The Forever War
by Joe Haldeman
Science fiction classic – check. Hard SF/military SF – check. Rocket ships, laser beams, weird alien races – check. Human lives ruined through time dilation – double check.
The Forever War is about humanity discovering a functional method of interstellar travel, using wormholes; we begin serious space exploration and colonization – until we encounter the aliens. Then we go to war. Haldeman was pretty optimistic, really: the novel was written in the 1970’s, and set (at first) in the late 1990’s; basically he gave us 25 years to discover interplanetary travel that could bring us up close to light speed, which gives us access to the wormholes. Damn – we’re 20 years behind schedule. Better get on that, guys.
The main character is a soldier named William Mandella. He is conscripted into the war, precisely because he is a college student; I’m sure this was used as a twist for the Vietnam-era audience Haldeman wrote this one for. Mandella is drafted out of his graduate physics program and sent to be a space-soldier. The first part of the book is his training, which was interesting; it happens on an ice-planet far out in the solar system, where it is so cold the surface is frozen hydrogen. The recruits, all of them superb specimens of humanity with high intelligence and excellent physical capabilities, are trained there to use the enhanced combat space suits that will be their standard war gear, and to build and maintain a base in even harsher conditions, which will happen when they deploy. The conditions are deadly, the weapons are deadly, a fair number of the recruits die before they even engage the enemy. Then they go into their first mission, and actually battle the aliens, becoming the first humans to actually see one of the aliens in person: the first encounters were all ship-to-ship. Once they get into actual combat, they quickly find that the biggest danger they face isn’t the enemy: it is their superiors.
Once that first battle – and the battle, as well as the lead-up to it, are an excellent example of hard military science fiction – is over, then the major theme of the book comes up: as these soldiers have flown to their mission, they have approached light speed; which means that time has gone slower for them than it has for the rest of the universe. While they have spent a few weeks or months in transit on the way to their battle, the Earth has moved forward twenty or thirty years. So when they rotate back home for leave after the fight, they find a different world than the one they left: and it isn’t a good world. They quickly discover that, though they have the option to leave the military after this, they don’t have any real options for getting a job other than to re-enlist in the military.
Which they do. And they go back into combat, even farther away – which means more time spent in sub-light travel (The trip through the wormhole is instantaneous, like teleportation; but getting to the wormhole’s entrance is the issue.), which means more time dilation. Repeat this experience: combat, where the aliens are rarely the actual threat to the soldiers’ life and limb; then return to a different home than they one they left; then back into combat, because at least they feel like they belong in the military.
This was a pretty good book. Like most hard science fiction, the ideas were fascinating, the science both realistic and interesting; the writing was okay. The blurbs on the back talk about what a wonderful character Mandella is, and sure, he’s fine; but he wasn’t extraordinary to me. He’s an Everyman, which fits the novel well, because he’s essentially a grunt. So the interest in the book wasn’t in watching Mandella go through this, it was watching the crap that – anyone – would have to go through in these circumstances. Point is, the story is good, the science is good, and surprisingly enough, I really liked the ending. If you’re a science fiction fan and you haven’t read this, you should. If you’re not a science fiction fan, then don’t sweat it.