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
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

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

This approach to fiction is, of course, mind-numbing, but in the
case of Haldeman and Heinlein it is just plain wrong-headed too.   
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

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
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

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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Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

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

The Golden Ass

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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.

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The Crystal World

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Giles Goat-Boy

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A Case of Conscience

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Dandelion Wine

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Something Wicked This Way Comes

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The View from the Seventh Layer

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The Master and Margarita

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A Clockwork Orange

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Ender's Game

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The Kingdom of This World

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Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

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The Yiddish Policemen's Union

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Stories of Your Life and Others

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Childhood's End

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A Fall of Moondust

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2001: A Space Odyssey

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Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

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Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
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House of Leaves

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Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
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Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

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Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

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The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

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Camp Concentration

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The Genocides

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Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

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I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

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Like Water for Chocolate

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To Your Scattered Bodies Go

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American Gods

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Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

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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

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

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Time Enough for Love

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Winter's Tale

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Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

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Brave New World

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Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

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Flowers for Algernon

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The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

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Nine Hundred Grandmothers

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The Dispossessed

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The Lathe of Heaven

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The Big Time

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Conjure Wife

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Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

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Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

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100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

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Hell House

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What Dreams May Come

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Perdido Street Station

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A Canticle for Leibowitz

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Dangerous Laughter

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Cloud Atlas

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Behold the Man

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Ada, or Ardor

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The Time Traveler's Wife

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The Tiger's Wife

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At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

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Love in the Ruins

Pohl, Frederik

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

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The Female Man

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Dimension of Miracles

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Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

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Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

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Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

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Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

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Smith, Cordwainer
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Snow Crash

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Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

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Some of Your Blood

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Gulliver's Travels

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The White Hotel

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Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

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The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

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

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The World of Null A

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Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

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From the Earth to the Moon

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Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

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The Sirens of Titan

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Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

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Hieroglyphic Tales

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The Island of Dr. Moreau

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The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
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Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

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The Bear Comes Home

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Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

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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
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Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

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