Joe Haldeman, The Forever War (1974)


I didn’t expect John Scalzi to write the preface. Mind you, I’ve never actually read anything by Scalzi, but he maintains a very active + entertaining internet presence, and generally has accurate statements to make about everything. When they brought out this new edition of The Forever War they decided to carpet-bomb the first few pages with accolades from SF/F luminaries – in addition to Scalzi these include William Gibson, Cory Doctorow, Stephen King, Iain Banks, Greg Bear and Junot Diaz. I just want to point out that Junot Diaz was six years old when The Forever War appeared in 1974, Cory Doctorow was three and Scalzi himself was five. Since the book is a sci-fi classic this is obviously not a case of getting, say, George R.R. Martin to blurb the cover of your fantasy debut. It feels like the marketing department had too much say in this, like the publisher wanted to make sure it remained ~relevant with the hip new millenial crowd. Which is redundant because that’s what classics are, they’re always relevant.

I could tell you that this book is The Things We Carried meets Enders Game, but that would only tell you how much I hate reading about the military. I hate the endless minutiae and I hate the opaque jargon and I hate the arbitrary inflexibility of the chain of command. What I enjoy is the psychological dimension of warfare – that’s why my copy of Ender has seen better days, because Orson Scott Card can play mind games like nobody else. So when I say that Joe Haldeman, a ’Nam vet, could probably keep me entertained just by writing about weapons specs, you should understand the caliber of the complement I am paying him. He’s a fine storyteller. The tale is really tightly woven in the way that I associate with short stories – novels usually have more padding. It is, in brief, the story of a young man who’s drafted into an interstellar war and because of the way time dilation works, as he shuttles between planets at near-lightspeed whole centuries fly by. Our protagonist, William Mandella, is the son of hippies; he starts off deeply disillusioned (with the military;the government; the human race) and it only gets worse as he continues to fight a pointless, never-ending war against an enemy he doesn’t understand.

I picked up this book because it’s one of the foundational texts of the genre, and not because I thought I would particularly enjoy it. Well, I enjoyed it a helluva lot. Mandella is brave and smart but mostly he’s superbly lucky, and he’s also funny. His first-person narration is a joy to slip into, and once in a while you get observations like this one, in the midst of a completely serious passage about tactics: “One thing we didn’t have to worry about in this war was enemy agents. With a good coat of paint, a Tauran might be able to disguise himself as an ambulatory mushroom.”

Of course it wouldn’t be a real review if I didn’t find problematic aspects to pick apart, so how about from now on nobody write any more books about a future dystopia where people are conditioned to be gay, and the ones who show hetero inclinations receive mandatory counseling for their sociopathy?? Please. Just stop. It’s billed as a way to keep the explosive population levels manageable. So you have the pro-homosexual agenda being linked to the eugenics agenda! Even better. One of the reasons they made it illegal to be heterosexual is that “the Council saw that racial differences had an unnecessarily divisive effect on humanity; with total control over births, they could make everybody the same race in a few generations.” It’s hard not to read this as a straw man for the progressive liberal agenda of today: The movement to eradicate structural inequalities like racism is recast as a totalitarian drive to control every aspect of every citizen’s life. Look, by the time Mandella is promoted to Major, he’s like 600 years old and ruthlessly stigmatized by his peers for his sexual orientation. They call him “The Old Queer” because sometime in the last 600 years, homosexuality has become the norm. My question is – why is this necessary???? Why did we have to flip things around so heterosexuals are the persecuted minority? Here in the real world LGBT people routinely lose out on housing, jobs, promotions, all kinds of privileges that straight cis people enjoy without a second thought – so I ask again, what is the predictable consequence of reconfiguring the world to make gays the intolerant majority? You’re fueling the argument that “liberals” just want to forcibly convert everybody into homosexuals. Yes, it’s an argument that you only hear from the loony far right, but it nonetheless strikes a chord of fear in the hearts of men, not all of whom necessarily consider themselves conservative. Consider how rigidly our society polices masculinity, how boys are constantly having to prove that they only participate in activities coded as male (a shame since reading and studying are often coded as feminine). Mandella is faced with the real or perceived threat of undergoing an operation to get his orientation “fixed,” and he recoils in horror from the mere suggestion. This is definitely not a book about how sexual orientation doesn’t matter, how we’re all the same under the skin. Male heterosexuality is quite clearly the “natural” order of things. “So much of my ‘normal’ behavior was based on a complex unspoken code of sexual etiquette. Was I supposed to treat the men like women, and vice versa?” GENDER ESSENTIALISM AT ITS BEST. Here’s a novel idea: How about you treat women like human beings? Of course, such advice is unlikely to be taken to heart by a man who is on record as saying: “Surrounded by acres of young female flesh, I stared into their faces and desperately tried to solve a third-order differential equation in my head.”

The proclivity to represent female characters as potential sexual partners first, and human beings second, is certainly not unique to Joe Haldeman. It’s endemic to most works of classic science fiction, and I don’t mean to be a debbie downer and rag on Haldeman disproportionately. He’s written a fantastic book that has stood the test of time, and I’m glad I read it. But it’s hard to ignore the propaganda and the moralizing about the supposed superiority of the “homolife,” all of which is of course subverted by Mandella’s defiant heterosexuality. The final third of the book is basically “omg the poor beleaguered straight man, look what he has to deal with” and let’s be real that is the least sympathetic character arc ever. Thank god there were plenty of nuclear detonations to break up the monotony.

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