The Forever War
Cover of first edition (hardcover)
|Genre||Military science fiction|
|Publisher||St. Martin's Press|
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback)|
|Followed by||Forever Peace|
The Forever War (1974) is a military science fiction novel by American author Joe Haldeman, telling the contemplative story of soldiers fighting an interstellar war between Man and the Taurans. It won the Nebula Award in 1975, and the Hugo and the Locus awards in 1976. Forever Free (1999) and Forever Peace (1997) are, respectively, direct and thematic sequel novels. The novella A Separate War (1999) is another sequel of sorts, occurring simultaneously to the final portion of The Forever War. Informally, the novels compose The Forever War series; the novel also inspired a comic book and a board game.
The Forever War is the first title in the SF Masterworks series.
William Mandella is a physics student conscripted for an elite task force in the United Nations Exploratory Force being assembled for a war against the Taurans, an alien species discovered when they apparently suddenly attacked human colonists' ships. The UNEF ground troops are sent out for reconnaissance and revenge.
The elite recruits have IQs of 150 and above, are highly educated, healthy and fit. Training is gruelling – first on Earth, in Missouri, and later on a fictional planet located beyond Pluto's orbit called "Charon". Several of the recruits are killed during training, due to the extreme environments and the use of live weapons. The new soldiers then depart for action, traveling via interconnected 'collapsars' that allow ships to cover thousands of light-years in a split second. However, traveling to and from the collapsars at near-lightspeed has massive relativistic effects.
Their first encounter with Taurans on a planet orbiting Epsilon Aurigae turns into a post-hypnotically suggested massacre, with the unresisting enemy wiped out. This first expedition, beginning in 1997, lasted only two years from the soldier's perspective, but due to time dilation, upon return to Earth decades have passed. On the long way home, the soldiers experience future shock first-hand, as the Taurans employ increasingly advanced weaponry against them while they do not have the chance to re-arm.
Mandella, with soldier, lover and companion Marygay Potter, returns to civilian life, only to find humanity drastically changed. He and his fellow soldiers have difficulty fitting into a future society that has evolved almost beyond their comprehension. The veterans learn that to curb overpopulation, which led to worldwide class wars caused by inequitable rationing, homosexuality has become officially encouraged by many of the world's nations. The world has become a very dangerous place due to widespread unemployment and the easy availability of deadly weapons. The changes within society alienate Mandella and the other veterans to the point where many re-enlist to escape, even though they realize the military is a soulless construct. Mandella attempts to get an assignment as an instructor on Luna but is promptly reassigned by standing order to combat command. The inability of the military to treat its soldiers as more than highly complex valuable machines is a theme of the story.
Almost entirely through luck, Mandella survives four subjectively experienced years of military service, which time dilation makes equivalent to several centuries. He soon becomes the objectively oldest surviving soldier in the war, attaining high rank through seniority, not ambition (he is essentially a pacifist and an eternally reluctant soldier, who acts mostly from talent and a melancholic sense of duty). Despite this he is separated from Marygay (who has remained his last contact with the Earth of his youth) by UNEF's plans, despite the fact that many of the people who he would command had not yet been born. As the commanding officer of a 'strike force', Mandella commands soldiers who speak a language largely unrecognizable to him, whose ethnicity is now nearly uniform and are exclusively homosexual. He is disliked by the soldiers because they have to learn 21st century English to communicate with him and other senior staff, and because he is heterosexual.
Engaging in combat thousands of light years away from Earth, Mandella and his soldiers need to resort to medieval weapons in order to fight inside a stasis field which neutralizes all electromagnetic radiation in anything not covered with a protective coating. They battle to survive what is to be the last conflict of the war. During the time that has since passed on Earth, humankind has begun to employ human cloning, resulting in a new, collective species calling itself Man. Man has developed a means of communication unique and inherent to clones, which allows them to communicate with the Taurans, who are also clones themselves, leading to peace. When Man finally gains the ability to communicate with the Taurans, it is discovered that the Taurans were not responsible for the millennium-old destruction of the colonial vessels in question. The futile, meaningless war that lasted for more than a thousand years ends.
Man establishes several colonies of old-style, heterosexual humans, just in case the evolutionary change proves to be a mistake. Mandella travels to one of these colonies, named "Middle Finger" in the definitive version of the novel. There he is reunited with Marygay, who had been discharged much earlier and had intentionally used time dilation to age at a much slower rate, hoping and waiting for Mandella's return. The epilogue is a news item from the year 3143 AD announcing the birth of a "fine baby boy" to Marygay Potter-Mandella.
Reception and interpretation
The novel is widely perceived to be a portrayal of the author's military service during the Vietnam War, and has been called an account of his war experiences written through a space opera filter. Other hints of the autobiographical nature of the work are the protagonist's surname, Mandella, which is a near-anagram of the author's surname, as well as the name of the lead female character, Marygay Potter, which is nearly identical to Haldeman's wife's maiden name. Importantly, if one accepts this reading of the book, the alienation experienced by the soldiers on returning to Earth – here caused by the time dilation effect – becomes a clear metaphor for the reception given to US troops returning to America from Vietnam, including the way in which the war ultimately proves useless and its result meaningless. He also subverts typical space opera clichés (such as the heroic soldier influencing battles through individual acts) and "demonstrates how absurd many of the old clichés look to someone who had seen real combat duty."
It has also been considered to be a critical response to Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers (1959), a book with a similar setting, often considered pro-military. For his part, Haldeman has played down this claim in several interviews, even going so far as to praise Heinlein's work on its own merits and to name him as one of his own favorite authors. There are also certain profound differences between the two novels. Whereas the characters in Starship Troopers were all volunteers, the characters in The Forever War were conscripts (Heinlein had stated his opposition to conscription on several occasions). The Forever War also broke from many military traditions of which Heinlein was fond. Haldeman, however, noted that he received a letter from Heinlein congratulating him on his Nebula Award which "meant more than the award itself" and author Spider Robinson claimed that Heinlein approached Haldeman at the award banquet and said the book "may be the best future war story I've ever read!" In August 2003, Haldeman was elected by unanimous vote to the board of directors for the Heinlein Society.
The Forever War was originally written as Haldeman's MFA thesis for the Iowa Writer's Workshop. It was first published as a serial in Analog Magazine before its first book publication in 1974. Since then, many editions of The Forever War have been published. Editions published prior to 1991 were abridged for space by the original editor (omitting the middle section, a novella titled You Can Never Go Back). These early paperback editions have "a white cover showing a man in a spacesuit with a sword, with symbolic clocks all around," according to the author, with alternatively the first hardcover edition featuring a large hourglass with planets falling through it.
The 1991 edition restored many expurgated sections, primarily dealing with the changes that befall human civilization over the course of William Mandella's life. This version's cover "has a futuristic soldier who looks like Robin Williams in a funny hat," as Haldeman notes, "But alas, not all of the changes got in, and the book has some internal contradictions because of things left over from the [earlier version]."
In 1997, Avon published the version that Haldeman called "definitive," with "everything restored" and "a less funny cover illustration." This version was republished twice, first in October 2001 as a hardback with a cover showing spaceships in battle over a planet, and again in September 2003, with the cover art depicting a device worn over the eye of a soldier.
In 1999 it was republished by Millennium, an imprint of the Orion Publishing Group, as part of the SF Masterworks series. It featured as the first novel re-printed in the series, and the cover shows a close-up of Marygay Potter with soldiers and spaceships in the background. This is the same version as the 1997 Avon publication and has the same Author's Note.
In 2006 an omnibus edition containing the books Forever War, Forever Free and Forever Peace (under the title "Peace and War") was published by Gollancz. The cover depicts a futuristic gun barrel stuck into the ground with a smashed spacesuit helmet placed on top. The author's note at the start of the book describes the edition as containing the definitive versions.
In 1999 Haldeman, at the request of Robert Silverberg, wrote Marygay's first-person account of her time of separation from Mandella. It included not only the military details but also the difficulty of coping as a lone heterosexual woman with a society where same-sex relations are the inflexible norm. The story was included in Silverberg's anthology Far Horizons (1999), and later was the title story in the collection of Haldeman stories A Separate War and Other Stories (2006). In his "Notes on the Stories" for that collection, Haldeman commented that, "it was fun to write her story, both as a bridge to the sequel (Forever Free) and as an oblique commentary on The Forever War, twenty years later."
The most recent print edition was released in 2009 with an additional foreword by John Scalzi. The cover art depicts a soldier in a spacesuit in a jungle environment.
An ebook version was released in July 2011 by Ridan Publishing and also contained the foreword by John Scalzi and introductions by Joe Haldeman and Robin Sullivan (President of Ridan Publishing). The cover art depicts a soldier in a war torn setting looking down at the helmet of a fallen comrade.
Belgian comic writer Marvano has, in cooperation with Haldeman, created a graphic novel trilogy of The Forever War. With some very minor changes and omissions to storyline and setting, it faithfully adapts the same themes in visual style. The series was translated into various languages, and had a follow-up trilogy connected to Forever Free.
In October 2008, Ridley Scott announced that after a 25 year wait for the rights to become available, he was making a return to science fiction with a film adaptation of The Forever War. In March 2009, Scott stated that the film would be in 3D, citing James Cameron's Avatar as an inspiration for doing so. In the summer of 2010, Scott revealed that State of Play writer Matthew Michael Carnahan was currently on the fourth draft of a screenplay originally written by David Peoples.
- Bill, the Galactic Hero by Harry Harrison
- Return from the Stars by Stanislaw Lem
- Old Man's War by John Scalzi
- Armor by John Steakley
- Military science fiction
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- Child, Ben (2008-10-13). "Ridley Scott puts off Brave New World for The Forever War". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 2010-05-25.
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