Sunday Review: The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

Title: The Forever War

Author: Joe Haldeman

Series: SF Masterworks

Genre: Science Fiction

Publisher: Gollancz

Summary (from Goodreads)

Space War is Hell….Especially for Private William Mandella-drafted into the army by the Elite Conscription Act of 1996-who was thrust 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 civilization’s brightest and toughest young people. (Who, by the way, considered their veteran commander a very lethal social misfit).

As the enemy was pushed farther away, time-dilation became a growing problem. Now Major Mandella found that he was in the army for about two years… or three thousand. It all depended on where you were keeping time.

His real test was in coping with the astonishing, even evolutionary changes the people of Earth were undergoing. Mandella’s tour of duty was probably the longest of any person who ever took up arms. Yet, still the warrior in him fought on.

What’s Good About It

I read this as part of a reading list for a science fiction and fantasy class. That it has been selected as a writing model for the class is a prestigious acolade in itself (but then, I also read How I Live Now and The Silver Metal Lover as class list books, neither of which I rate) and while any review or opinion is just that – opinion – the fact that this book, first published in 1974, remains relevant, believable and poignant to this day further proof that it’s one of science fiction’s Masterworks.

Haldeman’s space war novel is less concerned about the space and the futuristic elements (though they are impressively convincing and remain so, not having become dated in the past few decades) of the story, focusing instead on the horrors of war and the effect it has on the soldiers fighting. The war may be in space, against hive minded aliens, but it’s still war and the foot soldiers still suffer the same trials, both physical and mental.

I’ve always felt that science fiction and fantasy is at its best when dealing with human concerns. In fact, any story is. Whether you prefer to read about the paranormal, horror, or just regular people in regular situations, with the human interest removed you have a very boring story. Of course, in chick lit and other genres dealing with ordinary people with ordinary problems, it is easier to keep things rooted in humanity. Far too often, Fantasy and Science fiction get carried away with world building, setting, mythology and lore, leaving flat, boring characters to swim around in their world – characters the reader doesn’t care about.

Haldeman never falls foul of this – always balancing his science with human interest. The effects of the time dilation on the soldier’s lives is much more interesting than the concept of time dilation itself, and The Forever War always stays on that side of the line.

What Isn’t So Good

I’m struggling to think of anything, other than the inconvenience of the new film coming out after I finished the module XD I would have liked to have watched it when the book and the topic was still totally fresh in my mind. Oh well, will just have to find it and read it again!

Why Writers Should Read It

Any aspiring Science Fiction writer, within any remit of the genre, should check this book out. Study the balance between science and human interest. Disect the information and identify how Haldeman introduces his often difficult concepts and makes them easy to digest and understand. Most of all, just read it because it’s a really, really good book.


2 thoughts on “Sunday Review: The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

  1. timctaylor says:

    Good review. I agree, The Forever War is a masterclass in combining sense of wonder with human interest. Anyone wishing to make a point or tackle ‘issues’ in their novel should also take note of this book: you only earn the right and the space to make a point (IMHO) if you do so inside a compelling story. Otherwise it’s just hectoring.
    I spent years tracking down a secondhand copy of this book while it was out of print. Kudos to the Masterworks imprint for bringing it back.


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