forever war

The Forever War - Joe Haldeman by Usamah Khan


When I first got into reading Science Fiction, I didn’t know where to begin. So, naturally, I did what any one with a laptop and wifi would do. I googled “best sci-fi novels”. This led me to learn about the two most prestigious awards given to writers of the genre: the Hugo award and the Nebula award.

Every year since the 1950s/60s, each of these groups give the award to the best sci-fi novel of the year. I also learned that in all this time there have only been a handful of novels to win both awards in a year. This list seemed as good a place as any to start.

So with that I made a point to read every book on that list. I was enamoured by the quality of the writing and the fantastic stories that were being told. I read a few on the list, gradually finding authors I enjoyed and spent time exploring more of their catalogues. However whenever I came back to something on this list I remembered just how good a book had to be to grab both awards.

So after a little sejour from the list, I finally picked up “The Forever War”, which won both the Hugo and Nebula in 1975, and it is probably one of the best pieces of Science Fiction I’ve ever read.

Not only was this one of the best pieces of Sci-Fi, but also one of the best books I’ve read in recent years. It’s a book that transcends the tropes of ‘just’ a sci-fi novel and tells a compelling story with an engaging commentary on war while masterfully rooting itself in some very hard sci-fi themes.

I found the war story to be the most captivating and human aspect of the novel. Briefly, Mandella, the protagonist, starts off in 1996 as one of the first soldiers to take part in this interstellar war that would span many years and many tours. His first tour takes him far from Earth, traveling at relativistic speeds.

This is so crucial to the novel, and very early on we’re made aware of how with every tour, because of the time dilation, they are coming back from a year or so away subjectively but 20 years or so later in actual time, with each tour stretching that even more. Every time Mandella comes back to a new world that looks vaguely like the one he remembers, but more different than the time before.

I guess this is what veterans feel like when they come back from war. It’s hard for them, they go away and for a while live a very static life with nothing changing around them. The war happens, they age beyond their years but they still live in the same conditions, with the same mandate and mission. But when they come home, everyone has moved on. There are new words, new norms, art, movies etc. A year away might as well be 10 years.

Granted I don’t have a great understanding of what veterans go through but I always thought about this in the same way as Herr described the young recruits in Vietnam. They were high school football stars or athletes but in those formative years of your life the world moves quick. When they came home, everyone seemed to have left them behind.

As is with all “hard“ sci-fi and speculative fiction, they key is to take an understanding of the world that you possess and extrapolate it or posit a “what if?. I learned after reading that Joe Haldeman was actually a Vietnam War veteran. This was his reality and I guess no matter what setting you put it in, the reality of war never changes.

So maybe this was his way of explaining to the world what he went through and what other soldiers went through. I don’t know what impact this had on people when it came out but I sure know that it’s made me -someone with very few positive things to say about the military and war - to understand veterans and their struggles a little bit more. I think everyone should read this novel not only to experience a great sci-fi story, but to gain an insight into war and the human condition.

Those are my thoughts, but before I end, just wanted to share some great artwork by Marvano who based a comic series on the story. Love seeing all these takes on Mandella and the world of the Forever War.

EDIT: This podcast and interview with Joe Haldeman from the guys over at “What a Hell of a Way to Die” came out a day after I posted this. Haldeman touches on a lot of points I tried to make and I think (obviously) more succinctly and insightfully. Really happy to have some of my thoughts validated but maybe that’s just because I’m skimming the surface here.