by Joe Haldeman, (c) 1974 – science fiction
this edition: 2007 St. Martin Press trade paper – introduction by John Scalzi
This is the 39th in my series of forgotten books
No, it’s probably not a forgotten book, just an old one, and often considered a classic. But it’s the book I picked this time.
In March 2010 I finally got around to reading – and later writing a review of – Ringworld by Larry Niven. At trhe beginning of that review I said
“Is it possible to avoid the hype? Is it possible to see Gone With the Wind without thinking, as the film opens, that it’s going to be great because everyone has said so? Can one objectively evaluate “Water Lilies” by Monet while knowing it’s a famous, wonderful painting before you get to the museum? Probably not. Could I read Ringworld without the foreknowledge that I’m reading a classic of science fiction? Not unless I was reading it when it was first published.”
Substitute “The Forever War” for “Ringworld” in that quartet of sentences and you have an idea of the dilemma I have in writing this, of my thoughts about this universally acclaimed classic SF novel.
All books are the products of their times and the result of the lives and experiences of their authors. Certainly this one is heavily influenced by Haldeman having served in Viet Nam. I wish I’d read this in 1974, I really do. I’m pretty sure I would have liked it better on several levels.
Before I go into that, let me briefly address the Haldeman-Scalzi, Forever War vs. Old Man’s War debate. Which is better? Since “better” is such a subjective term, I can’t answer that. Which did I like best? Old Man’s War, and by a wide margin. Why? I’ll get to that in the rest of this review.
For anyone who doesn’t know and can’t guess by the title, this book is military SF. That’s a sub-genre that didn’t really exist as a separate named section of SF at the time, any more than it did when Robert Heinlein wrote Starship Troopers (which I also preferred to this book). Nevertheless it’s a common enough term and subject these days. So we have a fellow who has been conscripted into the Space Force situation, which we naturally assume means he is fighting for good, right, justice and humanity among the stars. So far, so good. There is The Enemy, and there are robot fighting suits with awesome weapon systems and lots of survival systems built in, highly advanced (remember we’re reading this in 1974 or so) stuff. The Enemy has about the same stuff, and battles take place in space (lots of missiles and bombs) and on the ground lots of hand held missiles and bombs and hand to hand fighting. Low survuval percentages, but Our Hero stays alive.
Then we have the time distortion, the effect of relativity. While the soldiers are travelling huge distances at .9 light speed, months pass for them, year or decades pass back home on Earth. After a battle a soldier goes home and finds they are 50 or 150 years out of place. Friends are aged or long dead, culture and society are nearly unrecognizable. They can’t go home again.
So it’s back to space, and more time distortion, more 1 in 10 survival chance. Some including our hero, survive. Meanwhile, the changes continue, and here is where Haldeman gets sidetracked to such an extent that my enjoyment of the book began to slide. He spends pages and pages, whole chapters going on and on about homosexuality vs. heterosexuality. It isn’t necessary to the plot, not really, there’s no reason for it except the author wanted to get on his soapbox. His point is never really clear, but he goes on at length.
I’ve heard this described as an anti-war novel. Maybe it would have been one in 1974, it’s not much of an effort in that direction now. As I said, novels are products of their time. Back to the Scalzi book, Old Man’s War. In almost every way it’s a better novel, as a SF work, as straight adventure fiction, as military fiction. Scalzi has said, and I believe it, that he did not read Forever War until after he had written his own books. Good. I’m glad I read this, it’s one of those books every SF reader should read, I guess. Knowing what I know now, having read it, I’d probably skip it.
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