My copy of The Forever War is front-loaded with praise from literary figures. Pulitzer Prize winners Michael Chabon and Junot Daz, literary light Jonathan Lethem, and two authors who have drifted back and forth between science fiction and contemporary fiction: William Gibson and Iain Banks. It’s an impressive list. They all say extremely nice and flattering things about a book published just before I was born. A book that at its core is more about the Vietnam War and American politics than accurate descriptions of gravitational effects on space battles and a war with a seemingly barbaric alien race.
It’s a damn good book, one that sucks you right in. Haldeman is adept at dropping in small concepts that give you a hint of how the “world of the future” is different than ours (or post-Vietnam U.S.): conscripted sex partners among the mixed gender combat troops, rations of marijuana for recreational use, and the encouragement of homosexuality as a form of population control. I think this adeptness, this ease of just inserting concepts and not really fussing over it, allows him to spend time describing the science behind what is happening. It’s done well, in a way that draws readers into it, even those who would initially balk at the fact that Haldeman is playing the science insanely straight—describing exactly what physical laws would govern a battle in space and what would happen to those troops we would send light years away to fight a battle we couldn’t see, whose outcome probably wouldn’t be known until after we’re dead.
It’s a damn good book, one that sucks you right in.
The Vietnam parallels seem almost (almost) heavy handed these days, but you do have to remember that the book was published in 1974 and there’s still a sense that in that year the public wasn’t ready for an examination of exactly what the fuck happened there for ten years or so. (Editor’s Note: Joe Haldeman was unable to find a book publisher for years. The argument, even in the 1970s was that no one wanted to read a book about the Vietnam War.) The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now didn’t come out until at least four years after The Forever War, and Robert Altman had to make a movie about the Korean War to make any sort of commentary. It always seemed the public had a hard time with those as well.
All of the above does make The Forever War a classic of science fiction. A book in space that is about something here on Earth, right now. In fact, the myriad social aspects in the book, not just the war but the culture behind war, make this book entirely valid today.
But I have to pass it through what I said about American Gods, like I will every other book on the Courtney’s Year of Genre list (what I’m now thinking of as the Adams’ Test): does this finely crafted work of thrilling fiction elevate itself to art?
...does this finely crafted work of thrilling fiction elevate itself to art? I’m going to have to say no, it does not.
I’m going to have to say no, it does not. I am completely and thoroughly torn on this since it is a very good, entertaining book. It has subtext and deft writing, but possibly not as deft as it could be. Is that a side effect of being hard sci-fi, where descriptions of the relativistic effects of faster than light travel and the physics of space battles make it a little dry? Maybe. I could also chalk it up to the one section where it seemed like Haldeman could’ve slowed it down and just focused on the writing: the middle part where some of the first soldiers return to Earth after decades away. This more than any section seems heavy handed and not as well-written, andd it's frankly my least favorite part of the book. That doesn’t take anything away from the message, the power of that section—it just paled in comparison to the writing elsewhere.
So, The Forever War is a classic and a great piece of science fiction I think everyone should read, well deserving of all its awards, accolades and general praise over the years, but it is a fine piece of craftsmanship and not a piece of art. Haldeman should be proud it is his first novel, because it is that good. Considering all the awards he’s racked up since then and his position as a professor of writing at MIT, I’m thoroughly interested in seeing what else he has to offer, because this is one hell of a debut.