The Forever War is a 1974 science fiction novel by Joe Haldeman. It has been released in several different editions; I am specifically reviewing Haldeman’s “definitive” 1997 version. Here, everyman William Mandella is conscripted into an interstellar war, and finds that because of time dilation caused by space travel at near-light speeds, hundreds of years have passed each time he returns to Earth.
Haldeman’s imaginative use of hard science fiction is refreshing in these Star Trek times, where things like time dilation and the laws of physics in general are ignored whenever convenient. In this short novel, Haldeman does a very nice job of making the reader feel that centuries really have passed, and of exploring the inevitable alienation Mandella feels in a way the reader can relate to. Haldeman’s social commentary, which is generally centered around future shock, is thought-provoking, and The Forever War’s take on the societal future of homosexuality is unique (get ready, Christian right).
The Forever War is plainly anti-war, but not in an obnoxiously overt way; it is widely considered to be based on Haldeman’s own Vietnam War experience. Certainly it dwells at length on the tedium and futility of war. In fact, the tedium of the war occasionally becomes the tedium of the book. This isn’t a long novel, but the pace could have been better even so. The grunt’s-eye view of battle might be realistic, but it often isn’t all that interesting.
Haldeman’s writing style helps the novel. More often than you’d hope, he throws out a sentence that’s a real clunker, but his broad-strokes approach fits what he’s trying to do here and leaves plenty of room for the reader’s imagination (in fact, the lack of detail and explanation only adds to Mandella’s displacement). And the novel is accessible enough not to be pigeonholed as strictly “military sci-fi.”
On the whole, The Forever War is an interesting, imaginative, accessible piece of science fiction.