Wednesday, January 7, 2015

1976: The Forever War

                 After a long hiatus, I am back and ready to catch up on all the reading I have done. At this moment, the beginning of 2015, I am actually 8 books ahead of the blogs I have written. This month, I would like bring you, my dear reader, up to the year I am currently on: 1983.

                The Forever War by Joe Haldeman is a great book to start 2015 with. Before I get into the book itself, I want to say how much I love this title. I am an absolutely sucker for a great title. There are books I have wanted to read simply because of the title. Once I almost picked up an audiobook called A Breath of Snow and Ashes because the title was so evocative. I was hoping for a grim story in some wintry place; stark landscapes and horrific events. Instead it is a time traveling romance set during the American Revolutionary War. Romances do not appeal to me much so I did not pick it up (it also was extremely long at 57 hours). Though I didn’t read it, the title has stayed with me for years. Particularly, titles that are The Something of Something appeal to me. The film The City of Lost Children is a personal favorite of mine and probably my favorite movie title of all time. The titles of the two books I am working on are A Season of Bad Roads (about post-Civil War Russia) and A Pocket Full of Shells (a steampunkish crime story) have those kind of titles. The Forever War evokes images of a grand struggle; complex and epic filled with high stakes action and complicated characters. As I read it, however, I found that it was not most of things but was a great read in a different way.
                The Forever War, despite its centuries spanning conflict and futuristic scenarios and weapons, is commentary and reflection on the Vietnam War. It is the story of a young soldier, William Mandella, who has been drafted to serve in the United Nations Exploratory Force being assembled for a war against the Taurans. The Taurans attacked a human colonial expedition and seem to be trying to take other planets that humans are trying to colonize. I say seems because, until the end of the book, there is no way to communicate with the Taurans. Mandella serves his two years but due to relativity more than four decades have passed since he left. Earth is a much different place. Overpopulation has led to food shortages and even the currency has changed to calories. His father is dead and his mother does not know how to relate to him. Eventually, Mandella leaves his mother’s home and goes to live with his lover’s family on a farm. The world they left is so different Mandella and his lover reenlist. Neither wants military life but there does not seem to be anything left for them. From there, Mandella goes on to serve a number of tours, each time advancing in rank (while hundreds of years pass) but becoming farther and farther removed from human society. For example, he eventually leads a team that does not speak the same language as he does (they learn 20th century English for his sake) and they are all homosexual which has become the norm by that time.
                The novel shows how the experience of war removes a person from “normal life” and the difficulty of going back to a world that has moved on without the soldier. As an Iraq War veteran myself, this part of novel strongly spoke to me. The world is never quite the same when you come back. People you know are there but they are not the same and neither are you. Relationships that were simple become strained. The old world seems strange. Granted, when I returned from Iraq in 2004, the world had not as drastically changed as did for Mandella but it was still difficult. Even now, a part of me misses my time in Iraq because the world seemed simpler and I believe that is why Haldeman, who was a Vietnam veteran himself, kept having Mandella return to the “comfort” of military life.  I think that this phenomenon is unique to post-World War II wars. World War II consumed the life of the nation. When the war ended for the soldiers it also ended for the country. The Vietnam and Iraq Wars were not like this. People may say that “we are at war” but “we” as in the general population are not. For a majority of the population, the war exists outside their lives. That’s how the world can go on while the soldiers are away. The general populous suffers none of the hardships that the military face. Haldeman captures this strange sensation and the cost it brings to those that fight.
                Haldeman’s experience in Vietnam also gives a weight and danger to battle scenes. While I enjoyed the battles in Starship Troopers, there is a tautness and dread in The Forever War that was missing in Starship Troopers. Perhaps it was because people always died for a reason or as part of the battle in Starship Troopers. In The Forever War, bad things happen and soldiers are killed from accidents and stupidity as well as actual combat. War is nasty business and Haldeman portrays it as such.
                There are a few grips I have about this book; despite how much I liked it. I found it hard to believe that there were not more attempts to actual talk to the aliens. This could be because the story is completely from Mandella’s perspective so we only know what he knows but it still seems hard to believe. Mandella’s team of recruits are all people with an IQ of above 150 which Haldeman pushes as important but it never really feels that way. Perhaps it helps them learn the complex weaponry but it does not seem necessary to have physics and chemistry students as front line troops. Finally, as a political scientist, I have a hard time believing that human society and government would hold if it was falling apart as much as it was when Mandella first returns to Earth. Wars cause societies to break from the inside and if the Earth society was collapsing, I don’t see how the military leaders could keep the war going. These are minor quibbles however of an excellent book.

                Go read The Forever War. It was one of the highlights from the 1970s Hugo award winners and that is saying something. I only wish I had read it sooner. Next up is Where Late the Sweet Birds Sing by Kate Wilhelm, the second woman at this point to win a Hugo. It has a great title but is it a great book? We shall see. 

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