For reasons I cannot adequately explain, even to myself, I prefer to read fantasy over science fiction, but I prefer SF movies over fantasy. So I don’t actually read a lot of true science fiction novels. The Forever War is a book my SF-reading fiance tossed my way as an outstanding novel that also presaged or even directly influenced several of my favorite SF pieces (Ender’s Game and the short film Letters from a Distant Star, to name two). He also threw it at his best friend who is neither a grand reader nor much of an SF reader–and he actually finished it, which kind of speaks to the book’s qualities to engage and retain your interest.
It was originally published in 1974 and has remained more or less in print ever since—with a middle section that had been re-written to please an editor. The version I have (St. Martin’s, 2009) goes back to the original middle section as Haldeman first wrote it. I have no idea what the changed middle was, but presumably it was less bleak and/or less homosexual, because this middle—published in a magazine as the novella “You Can’t Go Home Again”—is, as the title suggests, pretty damn demoralizing for a soldier coming home to a world he no longer understands.
The story follows William Mandella, an elite soldier drafted out of his physics research to serve in humanity’s first war with alien intelligent life. It follows his career as one of the only survivors of the entire “Forever War,” which he is able to do thanks to relativity in space travel (the war begins in 2007, laugh now but think about when it was written, and ends in 3143).
It is a great military fiction book and a great science fiction book and just a great book. There is the ridiculous bureaucracy of the one-world government and the army for Mandella to contend with (the army is especially realistic thanks to Haldeman’s own time in the service during Vietnam). There is the threat of the technology which keeps the soldiers alive turning against them through accident or carelessness. There is the tedium of the basic soldier’s life in non-combat situations and the confusion and horror of combat itself to a man whose psych profile reads as “failed pacifist.” There is the fear of never knowing whether the enemy you face will be ahead of you or behind you in their technology. There is the heartbreak of outliving everyone you knew, of outlasting any society you could hope to understand or believe in, and of finally losing the one person who had made it through by your side for the first 500 years.
In short, there’s a bit of something for everyone. The writing is easy and interesting to read, and the story is both epic and microcosmic at once. It is one of the more profound SF stories I’ve ever seen or read, and all the more impressive for coming before most of my SF lexicon. Basically what I’m saying is, you should go read it.
Elena Nola is the imperial movie critic and the colder half of the Ladies of Ice and Fire.