Thursday, January 1, 2015

The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman

This week I'm reviewing The Forever War, a sort of vintage book at this point since it was first published in 1974 and apparently has since become part of the pulp sci-fi canon. In some respects I will say this book has not aged particularly gracefully, yet at the same time it remains rather valid because it talks about a war that is highly divided from civilian life, much like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been for the past decade. I'd definitely recommend that fans of sci-fi check this book out, but be aware that it hasn't aged as well as it could have.

Plot wise, The Forever War talks about an interstellar war between humanity and a race known as the Taurans. Humanity initially knows very little about the Taurans, in fact we don't even know what they look like. As if this wasn't complicated enough, the war is made even more difficult by the interstellar distances involved and the time dilation caused by near-light-speed travel. Although the soldiers involved in an engagement have only spent a few months getting to the front and fighting, as they have traveled decades or even centuries have passed back at home on earth. The result is an inability for returning veterans (what few there are) to integrate back into civilian society who will then spend what looks like the rest of eternity involved in an endless and eventually futile war.

The parallel with Vietnam and the inability of veterans to successfully integrate back into civilian life is of course fairly obvious, and the author states this explicitly in the introduction about how his book's based on his own experiences in Vietnam. However, it is still applicable today since the United States is still involved in a conflict in Afghanistan and recent developments (As of September 2014) heavily suggest that there will be some U.S. involvement back in Iraq for time yet to come. But aside from vague news reports, the war has become background chatter in the American consciousness. We may know friends or family members who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, but it's an experience totally divorced from our own with little to no impact on civilian life. The Forever War is in some ways an accurate prediction. Obviously the U.S. economy is not totally centered around the military, (Not yet, at least, anyway.) but the war seems to stretch with no end except that of sheer fatigue. The goals and objectives, so clear in the beginning, have become muddled and in some cases barely understood.

The one thing in specific that I noticed didn't age well with this book was homosexuality. I will say the book had a fairly tolerant attitude towards it, the main character didn't quite understand it, but it could have been a much worse attitude for the time period this was written in. There was an unfortunate implication that homosexuality is just a switch in the brain that can be flipped on or off with the correct conditioning, which I believe is largely incorrect based on our current understanding of human sexuality. (And this of course blatantly ignores bisexuality, yet another issue common in many works of fiction) Again, that might be just sort of a side effect of the times more than anything else.

The other big thing with the book is that it just sort of ends abruptly. We're given a vague explanation as to why, but for me it wasn't a terribly satisfying pay-off for the novel's build-up. It does make an interesting parallel to the real-life Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts as the U.S. left Iraq because of a shift in policy, with an equal dissatisfaction with the progress achieved. Overall, the book's rather good and I definitely recommend it if you haven't read it already.

- Kalpar

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