My life in outer space

The Forever War – Joe Haldeman (1974)

The Forever War

Haldeman’s seminal work was written perhaps as a catharsis following his experiences as a participant in the Vietnam war. In the introduction to the Gollancz SF Masterworks edition, which is a revision of the first publication with an originally excised section reinstated, Haldeman explains the rationale behind his vision in which a young private, William Mandella, is drafted into a senseless war against an incpomprehensible alien culture. Due to the effects of relativistic speed, Mandella’s experience of the war is several years, while for those left back on Earth it is a thousand.
Early on in the war, he returns home to find his world almost as alien as the planets he has fought on.
To reduce the earth’s population, the world government has encouraged mass homosexuality. Jobs and food are scarce. Mandella’s now elderly mother has herself become a lesbian and has to employ a bodyguard to escort her when she goes out.
Unable to adjust, Mandella and his lover and fellow-private, Marygay, decide to return to the military.
A poignant moment comes when Mandella and Marygay are assigned different postings. They realise that they will end up in different time-periods and will never see each other again.
Mandella’s posting is a bleak system outside the main galaxy, a mission from which he may never return, and even if he did, it would be seven hundred years in the future.
Mandella (which is, of course, almost a complete anagram of Haldeman) is now a major and in charge of a squadron of exclusively homosexual troops who refer to him as ‘The Old Queer’.
He has seen nearly all his friends die, but against the odds he lives through another battle and his remaining troops return to another very different Earth to discover that the war is now over
It is interesting to compare this with Heinlein’s ‘Starship Troopers’, written some fifteen years earlier. Both feature a soldier rising through the ranks in a seemingly interminable war against inscrutable aliens (in Heinlein’s case, giant bugs). Heinlein’s work is a sensationalist work of pulp SF action in which (rather like ‘The Puppet Masters’) the aliens are not something to be understood, but something to be destroyed. Until the end, Haldeman’s novel follows a similar course, but at the same time he examines the consequences to individuals and engages the reader in the moral debate. Though there are some wonderful battle-sequences, they do not dominate the narrative and it is the human interest that in the end provides the meat of the novel.
One has to forgive Haldeman for providing an upbeat ending, although one wonders whether the novel would have been more powerful if the war continued, going on, as in the title, forever, ceaselessly and senselessly.
He does however, add that the war began as a misunderstanding, a simple lack of communication; a small footnote which highlights the terrible irony and absurdity inherent in many wars of our past. Throughout, also, there is a cold awareness of the expendability of human soldiers.
Haldeman claims as his influence Samuel R Delaney.

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