Monday, October 17, 2011

Shepherd492 reviews: The Forever War

The Forever War (Joe Haldeman)


The Forever War is a captivating story that spans almost one thousand two hundred years of Human civilization. It is the story of Mandella, a private in the United Nations Exploratory Force. He is enlisted to fight against an alien threat known as the Taurans, and, after his tour, he returns to find that things are completely different.

The book is divided into four sections, with each encompassing a different rank that Mandella has obtained within the U.N.E.F. The first section deals heavily with the training of the soldiers, and the futuristic technology at work. However, their method for moving about space, "collapsars", cause them to age only months while the citizens of Earth move decades into the future. This initial section is effectively done, and a great hook for the rest of the story. The sharp contrasts in thinking and functionality present from the onset make it an intriguing world, and the great "first contact" sequence further enriches the experience.

When Mandella and his partner return home, the contrasts are already apparent. In one of the more poignant chapters in the book, we learn about how Earth has been deteriorating for several years since the soldiers departed. The various changes are very realistic, in particular food shortages and increasing gun violence, although some of the results (homosexuality being promoted by governments in order to curve population growth) are laughable. This section does a great job of presenting a dystopian future society, without going completely overboard with hackneyed concepts. It has also aged remarkably well (with the exception of the homosexuality thing; that is an embarrassingly frequent focal point throughout the latter part of the novel).

The final act is when themes really pick up. The soldiers under Mandella's command are nothing like him, and in fact resent him for seemingly superficial reasons (being a heterosexual in an all homosexual society). His struggle to unite his men to repulse the final Tauran attack plays a big part in this section, and the time dilation is used to excellent effect in the contrasts between Mandella and his men. The desperate defense against the Tauran is written beautifully. Future shock features heavily in this segment too, and the return from the war is tragic, comedic, and captivating. The ending is extremely fitting, and actually somewhat unexpected. The author finishes the novel in an unexpectedly upbeat fashion, which I greatly appreciated after the increasingly depressing scenario presented to our protagonist.

There are many themes at work here to deepen the work, and this is far from your average opera. The Vietnam allegory is nothing short of brilliant. The book captures all the tedium of "real war" -- days of quiet followed by moments of terror; this is seen mostly at the end, but also in the long amounts of time that the soldiers spend cooped up in the U.N.E.F. starships. It also has very important things to say about the military's disregard for human life and complete lack of compassion. This is a frequent theme sometimes alluded to in a humorous manner, and it hits home when one considers recent conflicts. Returning home to face a completely different world is something that many vets had to go through as well, although not anything like what happens in the book, readjusting to civilian life was/is hard for veterans of the military, and that is perfectly captured here as Mandella is inspired to sign back up after just a few months planetside. Finally, the last revelation concerning the Tauran is an absolutely genius allusion to the Gulf of Tankin incident that sparked the Vietnam war.


Characterization is limited to Mandella for all intents and purposes, and he serves as a relatable and sympathetic character in this journey across the ages. His growing disconnect from the world and downtrodden existence enhances the story greatly. The character is also given a dry sense of humor that emphasizes the more ridiculous concepts and serves to give him a bit more personality. This isn't really a character driven novel, and he isn't the most memorable character ever, but Mandella is an adequate protagonist for this story.

His relationship with Marygay (named after the author's wife), a fellow soldier, is good, but it seems a bit cheapened by the strict military relationship policy being enforced at the beginning of the novel. Without spoiling anything, this policy is the complete opposite of that which is currently in place by the U.S. armed forces. It grows more effective over time, however, and by the end of the book it stands as one of the only halfway positive themes exhibited throughout the book.

The other characters are nothing special. They mostly consist of generic military grunts/officers, and, while necessary to the story, aren't exactly groundbreaking. The characterization here is adequate, and little more.

Forever War uses language and world building powerfully to enhance the narrative. World building is a major positive for this novel. The earth that Mandella and Marygay return to truly feels like a completely different world, and is appropriately described as such. From the politics to the living quarters, everything has changed, and this jarring transition is handled wonderfully. Also, the random, insignificant (besides location) specks of rock that the U.N.E.F. attempt to conquer add to the seeming futility of the entire planet and strengthens the allegory. The training facility, spaceships, and Heaven, a rehabilitation world for amputees, are all constructed adeptly.

The aliens are unconventional and truly foreign, and not just humans with a different skin color, or human structure with a slight difference. These aliens, though not the most physically imposing, definitely break the mold. There are also some really bizarre weapons concepts for both sides that add an additional element of uniqueness to the book. An example of this would be the anti armor bubbles used by the Tauran during the first encounter.

There are also several science concepts that need to be explained for the novel to work. This is handled well, with only a few instances of overly technical speak. For the most part, the metaphors and explanations offered for the phenomena and technology is easily understood and of no hindrance to the rest of the book.

The aforementioned humor is a great aspect of the writing style, and it comes across in both the dialogue and Mandella's thoughts. The humor, and overall message, are subtle enough that they don't seem insulting, but they are extremely powerful once understood.

A great concept with fantastic themes and brilliant writing. The characters may not be the most involved, but it is nearly impossible not to be drawn into this disturbing alternate reality.

Final Score



  1. Just a heads up - You should consider the book "Armor" by John Steakley for a read. Pretty interesting book, and you might enjoy it if you liked the forever war.

    1. Thanks for the recommendation, always looking for new books to read and appreciate any suggestions :)