In the future there will be war

The Forever War
by Joe Haldeman

Tim has been bugging me for a year to read this so I finally gave in. I can see why it instantly became his favourite book. It’s an immensely clever look at war and humanity, with some very interesting ideas about space travel and the future.

This is one of those books that I think is brilliant but I didn’t hugely enjoy reading. I tend not to like war-set stories, particularly those that focus on the fighting and the tactics. While there was much more to this novel, there was a lot of war stuff to wade through and that meant that my overall enjoyment took a big hit. It was all, of course, necessary. The clue was in the name.

It wasn’t in any way a slog to read. The storyline is clever and the writing is accessible even for people like me without the greatest background in physics or military tactics.

I don’t want to give away too much of the storyline but it begins with the conscription of William Mandella into Earth’s army in space. Space travel is near light-speed and makes use of black-hole-like gateways so that vast distances can be covered, but the cost of this is that space travellers do not age as fast, so when the first soldiers return to Earth they are still in their 20s but decades have passed (it’s something to do with general relativity), which is reflected both in the age of their loved ones and in the great changes that have happened – socially, politically, environmentally and technologically. It’s a clever way of adding emphasis to the returning soldiers’ sense of displacement.

This is one of those rare occasions where I think the background of the author and the time of writing are relevant when honing your thoughts on the book. Haldeman is a veteran of the Vietnam War and wrote this shortly afterward. He even starts the book in a future near enough so that the officers who train Mandella are Vietnam vets themselves. This drives home the parallels between the fictional war and the real one, though they at first seem starkly different.

For instance, there’s the great changes that happened in the USA while soldiers were away in Vietnam. Hippies, free love, rock music, drugs, civil rights, feminism. These are not hugely dissimilar from the changes that Mandella struggles with. There’s the use of drugs and hypnotism to condition the troops to hate the enemy (I’ll admit here that I don’t know that much about the Vietnam War besides what I learned in A-level history many years ago but I believe there was drugging of the troops – is that right?) There’s the use of old-fashioned military tactics against a little known enemy who fights very differently.

What I liked most was the personal struggle to deal with so much unknown and so much change. By making Mandella the narrator this book keeps its focus on an individual’s reactions to news and events, however huge those events get.

The political and sociological changes to mankind as time passes are completely believable and the way that information drip feeds out to the soldiers, light-years away from Earth, is very well crafted. I did find the middle section hard-going because it paints a dark, depressing picture of the future that was all-too believable and I suppose that frightened me. But it was worth reading on. I enjoyed the second half of the book much more than the first.

As a depiction of mankind’s future this is a great book. Shame about the war but it’s an unlikely future that doesn’t have war in it, right?

First published as a serial in Analog magazine. First published as a novel in 1974. Revised by the author 1991.

4 thoughts on “In the future there will be war

  1. Jose June 12, 2010 at 10:29 am

    An enjoyable review, and I am looking forward to reading more of them.

    I agree with much of the above, although one of the striking themes for me was the developing relationship between Mandella and Marygay, a love story that concludes the book rather wonderfully, tying much of the story together on the way.

  2. Nose in a book June 13, 2010 at 3:36 pm

    Jose Oh absolutely, the ending is beautiful but I try not to give away such things in my reviews 🙂 I did like the way the relationship developed from a vague allusion to friendship during training to one of the greatest romantic gestures I have ever heard of.

  3. satt melf June 26, 2010 at 9:23 pm

    This sounds like an interesting piece of science fiction. The idea of veterans displacement is an common theme in war literature. Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five again uses a kind of science fiction setting to touch on the idea, with his protaganist Billy Pilgrim being, ‘Unstuck in time.’ I also thought imediately of Tim O’Brien’s ‘The things they Carried’ a very different type of novel. O’Brien was a vietnam veteran and this is a semi-fiction account of his experience before, during and after the war.

    Another Science fiction novel i wondered if either you or tim had read is, A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller. He was another author who was heavily influenced by being involved in war. He was on board one of the planes which destroyed the cathedral at Monte Cassino.

  4. Nose in a book June 26, 2010 at 9:39 pm

    satt melf Once again I haven’t read any of those. Clearly there are too many books in the world! But Slaughterhouse 5 has sat on my to read shelf for a couple of years now so maybe I’ll finally line that one up.

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