Impossible Summer Reading List Review: Joe Haldeman's The Forever War

Posted by Whit Barringer , Tuesday, May 31, 2011 12:46 AM

As with all discussions of books read from my Impossible Summer Reading List, this will be unabashedly spoiler-rich. Proceed at thy own peril.

The Forever War (1974) was suggested to me by a friend, not by premise, but by a half-amused half-serious teaser that resembled the following: "They smoke pot and have sex a lot in it. So it's awesome." Yet The Forever War, for all of its divining of a dystopian future, feels heavily weighted by the past.

First, a (long-ish - sorry) summary: William Mandella (which, in an odd aside just pages from the end, is revealed to be a corruption of "Mandala") is drafted as part of the Elite Conscription Act to fight in a space war against the Taurans, a never-before-seen alien enemy. The monotony and strangeness of space war is immediately shown through the casual sex amongst crew members and smoking army-issued marijuana.

The novel focuses intensely on the day-to-day brutality of space. The first major stint of the novel is spent with Mandella's platoon in training exercises on Charon, where many soldiers die simply from the environment and equipment malfunctions. When they finally meet the Taurans with the impossible order to capture one alive, the alien force lines up for the gory slaughter, apparently never having encountered the human variety of combat.

When Mandella's group finishes its first campaign, they are allowed to go back to earth, but not without a harrowing description of Earth as a place so violent and repressed that peace doesn't have a meaning anymore. They will barely recognize their home, they are warned. The earth has grown twenty years older during their two year tour, an effect of star speed relativity. This is all told to them by Captain Siri, a homosexual man wearing makeup (more on this later). Instead, they could reenlist and get double, triple, quadruple pay, depending on their assignments.

Mandella decides to go Earthside anyway, and finds just how much of a mess the earth is in. His father dead, Mandella moves in with his mother. He buys a gun, learns how the new currency (kilocalories) works, and decides to blow his pension on an airship ride around the world with Marygay Potter, the only woman in the service with whom Mandella felt any connection. While they're on their tour, they stop in Britain; while there, Mandella sees a gang of boys try to rape a young girl, and shoots and kills one of them. Deciding that they shouldn't risk going to mainland Europe, they both fly back home. Mandella goes home and finds his mother's "friend" Rhonda in his mother's apartment and quizzes her about their relationship. He finds out that Rhonda and his mother are lovers, and that Rhonda is actually his earth age (as opposed to his twenty-years-younger relative age).

This proves to be too much for Mandella, who goes out west to Marygay's parents' collectivized farm (because a dystopian future wouldn't be very dystopian without a dab of communism). While staying with Marygay, the farm is attacked by Mad Max-ian ruffians who kill both of her parents. The two reenlist, and, in a double-crossing by the military, end up in a completely different assignment. The two are severely injured on a mission, and, after convalescing, are promoted to different commands and separated, knowing full-well that the light speed relativity would likely kill one or the other before they can reunite.

The last stint of the novel follows Mandella in command as a Major Mandella, a long way from his humble beginnings as Private. Instead of showing the difficulties of leadership over a crew not much younger than he (he had only four years of relative service, but he had been enlisted since the beginning of the war in 2007 and the mission would end somewhere in the neighborhood of 3143), the focus shifts to the cultural difference between Mandella and his crewmembers - the main one being that they, through a eugenics program back on Earth, were all programmed to be homosexuals, and Mandella was not.

The book ends with Mandella finding that Marygay, long thought to be dead, has survived through tricks of relativity. Oh, and the war with the Taurans was a complete misunderstanding, and no one really knows who shot first. And humanity is not really a species anymore, rather than a bunch of clones based off of one set of genes, all named Man. Man has established some heterosexual breeding planets in case this is a genetic mistake, and Mandella finds Marygay on one of these. Happily ever... something.

Now, my thoughts: The Forever War is thought by most to be a meta-narrative of Joe Haldeman's time in Vietnam. In the book's most brutal elements, from the senseless death to the soldiers' reactions to death, from the hatred of the government to the feeling of the nation's best and brightest being wasted on a useless war, this does come through.

But what about The Forever War as a science-fiction novel? The science is certainly there, with tachyon lasers, microton grenades, and, most importantly, light speed relativity. The following is from the teaser on the back of my 1991 copy (pictured above):
SPACE WAR IS HELL... Especially for Private William Mandella, drafted into a brutal interstellar conflict that raged millions of light years from Earth. But battling a savage alien enemy was not the hard part. Nor was fighting alongside a promiscuous co-ed cadre of misfits who considered Mandella a degenerate.
The real test would be coping with the astonishing changes the Earth would undergo during Mandella's tour of duty. For while the loyal soldier aged mere months... his home planet was aging centuries.
A very compelling teaser, and an idea that sparks the imagination. This teaser drew me in and was the reason I decided to commit to the book so fully.

It took me until about the second act (right before Mandella went back to Earth) to figure out I wasn't going to like this as a novel. The reasons range from the substantial to the technical. A short list of my worst grievances:

The dystopian future looks like a 1970s evangelist's apocalyptic laundry list. Dope-smoking in the military? Check. Promiscuous sex between co-eds in the military? Check. One world currency regulated by the United Nations? Check.

Most prominently throughout the second half of the book is the specter of rampant homosexuality, employed through government brain-washing to keep people from having children. The only thing that truly horrifies Mandella is the homosexuality, and it seems to be mostly due to the lack of partners for himself.

Several times throughout, Mandella thinks that the war can never end, because as bad as everything is on Earth, the entire economy would collapse, and things would be even worse. In other words, the Space Military Industrial Complex had inserted itself into the world economy, making violence and military power a prerequisite to have a barely stable society. There are nods to the power of the UN, not necessarily as a one-world government, but as a force that is able to single-handedly plunge the world into a war with an unseen alien race in space. These messages are powerful, both as warning and commentary, but they are shunted aside to focus on the looming threat of government-sanctioned homosexuality. Which brings me to the next point:

The muddle gets messaged. The government pulls dirty tricks, kills off the best and brightest, begins wars that have no meaning, and makes moral depravity the norm. The first three are blatant lessons from Vietnam, and I have no issue with them. But moral depravity represented by joints and cohabitatin' co-eds seems far from the worst that could happen in this world.

This is only exacerbated by the situation with Mandella's mother. When Rhonda tells Mandella the truth about her and his mother, Mandella thinks, "I felt very hollow and lost." Later on in the passage, Rhonda berates him for the way he feels. "You think, because your mother is sixty, she's outgrown her need for love? She needs it more than you do. Even now. Especially now." A cogent point. Even so, Mandella leaves for Marygay's farm, seeking to leave his mother and never return.

Or maybe none of this is the point, and it's just about a soldier who returns home to find it's not his home anymore, and that he can never truly find home again. This is likely the actual message, but there's a lot of interference with the frequency. Regardless, something obviously resonated with people more versed than I, as its Hugo and Nebula awards show.

And let me be clear, I am well aware that I am an alien from the twenty-first century. Saying "what's the big deal?" shows my bias in ways that are just as obvious to me as they are to anyone who reads this. Even so, sex and drugs, as bad as they can be, are not nearly as heavy as death, war, destruction, and greed. For Haldeman to focus so completely on the former rather than the latter seems like an opportunity missed.

Haldeman is not Hemingway. Ernest Hemingway knew how to understate profound truths with beautiful simplicity, but even a fan of Hemingway knows that the staccato rhythm of his works can wear down the most determined and interested reader. Haldeman aims for this profound simplicity; instead, he writes passages that simply do not work, and his characters - even Mandella, the voice of the entire book - are paper thin. They speak similarly, and conversational exchanges couldn't be read without backtracking to understand who was speaking. Combined with the sometimes exhausting technical conversations, Haldeman sounds less Hemingway and more Clive Cussler.

This monochromatic story-telling is most insufficient when Haldeman means to portray emotion. I did not understand until the word "love" showed up over halfway into the book that I was supposed to care about Marygay Potter, or at the very least understand that Mandella did. He says, more than once, that he cares for Marygay more than any other person in space or on Earth, but when Mandella mentions "love" (he never actually says that he loves her, just that he possibly could, perhaps maybe?), I was still unconvinced that I should give a damn about their relationship. At one point, Mandella meets with a sex therapist (when all of his shipmates are gay and he's the "Old Queer"), who tells him love is fragile and doesn't last, and that Mandella is a romantic for still caring about Marygay. Reading the conversation was one of the least convincing moments in the entire book. Even when Mandella and Marygay were together on their first missions, they were sleeping with each other and everyone else. At one point, Marygay was one of quite a few options for Mandella. That she became the object of his half-hearted affections seems arbitrary (perhaps that the character shares the author's wife's name was a nod to how it would all end).

After all of this, there's still the problem of telling, hardly ever showing, with paragraphs upon paragraphs of detail about minor things that are dropped and never mentioned again within pages (the absorbed, mind-numbing monologue Mandella's mother gives about the kilocalorie system and how to get a job on the black market is one such grueling example). Before the sci-fi aficionados sweep in and berate me: I'm well aware that it is a long and storied tradition in sci-fi to come up with something completely original about the future and explain how it works in intimate detail, no matter how small the thing is. I also know that it's a rare gift to pull it off without coming across as a mad man mumbling nothings to no one but himself.

Final Thoughts: There's a heart to this book that is below the science-fiction frame and the dystopian visage, and that is, at the center of it all, you can never go home again. The passage of time sweeps away everything familiar and leaves nothing untouched - even the one thing you stubbornly hold on to. The importance of Marygay, if we simply accept intent rather than attempt, is that she is, through her own determination and the power of her love, the one thing time could not erase.

Mandella's name is a corruption of "mandala"or circle. More than once, Mandella speaks of cycles of war and peace. In the end, his life is a cycle with Marygay, as he begins and ends with her. However unartfully illustrated throughout, it is a beautiful sentiment - one that might just be worthy of the teaser on the back.

Grade: C+