The Forever War by Joe Haldeman is not a book that I would have chosen on my own. I have heard of Haldeman but never read him prior to this book, which was written just a few years after I was born. It was given to me for my birthday, and I am so glad that it was.
The first thing I noticed was the quote on the cover stating that it "is the best science fiction war book ever written" (William Gibson). Now, I love science fiction, and I love the stories of war, so this book seemed right up my alley. I jumped right in, expecting to be tossed into a fantastic new world and experience a new techno-war and all that extra-crispy, sci-fi fun. What I found were several forwards and introductions giving me a little background on the author and the "where" from which this story was written.
Joe Haldeman was in the service during the Viet Nam war. He was stationed in Viet Nam and participated in the battles and everyday experiences that our men and women went through in that jungle on the other side of the globe. He wrote this book a few years after returning home, and the Viet Nam experience echoes throughout the telling of The Forever War. Joe Haldeman is a man who was sent off to war in an alien land, facing a people with unknown weapons and capabilities, only to return home to find the world completely changed while he was gone, much like his comrades-in-arms experienced. In The Forever War, William Mandella is a man who was "drafted" into the army and sent off to an alien planet, facing an enemy with unknown weapons, capabilities, and structure, only to return home to find the world completely changed while he was away (granted this world changed due to relativistic physics, rather than simply politics, but the correlation is acute).
It isn't the physics, or the science fiction aspects of The Forever War that really drew me in, although they are extremely fascinating throughout the book, but rather the political and social changes that occur in the almost two centuries, Earth time, that this book covers. Our protagonist, William Mandella, grew up on Earth in the years that followed Viet Nam, so that war is definitely a part of his cultural upbringing. The year is 2007 (far into the future considering the publication date), and the Army drafts the world's best thinkers and smartest people and sends them into space to war with the Taurans. Due to relativistic physics, as Mandella travels the world he knew disappears.
The cultural changes that are discussed throughout the story, both on Earth and within the Army itself, set the stage for Mandella as he traverses space and time. Women and men fight right alongside each other, and are encouraged to bunk together and release their sexual urges together. There is a throwaway line in the book that struck a chord with me, stating that women were required by law to be compliant and willing for their counterpart's sexual urges. It doesn't mention the men, though. As the population of Earth begins to reach dangerous levels, the governments begin to encourage homosexual relationships as the best means of population control! The job market, and how people support themselves, go through some fascinating changes. Currency is converted from dollars, yen, etc. to Kalories, which dictate how much food you are allowed each month. And many, many more, each one more thought provoking and fascinating than the last.
Through Mandella's journey you can really see the plight of the Viet Nam veteran spelled out in rather blatant metaphors: he sees the most atrocious things, doesn't understand the purpose of the war he is fighting, kills and watches his friends kill, only to return to his world completely unable to comprehend it, to communicate with it, to exist in it. And through it all, he remains our hero, finding love, respect, self-definition, and understanding.
Like all things, this book comes full circle, and reflects the human experience in really fascinating ways. The science throughout The Forever War does not feel dated at all, even though the book is almost 40 years old, and sparks some interesting theories.
The Forever War made me think, it made me feel (oh the feels!), it made me reflect, and it made me remember. The story is still relevant, and probably will remain so long into the future.
I highly recommend The Forever War whether or not you like science fiction, war stories, space, or physics.
This one will stay with me for a long, long time.