forgotten book: The Forever War

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.

~  ~  ~  ~

Series organizer Patti Abbott hosts more Friday Forgotten Book reviews
at her own blog, and
posts a complete list of participating blogs.

About Richard Robinson

Enjoying life in Portland, OR
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16 Responses to forgotten book: The Forever War

  1. Chris says:

    Hmm, have to disagree with you. Though I like Scalzi’s books, I often find his dialogue, for example, irritating to the point of distraction. I really enjoyed The Forever War, pretty much across the board as you prefer Old Man’s War, even if I agree that it has its own share of flaws. I thought it had more emotional heft than any others of the theme I’ve read (which aren’t many, I’ve not read that much SF). I recall being moved at the end, and I certainly wasn’t when I finished Old Man’s War.

    A fair review, though, Richard. Nice work.

  2. Evan Lewis says:

    Nice counterpoint. Makes me want to read them both.

  3. Jeff Meyerson says:

    Scalzi’s book obviously builds on this one even though he says (and there’s no reason to doubt him) that he never read Haldeman until later.

    I also read the Scalzi first and if I had to choose one or the other I’d probably go with Old Man’s War too, but I (obviously) liked the Haldeman much more than you did. I’ve since read his sequels (and several other collections by him) as well as the rest of Scalzi’s series, so clearly both struck a nerve.

    Sorry you didn’t like it much.

  4. Both books deal with War in very different ways.

  5. Patti Abbott says:

    That title seems apropos about now, doesn’t it?

  6. randy Johnson says:

    I disagree with you on your thoughts on this book. Not the argument about which is better, OMW or TFW, but that last statement.

    I feel it ranks high among SF novels. That’s just me, though. Everybody’s different.

    I, too, am sorry you din’t care much for it.

  7. Bill Crider says:

    I read this in 1975 or so and loved it. I haven’t read it since, but it remains high in my regard.

  8. One more thing, Richard. According to Spider Robinson, Heinlein rated it ahead of Starship Troopers, calling it the greatest future war novel he’d ever read.

  9. Richard says:

    I didn’t expect to get a lot of agreement on this one, and I’m not at all surprised. I do appreciate Chris’ remark that I did a fair review, which is all anyone can do, and expressed my opinion at the time I finished the book.

    Truth is I wrote the review the day after I read the book, then waited a week and reread it to see if I still felt the same way: I did and do.

    I’m pretty sure had I read it when it was published, as Bill did, I’d have liked it a lot more.

  10. Richard says:

    Randy – I hadn’t heard that before. Interesting.

  11. Jon says:

    Personally, I liked all three of those novels, written at different times, amid different cultural biases towards war and warriors. I though Scalzi’s sequels were far better than Haldeman’s (and more numerous), while Heinlein never did follow up on it. I think he’d said all he needed to say on the subject; he didn’t get into the habit of beating a subject into the ground until his last half dozen books or so.

  12. Richard says:

    Jon – you’re certainly right about that “last half dozen books or so”. Scalzi did 2 sequels and a re-telling (ZOE’S WAR), and has said it unlikely though not impossible that he will continue the series. I was of the impressions Haldeman had done 4 or 5 follow-up books. I’ll have to check that.

  13. Jeff Meyerson says:

    Hadelman’s direct followups are in A Separate War & Other Stories (from the wife’s point of view) and the novel Forever Free.

    There was also Forever Peace (which I haven’t read), which Wikipedia says is not a direct sequel.

  14. Thanks for a great review on a book I’ll probably never get around to reading; not because of what anyone thinks about it, but because it’s not a genre I care for. An excellent essay.

  15. Richard says:

    Laurie, thank you for that nice compliment! I do the best I can with the reviews. I read about an equal amount of SF-F and mystery fiction, with pulp added in lately.

  16. Jon says:

    @Jeff, thanks for the clarification on Haldeman’s sequels. I missed A Separate War, somehow.

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