Book Review – The Forever War


I started reading The Forever War (FW) by Joe Haldeman because I’d heard some really good things. One of those, true or not, is that it was written in response to Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, which has been criticised by some for glamourising war. With Haldeman himself being a veteran of the Vietnam war, I was expecting some hard-hitting gritty, sci-fi battle scenes coupled with the potentially enthralling concept of time dilatation (read on). What I got, however, did not live up to my expectations.

Written in 1975, Haldeman describes a future society that depends on the industry of war, whereby most of the human population end up being employed by the war effort, meaning its cessation would cause the economic collapse of humanity.

FW follows Private William Mandella as he is drafted into an elite Military unit. He is propelled through space and time to fight in a thousand-year conflict against an alien race, the Taurans, for reasons that, well… aren’t clear.

The battles in this war take place over immeasurable distances (and time), which are traversable by “collapsers”, wormholes that transport ships instantly. Despite the collapsers providing instant space travel, the ships still have to get to them, which means months of travel at near light-speed. Subscribing to Einstein’s theory of relativity, traveling at these speeds causes an effect FW calls “time dilation”, meaning while the troops on the ship feel like a journey only took months, years have passed for everyone they left behind on Earth.

Peter F Hamilton describes the Forever War as a book that’s “Damn near perfect”. For me, the concept was bigger than what Haldeman delivered and I was left severely underwhelmed.

When Mandella returns to Earth after his first battle, he’s only aged two years, but ten years have passed for everyone else. The results of which means he no longer feels he has a place there anymore. Along with Potter, his love interest and comrade in arms, Mandella ends up back in the military.

The war goes on for centuries, while for Mandella only years have passed. He finds himself increasingly isolated by the society he returns to and is eventually even separated from Potter, the woman who gave him context and preserved a little piece of their own time.

The army continues to promote him, mainly because his seniority has reached ridiculous levels after centuries of service – despite only a few years having passed from his perspective.

Over the years, due to overpopulation, people in this future society have been encouraged to be homosexual – homolife, they call it – and in the distant future most people are homosexual, while straight people, though there are few, are considered outcasts, in an ironic reversal of what must have been general perception when FW was written in the 70s.

What’s clear about Mandella, is that he has homophobic tendencies. Whether that’s something we can judge him for is another question. He is, after all, a product of his time.

What I personally found distasteful about Haldeman’s approach to this topic matter, however, was that he chose to flamboyantly feminise almost all of the homosexual men, to the degree where they even wore make-up and pronounced everything with fluttering hand-gestures.

To Mandella, possibly to Haldeman, this flip in society appeared to be his worst nightmare come true; a society he looks down on and cannot possibly relate to. While this may have been an attempt to evoke a response of sympathy toward the character, to me it simply highlighted the character’s worst qualities, which Haldeman doesn’t offset with better ones.

Throughout FW, I couldn’t help but continue to ask myself whether I cared what happened to this character. And the answer, sadly, was that I didn’t. There was very little characterisation, or time spent on why Mandella made the decisions he made, or why he even felt alienated in this brave new world. He was simply a narrative for the circumstances he found himself in. And despite the concept being extremely imaginative, with such great potential, for the majority I felt like I was reading the synopsis of a story rather than the story itself.

The thought that went into the detail of the conditions and dangers on the alien planets the troops trained on at the beginning of FW was commendable, but it didn’t extend to the characters, the dialogue or the narrative. Haldeman may have been constrained by wordcount, but in my opinion FW would have been a richer read if it were at least twice as long, the characters and scenes rounded and layered and the unique concept of this disassociation fully explored.

FW gives Mandella his obligatory happy ending, whereby the war is over, humans have learned from their mistakes (in that the war was actually a misunderstanding to begin with), and everyone is straight again. YAY. Go widely accepted ideology!

What also left a bitter taste at the end was that Charlie, Haldeman’s only gay character who Mandella could be called loose “friends” with in this future, decides to undergo a “procedure” to become straight, and he and his new wife and Mandella and Potter all become friends and they live happily ever after on their new paradise planet.

Peter F Hamilton describes the Forever War as a book that’s “Damn near perfect”. For me, the concept was bigger than what Haldeman delivered and I was left severely underwhelmed.


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