MARCH 1st, 2023 | John Miller

Book Review: The Forever War

It's a good, pulpy sci-fi read.
"To my mind, there are two things that make a novel a 'classic' – a genuine classic, as opposed to merely 'old and continuing to sell.' The first is that it speaks to the time in which the novel first appeared. There is no doubt The Forever War did this; its awards and acclaim are signifiers of that fact. The second thing is tougher, and that is that it keeps speaking to readers outside its time, because what’s in the book touches on something that never goes away, or at the very least keeps coming around."
– John Scalzi

I believe I first heard about this book from a podcast episode of The Myth of the 20th Century. One of the sardonic and jaded hosts of the show mentioned it in passing and I decided to look it up and order it from the local library. I’m usually pretty good with sci-fi literature awareness, so I wasn’t sure how this novel passed me by.
Written in 1974 and used as an allegory for the Vietnam War, this novel presents the reader with an unvarnished and anti-romantic view of conflict that successfully achieves what so many have tried in the past. It’s an anti-war, war book that doesn’t lead to the opposite of the intended result.
This book is an easy read and does a great job of demystifying the military experience. Haldeman himself is a Vietnam veteran and the ease and understanding that he brings to the details and descriptions in the book make for a pulp-like feel that never seems heavy-handed or sanctimonious.
As a piece of literature unto itself, one can understand why the book won awards for best novel (Nebula ‘75, Locus ’76, Hugo ’76) and why the initial response to it was so powerful. It took lessons learned from the culture and experience of the Vietnam war and layered them onto a sci-fi setting. A setting that had a dual function of responding to the literary call of Heinlein’s Starship Troopers.   
The initial impact of the book obviously interested people due to the Vietnam angle, but the interesting thing for readers in 2023 is just how prescient many of the issues outlined in the book are for the current day-and-age issues.

 The fact was, Earth’s economy needed a war, and this one was ideal. It gave a nice hole to throw buckets of money   into, but would unify humanity rather than dividing it. - Page 261

The futility of war and the economic corruption regarding the need for fighting one is a longstanding trope, but the military-industrial complex was nascent in 1974 compared to where we are today. In the novel the entire planet is subsumed in a war economy and Haldeman illustrates the Sovietization and corruption that a totalitarian system inevitably degenerates into.
I’m not spoiling anything by revealing that by the end of the novel we realize that the space war between Taurans and Humans was basically a misunderstanding that government leaders exploited and manipulated. A thousand-year struggle could have been avoided if not for the war-mongers of our ruling class. The peace that’s brokered ends up with Communist-styled clones from both species moving forward together in a blended system. Like I said… very prescient.
One of the most interesting aspects of the book was the use of starships that travel nearly the speed of light. They need to get to these stargate-type portals so they can ‘collapsar jump’ across enormous distances of space. From the point-of-view of our narrator, months of military service goes by, while years and even decades pass on Earth.
Upon returning home for the first time after battle our protagonist is surprised to get briefed by Captain Siri…

 It looked as if there was something wrong with his skin, his face; then I realized he was wearing powder and lipstick.   His nails were smooth white almonds.
 “I don’t know where to begin.” He sucked in his upper lip and looked at us, frowning. “Things have changed so very   much since I was a boy. I’m twenty-three, so I was still in diapers when you people left for Aleph…to begin with, how   many of you are homosexual?” Nobody.
 “That doesn’t really surprise me. I am, of course. I guess about a third of everybody in Europe and America is. Most   governments encourage homosexuality…it’s the one sure method of birth control.” – Page 118

When our characters get back to Earth and find themselves completely unadjusted to what modern life has become, the division between Vietnam analogy and the woke-progressive hegemony of 2023 is a big surprise.
Haldeman writes extreme versions of what many soldiers felt upon returning from the Vietnam war. The U.S.A they left was in many cases dead and buried compared to what they returned to, such was the case of radical social and cultural change in the 60s and 70s. Haldeman uses this culture shock in the novel to exaggerate the future that these space faring veterans return to… a future that looks all too familiar to readers in 2023.
The world is facing decline, class warfare, fake meat, the legalization of hard drugs, crime… basically the things that us right-wingers lament about modernity. Everything comes to a crescendo when our protagonist visits London and witnesses a woman getting gang raped on the street. His old-fashion sense of duty leads to intervening and killing one of the men and he consequently re-enlists in order to escape the authorities.
After getting his leg severed off without even leaving a transport vehicle during a battle, he finds himself even further in the future, a future totally gay. He finds that he has senior ranking due to longevity rather than merit and he is then given command to a totally homosexual strike force and sent over one hundred thousand light years away to continue the war.
Why is this novel of interest to PostCanadian readers?
The author (to my knowledge) isn’t based or red-pilled, so I wouldn’t recommend this book in order to have your politics reflected back to you, but it is of interest knowing that this was written in the 1970’s for a 1970’s audience, but resonates so well with the world of 2023. It does this, not by adopting timeless Joseph Campbell-style mythmaking, but by accurately get the trajectory correct regarding the direction of the cultural zeitgeist.
The alienation felt by veterans is what this ‘man out of time’ narrative is supposed to display…and it does. The fact that the reader has a dual reflection of both a 1970’s alienation and a 2020’s depiction of the modern era, contained within the same story, makes this book more fascinating than it would otherwise be.
Ultimately, The Forever War, is a good, pulpy sci-fi novel that contravenes some tropes, pioneers some other tropes, and tells a good story against the backdrop of interstellar war. If you’re looking for some escapism with a few culture war twists, then this is well worth your time.