The Forever War by Joe Halderman is another excellent example of hard science-fiction of the sort that, on the surface, makes them so difficult for the average reader to pick up and get into.
Like Rendezvous with Rama, it provides often a clinical description of its world and how it functions to the point of ignoring major character development.
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Unlike Rama however, rather than focusing on the strict mechanical and geological working of a large moving planet, The Forever War chooses to focus instead on the evolution of society over the course of hundreds of thousands of years, yet still through the eyes of a single man, named William Mandela.
Focusing on humanity rather than geography means that it is much easier to attribute themes and moral judgments to The Forever War, even if Halderman may not have intended it that way.
Through the narrator’s sometimes cold and impartial description of the changes in society around him, we get glimpses of his society, like an ethnography.
But no matter how impartial an ethnography is, at some point, it passes judgment, even if only by virtue of what it chooses to focus on.
To but Rama and The Forever War into perspective: what do you imagine would have more moral implications: an exacting description of a chair, or an exacting description of a man’s life and family tree? Exactly, no question.
So is it all about war?
Well, yes and no.
War is certainly the backdrop.
There’s certainly a war in it, but that has little to do with the meat of the story and more to do with the mechanism that gets the plot going.
It goes like this: humans are at war with an alien species known as the Taurans, who live millions of light-years away.
In order to engage them in battle, humans have to travel to where they are and to do that, they have to travel near the speed of light.
As you travel faster, time slows down for you, and when you approach the speed of light, the time has all but stopped.
That’s not science-fiction, that’s science-fact.
That’s what E=mc2 means in practical terms: the faster you go, time actually slows down.
If you’re going 100 miles per hour, time is actually moving slower for you than someone walking alongside you.
It’s just so minimal nobody will ever, ever notice.
But when you get to really fast speeds, speeds approaching the speed of light, it matters a great deal.
The practical result of this is that when William goes to battle, fights the enemy, and then returns to Earth, to him the whole trip lasted only about two weeks.
But when he returns to Earth, twenty years have passed.
As such, William is forced to assimilate himself into the changes in society, and this is the process to explore them and explain them to the reader.
He does so often alone, sometimes with the members of his family that are still living, and often with his perennial female love interest, Margay.
There are many changes that happen in society over the course of twenty years.
It’s the reason for the generation gap.
But even those perplexed by the generation gap and by new trends and changes have had time to become accustomed to it.
No matter how alien it seems to us unless you were literally on an island all those years or in prison or some other such isolating event, things aren’t that different.
But for William, they are.
Here’s where things really began to become interesting for me, because in dealing with the changes in society Halderman proves himself to be far, far ahead of his time.
One cannot speculate about the changes in humanity and western society without in some way also commenting on what our society is.
While there is any number of things Halderman could have focused on, she chose to focus on two main items, sexuality and currency, until these two eventually dovetail.
For the first quarter of the book or so, Halderman presented William, Margay, and the rest of the crew as having a sort of commune relationship.
The male and female shipmates paired off with different members of the opposite sex every night.
They weren’t being promiscuous, this was just the culture at the time.
This book was written in the 70s, just after the sexual revolution of the 60s, so one could see where Halderman thought society might go this route.
And who knows, if HIV hadn’t put fear into sexual freedom, we might well have.
This sort of sexual freedom was common in a lot a sci-fi: it’s in Stranger in a Strange Land and many other great novels.
I understand the point, but at the same time, when reading this I couldn’t help but think: “If only they realized that humanity wouldn’t become less monogamous as a whole, but more accepting of homosexuality.”
Well, this is where the whole “don’t judge a book by its cover” thing comes in.
In fact, also don’t judge a book by its first 10 chapters.
Because this is one of the more progressive works of LGBT science-fiction I have ever read.
The Forever War by Joe Haldeman Review – My rating: 5 of 5 stars