The Forever War Review

05:16 Tue 25 Aug 2009
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Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War is the fifth winner of the science fiction “triple crown”, winning the Nebula in 1975 and the Hugo and Locus in 1976. It is a story of future interstellar war, between humanity and a species known as “Taurans“. It focuses on the war career of its main protagonist, William Mandella. I consider it an anti-war novel, and was quite impressed with it when I first read it last year.

Mandella is a conscript recruited to an elite force, one composed of highly fit and highly intelligent recruits who were selected in the hope that they would be better able to cope with whatever unknown dangers the war would bring. Some aspects of the book I found interesting include:

  • The effects of time dilation on soldiers fighting wars involving extremely high travel speeds (as far as I know, Haldeman was one of the first to write about this).
  • The idea that Earth would adopt/accept a centralized economy/political system/bureaucracy due to an alien threat.
  • Military service being mixed-gender and enforcing sexual pairings among troops.
  • Homosexuality being state-mandated (with the aid of genetic alteration) as a method of population control.

The first is completely critical to the novel, and allows Haldeman to cover a vast amount of time while making clear his protagonist’s difficulties in adapting to changes at home. Haldeman served in the US Army in the Vietnam War, and the novel can certainly be read as a science fiction treatment of what he and other Vietnam veterans went through in terms of cultural changes at home while they were in the military.

Mandella ends up experiencing Earth after extremely long gaps in time (as it has passed on Earth), and its culture changed dramatically in that period, with much of the change as a result of the centralized political structure brought about due to the war.

This centralization is taken for granted fairly early on. The idea that an external threat would unite Earth is a common one in science fiction, and here the unification takes the form of a militarized bureaucracy running things ostensibly for the good of the entire planet, with the underlying idea that the “Tauran” threat makes petty concerns such as national identity, democratic control of human affairs, and so on. The changes wrought by the central government are extreme, and become more so over the course of the novel; they begin with the conscription that results in Mandella’s service, continue through the reworking of the entire global economy around a new currency based on calories (because food production is strained), and move on to somewhat draconian population control.

Mandella is heterosexual, and apparently so are the majority of the troops in his cohort. The troops are both male and female, and apparently military custom and regulation at the start of the war attempt to deal with the mixing of the genders by more or less insisting that sexual pairings at night can’t really be refused. This is presented in a sex-positive light: everyone in the group is sexually active, attractive, and inclined towards sex in a way that is at least playful. The regulations don’t extend to officers in the same way, just troops at approximately the same rank level, and mainly those at the lower levels. The atmosphere presented suggests that the regulations aren’t used very often, and that culturally the individuals all feel that the sexual pairings are a fun part of their contribution to the group as a whole.

Later Mandella becomes an officer, and the only partner he’s particularly interested is his lover Marygay, also now an officer, but they are separated. The culture of military sexual permissiveness takes a turn at this point: on Earth, the world government has mandated homosexuality, and is genetically altering all human fetuses (all babies are at this point born out of test tubes) so that everyone is homosexually inclined.

This could be read as a horror story from the black helicopter crowd, “OMG the evil UN will make us all gay/lesbian in the future!”, but my interpretation is that it’s significantly more interesting. The government line is that it’s for population control, but Mandella himself notes that enforced vasectomies would be a lot easier, and I think that there’s a suggestion that this tinkering with sexuality is done for reasons of social control. Not that it makes much sense that entirely homosexual populations would be easier to control, but it’s entirely possible that some bureaucratic committee might think so.

In any case, this shift means that from being a heterosexual infantryman in a group of mixed-gender heterosexuals, Mandella goes to being a heterosexual officer in a unit (and an army) where everyone else is homosexual and thinks that heterosexuality is a weird aberration. Mandella is apparently mostly untroubled by this, and maintains a tolerant attitude throughout. My reading of the book’s take on sexuality is that it’s pushing for tolerance and understanding, and for common humanity to be respected despite vast changes wrought by time or distance—or by other differences.

I do find problematic the apparent ease with which Earth adopts a single government, although the text makes clear that there are upheavals which Mandella, away at war, doesn’t witness. It makes some sense that to someone in the armed forces controlled by the ruling bureaucracy, the various changes the bureaucracy has implemented would appear to occur smoothly and without much resistance.

Overall I recommend it, and I may read Haldeman’s related works Forever Free and Forever Peace.

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