The Forever War

By Joe Haldeman


Reviewed by Ted Gioia

The conventional wisdom on this book pigeonholes it as a
response to Robert Heinlein’s
Starship Troopers.  According to
this interpretation, Haldeman’s 1974 anti-war tale is a corrective
to the fascist militarism of Heinlein’s
1959 novel.

One might call this the “whig approach”
to literary criticism – something akin
to what Herbert Butterfield once called
the “Whig interpretation of history.”
It reduces all the  complexities and
richness of past fiction to some simple
coordinate based on the conventional
wisdom as of this morning.  So Sappho
is only understood in terms of
today's
view of gender roles;  Hemingway is
dissed because he falls short on the same
scale;  Twain moves from being anti-
racist and into the racist camp because
he didn't know the acceptable "framing"
words of the 21st century.  Who cares
anymore how these writers related to the value systems of their
times?   We judge them based on the prevailing mood of the most
recent MLA.  Of course, it hardly occurs to us that we ourselves
may be found wanting according future MLA truisms yet to be
invented.   

Under this sledgehammer approach, novels are either written by
progressive authors or reactionary authors, and once you know
which bucket in which to toss any given writer, you are no longer
obliged to read them.  And the Whig view of sci-fi makes
Haldeman into the hero and Heinlein into the villain.  End of
story.  

This approach to fiction is, of course, mind-numbing, but in the
case of Haldeman and Heinlein it is just plain wrong-headed too.   
Both
The Forever War and Starship Troopers are powerful
books, and both are far more nuanced in their presentation than
the “whigs” would have you believe.  Even more to the point, the
attitudes toward militarism, which form only a small part of these
multifaceted works, present less a debate between the two
authors working within the value systems of
our time, but more a
chronicle of how the American perspective on war evolved
between 1959 and 1974, the respective publication dates of the
two volumes.  (By the way, Haldeman has often lavishly praised
Heinlein and in 2003 joined the board of the Heinlein Society –
which sort of blows the whole Whig case, huh?)

No tears here, my friend.   I've never looked good wearing a
Whig.  

The virtues of Haldeman’s novel shouldn't be forgotten  in all this
noise.  It is not a rant.  It is a smart, tautly written, creative book
that is artfully paced from start to finish.  And pacing is a major
issue with a novel of this sort--the “forever war” lasts 1,143 years,
and even a masterful story-teller could get lost squeezing that into
a 280 page book.  Heck, Gibbon needed more than 3,000 pages to
cover the
mere decline and fall of the Roman Empire.  To some
degree, Haldeman faces the same challenge Asimov undertook in
his
Foundation series, which required the compression of an
enormous timeline into a short narrative without losing the
thread or getting lost in the details.  A page of “begats” might
suffice to fill in the gaps in the Old Testament, but it hardly works
in the modern novel.  

Haldeman not only pulls this off (perhaps better even than
Asimov), but he flourishes in his account of the forever war.  We
follow the story through the perspective of William Mandella, the
only soldier to survive the entire course of the war (his longevity
due to the time-space quirks of traveling to battles at faster than
the speed of light.  Just trust me on this, and don’t ask for
details).   The narrative voice of Mandella is somewhat
reminiscent of the plain-spoken talk of Johnny Rico, the
protagonist of
Starship Troopers, and it is here that the two books
show their greatest similarity.   The dialogue and narrative voice
are hard-boiled and engaging,  and again one is reminded of the
way actual soldiers spoke at the times when the books were first
published.

Haldeman is especially adept at describing combat.   Few authors
have ever adequately captured the intricacy and pace of a battle
scene in prose.  Sometimes (as in Homer’s
Iliad) the conflict is
reduced to individual fighting between heroes—an approach that
may be exciting, but is highly unrealistic.  At the other extreme,
we have Tolstoy (in
War and Peace) who understands the
confusion and disarray of real battlefield conditions, and presents
this complexity in prose.   This approach may be more realistic,
but less aligned with traditional narrative forms.  With Tolstoy,
for example, his discussions of combat sometimes read like
philosophical treatises.  Haldeman avoids both extremes, and
gives the readers, toward the conclusion of
The Forever War, one
of the best battle descriptions I have ever read.  

Over the course of more than thirty pages, he does it all—
bringing in tactics, the psychological element, the technology,
and the uncertainty and excitement of the back-and-forth
action.   To add to the mix, he manages to use almost every
conceivable weapon, from nuclear bombs to bow and arrows,
during this extended conflict.  Yet every time the weaponry
changes, Haldeman provides compelling reasons for the shift –
unlike those ridiculous movies where futuristic combatants rely
on some strange antiquated device (for the example the light
swords from
Star Wars) without any plausible explanation
offered.   When it comes to future war, Haldeman is the exact
opposite of George Lucas.  During his battle scenes, his
descriptions are both breath-taking
and believable.

Don’t let the critics prevent you from enjoying this fine book.   It
is not a diatribe, as some might have you believe, but a first class
piece of story-telling.  By the same token, don't assume that
Haldeman's success here negates the value of its supposed evil
twin, Heinlein's  
Starship Troopers.  Both are important works of
conceptual fiction, and their relationship should be seen as a
dialogue and not as another type of forever war.  
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Conceptual Fiction:
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Abbott, Edwin A.
Flatland

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian
Hothouse

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

Apuleius
The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.
Crash

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis
Ficciones

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.
Moderan

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.
Babel-17

Delany, Samuel R.
Dhalgren

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.
Nova

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.
Ubik

Dick, Philip K.
VALIS

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fuentes, Carlos
Aura

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil
Neverwhere

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William
Neuromancer

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John
Light

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank
Dune

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw
Solaris

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni
Beloved

Murakami, Haruki
1Q84

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry
Ringworld

Noon, Jeff
Vurt

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Pohl, Frederik
Gateway

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José
Blindness

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert
Mindswap

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary
Frankenstein

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert
Nightwings

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford
City

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer
Norstrilia

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles
Glasshouse

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.
Slan

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
Emphyrio

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt
Slaughterhouse-Five

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim
Cloudstreet

Woolf, Virginia
Orlando

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal


Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

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