The Forever War by Joe Halderman

The Forever WarThe Forever War by Joe Haldeman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read this novel for an ‘I’ll Read Yours if You Read Mine’ challenge. It was chosen for me because I don’t like hard sci fi, and I’m not a fan of military sci fi either. However, Haldeman’s novel is quite hospitable to all readers, and although I prefer my sci fi to be more character-focused, I enjoyed this story and its ideas very much.

For reasons that are very thin at best, the human race goes to war with the Taurans, an alien race no one has ever seen or even communicated with. Lack of knowledge about their enemy doesn’t put the slightest damper on preparations for war however, and “the intellectual and physical elite of the planet” are recruited, trained in combat methods that may well have no effect on the bodies of their mysterious enemies, and sent to die by the masses for their species. The narrative follows William Mandella, one of very few soldiers to make it through several battles.

Although the novel’s technical jargon went right over my head, I think I managed to translate it into the intended meaning – fast, very fast, hot, searing hot, very powerful etc. As pahoota, my partner in this challenge pointed out, Haldeman’s use of science gives a good impression of how dangerous space is. Mandella and the soldiers face just as much danger from being killed by their own equipment and the environment as they do from attacks by the Taurans.

Haldeman’s style is very lean and to-the point, and the plot moves so briskly I couldn’t believe how fast I was going at times. The downside of this is that you don’t get much of an opportunity to explore Haldeman’s vision of the future, or engage with any of the characters, all of whom are rather flat and forgettable. The advantage though, is that, in reading The Forever War, you feel as helplessly swept along by the forces of war as Mandella does. Although he spends only a few years in active duty, hundreds of years pass by for the rest of the human race. When Mandella first returns to civilian life, he finds that 17 years have passed on Earth, society has changed drastically, his mother is suddenly old, and his father is dead. Thereafter the gaps only get longer and the social changes even greater. Out in space and on the battlefield, fellow soldiers die horrifically, but barely a moment is available to mourn them as the plot rushes onwards and Mandella must focus on the next Stargate jump, the next battle.

As the narrative progresses, the concept of a ‘forever war’ really makes itself felt, and Mandella finds it impossible to escape his duty, except in death. Even medical advancements seem as much a horror as a blessing – badly injured bodies are simply repaired so that soldiers can be sent back out into the field rather than being allowed to retire.

The Forever War makes for a good anti-war novel, a quick punchy read that lacks strong characters but effectively reveals the brutalities and absurdities of war. I particularly liked the last battle and its implication that war itself never really changes. The technology used may become deadlier, and the soldiers better trained (and better indoctrinated), but it remains a bloody slaughter. And those who gain any kind of benefit from the battle, are not the ones fighting in it.

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