The Forever War

For those of us who haven’t read or don’t remember The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, which won the Hugo (I will remind you) in 1976, here, by happenstance, is a retrospective post by Jay Allen about that very book over at

Sitting on a peak in the desert, watching a fleeting bright spot in the sky become fainter and fainter, until finally it simply vanishes. When I think of William Mandella from The Forever War, it is that moment perhaps more than any other that passes through my mind.

That spot of light was, of course, a spaceship, and it carried away not only Mandella’s lover, but also the last link to his own reality. For the war in this celebrated novel features not only the pain and savagery endemic to any other conflict, but also its own unique torment. Mandella and his comrades must endure the passage of decades, even centuries, between battles, the result of time dilation when traveling at relativistic speeds. Imagine going off to war, with all that entails, but also knowing that when—if—you return, everyone you left behind will be dead, the culture you remember long gone. When that speck of light disappeared, Mandella was alone, utterly and completely alone, trapped in a human culture that was entirely alien to him.

And there you go. That right there is a great description of a book I didn’t read back when and don’t plan to read now. It’s not that I will never ever read a tragedy under any circumstances whatsoever . . . but that sure doesn’t sound like my kind of thing.

Allen says this is one of his favorite books, one he re-reads every few years, and I’m sure it is an admirable work, but I read his essay and think: No. Just no.

I loved Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity, btw. I loved it even though I knew going in it was a tragedy, and I loved it all the time I watched the tragedy unfold. I think one big, big difference is that Haldeman’s book is ultimately about the pointlessness of war and the callousness of the people who perpetuate them. Allen describes the book thus:

It dares to imagine war in the future as something even more dehumanizing than real world conflict, where soldiers are sent on pointless missions that no more than a third of them are expected to survive. The combats in the book do not portray heroic defenses of the homeland or righteous crusades against an evil enemy. Indeed, they all seem fairly pointless and random, with little purpose except to perpetuate the war itself.

That adds a whole deeper layer to the tragedy, doesn’t it? War for no reason, suffering and death for no reason, war the behest of an indifferent totalitarian government, war where nothing is served or saved or protected or defended.

How different that is from the story told in Code Name Verity, where the struggle, tragic though it is, involves good guys triumphing, in the end over bad guys. More than that: where the struggle involves redeeming some of the those who have been forced into service to evil, and offering them a way to turn against a crushing totalitarian government.

I will undoubtedly reread Code Name Verity. But I can’t see any chance that I will ever voluntarily read The Forever War, no matter how brilliant it may be.

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4 thoughts on “The Forever War”

  1. So, a couple points in the book’s favor:
    * It’s one of the most science-y sf books out there
    *The context: this is a book that’s about coming home from the Vietnam war, and makes a powerful statement about the sense of alienation the vets experienced
    *It ends on a hopeful note. Since you don’t plan to read it, I feel like it’s ok to tell you that the book ends with the pov character and his lover reunited in a future where man has evolved past the point of waging war.

  2. Well, good to know about the more positive ending! Even so, powerful and timely as the book may have been, doesn’t sound like it’s for me.

  3. That sounds like the kind of thing I’d rather read as a short story than a novel.

    I usually avoid the bleak and pointless because at that point I get frustrated and start hoping that the zombies win, or, as in the case with the most recent TV version of Battlestar Depressica, just hoping that everyone will space themselves and be done with it. But as long as there is a glimmer of hope then tragedy can be just what the doctor ordered. I admit to sobbing inconsolably for a half hour after finishing the Gregor the Overlander series, which is the middle grade version of war is bad and everyone dies gruesomely and arbitrarily. Afterwards I promptly recommended those to my younger sister after she asked me for books that would rip her heart out.

    (You might not want to read those, because everyone dies gruesomely and arbitrarily, but at least not hopelessly.)

  4. Battlestar Depressica, hah! I’ve only watched a handful of episodes from season one, but I will bear this warning in mind when and if I go on with the series.

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