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The Forever War

A soldier fights through centuries in the first interstellar war...

* The Forever War
* By Joe Haldeman
* St. Martin's Press
* Paperback 1974

Review by Clinton Lawrence

The discovery of collapsars (very dense dark stars) has enabled nearly instantaneous interstellar travel. But several of the early interstellar exploration and colonization ships have disappeared. When the military investigates, it encounters an alien species called the Taurans, and the ensuing battle sparks the first interstellar war.

Our Pick: A+

William Mandella has been drafted to fight the Taurans. After a rigorous training program, Mandella's unit is shipped off for its first engagement with enemy. Until now, no one has actually seen a Tauran, but when they come swarming out of their base, Mandella's unit attempts to capture one. They fail, but they rout the Taurans in the battle.

Their second encounter doesn't go nearly so well. This time, Mandella's company fails to hold a base. Worse for Mandella, Marygay Potter, with whom Mandella has developed a close friendship, freezes in battle, and for a while it seems she might be court-martialed for cowardice.

When their tour of duty is over, the Army tries to entice both of them to re-enlist by offering guaranteed training positions, but Mandella and Marygay both decline. Because of time dilation effects, 27 years have passed on Earth, however, and conditions are much worse than when the two soldiers left. After a few months and several traumatic events on Earth, they decide to re-enlist, only to be assigned to another combat unit within minutes of re-upping. As they go from battle to battle, the war continues across centuries, and time dilation takes them through a new cultural upheaval on every trip.

An extraordinary exploration of war

The Forever War focuses on how war affects the soldiers that fight it, and it works brilliantly on both a literal and a metaphorical level. Haldeman's most striking exploration of cultural alienation, not surprisingly, occurs when Mandella and Marygay choose to return to the army they couldn't wait to leave just months earlier, because they no longer feel Earth has a place for them. It's a point continuously reinforced by the temporary nature of almost every personal relationship. In Mandella, Haldeman creates an excellent character to explore these issues--a reluctant soldier with no prior interest in the military, and one who his own superiors think would be unable to kill a human.

Later in the novel, Mandella, now promoted to major, finds himself in command of soldiers centuries younger than himself. In the intervening time, the promotion of homosexuality as a method of population control has evolved into the cultural norm, and Mandella's heterosexuality is considered by his subordinates to be an antiquated perversion. It's a brilliant reversal that enables Haldeman to explore prejudices.

The war itself is also fascinating. Haldeman creates some very intense battle scenes, and the effects of time dilation introduce interesting uncertainties as the humans and Taurans battle for strategic control of the collapsars. The strike forces rarely know in advance whether the enemy's equipment might be centuries ahead or behind technologically, nor even when they might arrive.

The Forever War is a stunning work that hasn't lost any of its freshness in the 22 years since its original publication. It's simply one of the best modern science fiction novels.

It's more than just the best novel about interstellar war I've ever read. It's one of the best novels I've ever read about any war. -- Clint


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