess we are all better educated about sexual consent now, and while the army’s enforcement of sexual behaviour among the troops may be meant to satirically highlight the pointlessness of trying to enforce sexual abstinence, it completely misses the mark. And it's impossible to ignore that the first step that the human race takes away from "normal" humanity is to become almost entirely homosexual. What message does that send to the LGBT community about the story's view of their humanity? I don’t think I could recommend this to anyone starting to read SF in 2020. But if you want, you can get it here.

Three of the other novels on the 1975 Hugo final ballot were also on the Nebula final ballot that year. They were Doorways in the Sand, by Roger Zelazny; The Computer Connection, by Alfred Bester; and The Stochastic Man, by Robert Silverberg. I have read all three and frankly I like all three better than The Forever War, though all have their flaws and I'm not sure how I would have voted. The other Hugo finalist was Inferno, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, which I have not read.

The (long) 1974 Nebula ballot included another five that I have read, The Mote in God's Eye, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle; Dhalgren, by Samuel R. Delany; The Female Man, by Joanna Russ; Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino; and Missing Man, by Katherine MacLean; and nine that I haven't, A Midsummer Tempest, by Poul Anderson; A Funeral for the Eyes of Fire, by Michael Bishop; The Heritage of Hastur, by Marion Zimmer Bradley; Autumn Angels, by Arthur Byron Cover; Ragtime, by E. L. Doctorow; The Birthgrave, by Tanith Lee; Guernica Night, by Barry N. Malzberg; The Exile Waiting, by Vonda N. McIntyre; and The Embedding, by Ian Watson. In retrospect it seems a real error to have overlooked The Female Man.

As previously noted, the Hugo and Nebula voters concurred in two of the other three fiction categories. "Home Is the Hangman" by Roger Zelazny won both Best Novella awards, and "Catch that Zeppelin!" by Fritz Leiber won Best Short Story. The Hugo for Best Novelette went to "The Borderland of Sol" by Larry Niven, and the Nebula to "San Diego Lightfoot Sue" by Tom Reamy.

Going forward in my reviews of works that won both Hugo and Nebula, I think I'll take it a year at a time rather than a work at a time. So the next entry in this series will feature two rather different stories, "The Bicentennial Man" by Isaac Asimov and "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" by James Tiptree, Jr., which both won awards presented in 1977 for work of 1976.
Tags: bookblog 2020, sf: hugos, sf: joint winner of hugo and nebula awar, sf: nebulas, writer: joe haldeman

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