Book 40: The Forever War

Book Title: The Forever War
Author: Joe Haldeman
Published: 1974
Pages: 265
Category: fiction: science fiction

Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, though still considered ‘older’ science fiction, is dramatically differently than that of Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. And in reading it, you can draw clear parallels to the American war in Vietnam, itself referred to as the forever war. In fact, Haldeman gives the events in his novel dates, starting an interstellar war in 1996 – a gap wide enough, yet close enough from Vietnam to allow it to be “barely possible that the officers and NCOs in that year could be veterans of Vietnam.” (xvi)
He says to “think of it as a parallel universe” but that “maybe it’s the real one, and we’re in a dream.” (xvii)

Though I consider most science fiction to be logical extrapolations of elements of modern day life – in a way telling stories relevant to today by exaggeration, in separating one conflict out from amongst the rest of our problems – I could almost see the progression of events that would lead to the circumstances in The Forever War. Humans encountering aliens, and immediately assuming we are in danger from them. With no way of communicating with this new form of life, and being evenly matched in intelligence, with neither having the clear advantage, we are plunged into war.

“The Taurans hadn’t seemed to have any conception of person-to-person fighting. We had just herded them up and slaughtered them, the first encounter between mankind and another intelligent species….What might have happened if we had sat down and tried to communicate?” (77)

I can see it so clearly, the extent to which we fear change, and are unable to collectively settle our differences. I’d like to believe that first contact can be like in Star Trek, with a wiser race initiating contact, working out the difficulties of communication for us. But it’s not going to be like that. When humans encounter aliens, it will be a bloodbath.

In the introduction to the version of the novel I read, John Scalzi writes that

 

The Forever War comes out of the crucible of the Vietnam War…Science fiction as a genre has the benefit of being able to act as parable, to set up a story at a remove so you can make a real-world point without people throwing up a wall in front of it.” (xii)

Adding to the sense of reality that I felt in reading this book, the science holds up too. Those that leave to fight return to an earth they don’t remember, every month in transit to distant battlefields costing them years back home. Not understanding the changes that seem to have happened instantly, they choose a life they know – fighting the alien threat. War waged in suits of armour high tech enough to support life on distant planets and moons.

I thought Haldeman’s views on the evolution of human sexuality was quiet interesting as well. First of all, by military law, everyone is promiscuous. Quite a difference from non-fraternization ideals today – the cadets bunk together, and rotate partners each night. As earth culture shifts forward, and populations increase, heterosexuality drops from being expected to being deviant. Quite a ways away from ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’.

I really enjoyed the thought exercise in reading these two books, The Forever War, and Starship Troopers, one after the other, and I would definitely recommend delving into some older science fiction, I find it a brilliant way to examine today’s society, and to begin to dream after what our future will be when we get there.

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