A short way to forever
On a steamy September evening, the Beamers hitched up their literary packs and loaded their reading protocols to take a classic sf hill, The Forever War by Joe Haldeman. Long acclaimed as a classic of the military sf sub-genre, would this 40-year-old book stand up to the withering fire of Beamer criticisms and critiques, or would it fold under pressure like a human collapsar outpost crawling with Taurans?
Hell, No, We Won’t Glow!
Coming out at the height of the anti-war protests of the early 1970s, The Forever War struck a chord with sf fans who were tired of patriotism being substituted for some realism in military fiction. (Looking at you, Starship Troopers!) The saga of a millennium-long war fought on distant specks of frozen rock, for reasons that prove to be illusory, it took a lot of the frustration of the 1970s and channeled it into a future that was, if not pleasant, at least plausible. And it provided sf with an everyman protagonist, William Mandella, who rises from the ranks but never becomes enamored of (or fooled into believing) his own martial virtues.
But does it read well 40 years later? Especially with the author providing material that was removed from initial publication for being “too downbeat for Analog‘s audience” (as deemed by editor and noted sf writer Ben Bova)? The result of the Beamer battling is more of a draw than an outright victory for either end of the argument.
Remember the Interstellar War of 1997?
One of the first questions is how the book had dated, but that brings up the question of dated from when? Initial publication was 1972 in Analog, with the completed (if edited) novel showing up in 1975. But we were not sure we could really see the 1970s in the story. At least, not the 1970s themselves. Jon made a strong point by noting that the book reads like a book of the 1970s, especially its central “meanwhile back on Earth” section. The kinds of dystopia portrayed (overpopulation, loss of civil order, lack of work, replacement of “real” foods by soy-based synthetics) were motifs that brought him right back to the 1970s sf he read in the 1980s.
And I had to nod vigorously in agreement, as the book seemed to hit all the notes that “cautionary” sf (we were more polite, or naive, in those days) liked to strum to scare us, back then. And where were the actual 1970s? Kathy recalls her early college years and involvement in the protest movements, none of which make it into The Forever War. In fact, the Earth population is curiously apathetic about the war, unlike our own society, where the noise was loud (and possibly effective) to end the Vietnam conflict.
There is a strong sense of anti-militarism about the book, though, which did agree with Kathy’s remembrances and current sentiments. Chuck, a new Beamer, found that the issue of conscription and its associated anxieties in the book reflected his concerns about being draft-age at the tail end of the Vietnam war. Curiously, the endless renewal of terms of service struck most of us as being a much more current concern, recalling, as Donna pointed out, the infamous “stop-loss” orders that prevented military personnel from escaping repeated tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq. And the switch to a volunteer military has promoted much of the general apathy of the US public about overseas invasions. So, we tend to see more of the apathy of The Forever War among our contemporaries than we did from our memories. Vietnam was the first war fought by television, brought home to the living rooms, which made it both remote and up-close-and-personal. Haldeman seems to be doing a better job at projecting how the Vietnam generation spawned us than in depicting them as themselves.
Present … Lips!
In other aspects, too, the book has curious artifacts from its time of publication, particularly on the topics of sexism and sexuality. There is no discussion of “women’s liberation” in the book, as women serve in all military roles, side by side with men. So, sexism solved and forgotten? Well, no. As Carol noted, women are still considered a commodity to be shared sexually by men, ordered to be promiscuous, which the book notes is “by custom (and by law)”. Ouch! As we know, sexual assault is a major problem in the present-day military, and one major reason is the complete lack of seriousness with which the assaults have been treated. So, Haldeman is being progressive by 1970s standards for assuming women are equal to men, but he is also being blindly sexist by not appreciating the callous disposal of their bodies to which his female characters are subject.
Sexuality is another turn in which Haldeman appears both progressive and primitive. His main characters, William and Marygay, form a romantic attachment that outlasts the “forever” war and gives the book a grace note at the end. But as human society evolves, homosexuality replaces heterosexuality as the norm (by custom and then by law), until Mandella (the “Old Queer”) is viewed as a curious anachronism (if not an outright pervert) by his last company of troops. Haldeman explains this reversal as a result of population pressure and government attempts to restrict the “breeding” pool. Unfortunately, those explanations are slight to shallow, as LIz noted, from a biological viewpoint. And the actual reason, as most Beamers divined, is to make a big satiric point along the “turnabout is fair play/how do you like it?” lines. Still, we did credit Haldeman with being brave enough to introduce homosexual characters without making them seem offputting and instead making Mandella’s negative responses to be his problem, not theirs.
The Non-Hemoglobin Badge of Courage
And under, around, and through all the satire and social commentary and character relationships (strong enough to keep Kathy reading all the way to the end), there is the War. There, Haldeman was drawing on his Vietnam experience, making the battles gritty, with unpleasant preparation (hypnotic conditioning to remove reluctance to kill) and worse results (deaths, dismemberments, psychological trauma). Alan found that the reliance on battle sequences was trying his patience with the novel. But, I tended to award Haldeman high marks for avoiding what I term “military porn”, a tendency in military fiction to become fixated on the trappings and technology and tactics, making war seem glorious and worthy of human investment, instead of grubby and more a failure than a continuation of policy by other means (to mis-quote von Clausewitz).
On the other hand, that attention to horrible details did earn the book a label of “dreary” from several Beamers, even in comparison to other military fiction with unsparing and unsentimental tones, like All Quiet on the Western Front. Still, its anti-war attitude could not only appeal to the old protester in Kathy, but also chimed well with Fran’s recent reading of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Even if The Forever War does not rise up to the Russian classic’s level, the fact that Fran felt confident in making the comparison gives us something we could say positively about the literary merits of the sf book. (Though British publisher Gollancz has cheekily titled the omnibus edition of the Mandella Saga as Peace and War.)
Hiding Behind the Stasis Field?
Not that a few more aspects of the book could not stand some improvement. Liz, speaking for several Beamers, found a bit more hand-waving than exposition, particularly in respect to the aliens, the Taurans and the “teddy bears” (psychic three-legged herbivores). Both of them could have been explored in a bit more detail to our way of thinking. The Taurans, our antagonists, remain mysterious throughout the book, even when the mystery of the war is supposedly cleared up (an increasingly outmoded Earth military looking for excuses for action, a fundamental miscommunication between Terran individuals and Tauran collective intelligence, a war that lasts 1,000+ years, until humans become a cloned collective). While I do love the whole resolution of the war being essentially the first two sentences the warring species can actually say to each other (“Why did you start this thing?” “Me??”), the Beamers were caught a bit short on the whole “It’s a clone thing, you wouldn’t understand” approach.
And Jon was granted a last rant about the fundamental mis-naming of the human hand grenades as “microton” devices. Since a tonne is 1,000 kilograms (we are metric in the future), it is 1,000,000 grams and a “micro” (1-millionth) of that amount would be … 1 gram. Which in TNT terms (the usual explosive comparison) would be a firecracker-sized ka-boom. But, as I reminded him, it is described as a “tachyon” device. So if we assume it is 1 gram, but that gram is completely converted to energy, then the we get about 20 kilotons for the explosive force. And being military issue, it could not possibly have a wimpy designation like “1 gram”, whereas “1 microton” sounds suitably hefty for the troops! Either way, we laughed.