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BOOK REVIEW: The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

REVIEW SUMMARY: It’s easy to understand how this novel won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards when it came out and remains such a highly regarded classic today.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: What begins as a 2 year tour in the military for William Mandella, extends for millennia due to the effects of special relativity associated with fighting in space.

PROS: Clear, concise writing; hard SF; relatable protagonists; interesting worldbuilding; exposition was limited and was worked into the story.
CONS: We’ve already passed the book’s future.
BOTTOM LINE: If you haven’t read this yet, you should. And if you’re hesitant to read hard SF, this is a good introduction to the subgenre.

(Reviewer’s Note: This review is of the author’s preferred edition of The Forever War, published in 1997.)

The Forever War follows the military career of draftee William Mandella after aliens attack an Earth space ship outside a collapsar jump. Collapsar’s allow long range space travel, and Earth refuses to give up the use of them. The best minds, both male and female, are drafted to fight this exorbitantly expensive war the rest of Earth must pay for. But as the years pass on Earth due to special relativity, and only months pass for the soldiers who survive combat, Mandella starts to wonder if he’ll recognize home when his tour is over.

The Forever War does for Vietnam in science fictional terms what Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich did for the Russian gulag; allow regular people to experience it. Mandella’s career is exceptional, as the author uses him to explore all aspects of the war, from training on earth and Charon, to witnessing combat, returning home and realizing he no longer belongs, reenlisting, getting medical treatment, becoming an officer, and more. Through his eyes we experience fear, love, PTSD (in minor ways) and more.

The novel packs an emotional punch and covers an amazing amount of information, given it’s size. Haldeman’s prose is clear and concise, a pleasure to read. As the war progresses over the centuries, Haldeman occasionally explains how the Earth has changed to face the circumstances. The most detailed of these passages comes when Mandella’s first tour ends, 2 and 27 years after he enlisted. Earth is a cross between Harry Harrison’s Make Room, Make Room and the later part of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. In other words, Earth is overcrowded and violent. His exploration into sexuality as it pertains to population control is interesting, especially considering the current controversies over gay marriage. For a book that’s 38 years old, it’s surprisingly relevant.

This is a hard SF story, meaning the planetary battles are short while the battles in space are long and drawn out with very little action. Mandella is a physicist, so most of the info dumps are via conversations he has with others, where he either explains the scientific concept, or has new concepts discovered while he was on a mission explained to him. Like the rest of the writing, these passages are short, to the point and integrated properly into the story. This reviewer has limited physics knowledge and had no problem following the novel, even though most of the science went over her head.

The only ‘complaint’ with the book is that it’s dated. Meaning, the aliens attack in 1996, which obviously didn’t happen. This is very easy to overlook and shouldn’t detract from anyone’s enjoyment of the book. There’s some talk of hippies, but none of the sexism the word ‘dated’ tends to imply when it comes to older science fiction stories. In fact, this is a remarkably feminist work, with women and men treated equally in the army (though more men then women end up in positions of command as far as Mandella’s experience is concerned).

If you haven’t read this yet, you should. And if you’re hesitant to read hard SF, this is a good introduction to the subgenre.

About Jessica Strider (102 Articles)
Jessica Strider worked at the World's Biggest Bookstore in Toronto for 10 years before it closed in 2014. Now she's got more time to read books, so check out her <a href="//">blog</a> for SF/F book reviews, movie reviews, posts about the middle ages, and more.

9 Comments on BOOK REVIEW: The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

  1. Thanks, Jessica.

    This is, to me, an essential book in the genre.

  2. Personally, I couldn’t get into this book. The episodic nature of it annoyed me. And yes, I know that is part of the point, but it still annoyed me.


  3. Essential or not I didn’t care for it either. I abandoned it with only 75 pages to go because I really didn’t care what happened to the characters. While it was intentional that the characters had little to no control over their destinies, it makes for dull reading.

  4. Well, no book is for everyone. Thanks for reading my review.

  5. Moonbase Alphan // July 13, 2012 at 7:46 pm //

    Devoured this book when I first read it many, many years ago. One of my all time favorites.
    The above comments make me think of the “golden-child” of military sf – Starship Troopers – which is perhaps the only SF book I’ve never finished reading. I just couldn’t get interested in it and gave up after 60 pages.

  6. I can see where people might not like it, with the episodic style, but I think that’s why I liked it. I served in the Navy in the Persian Gulf during Desert Shield/Desert Storm and military life is like that. Little bits of hurry up surrounded by a lot of wait. I could see in my minds eye what was going on with the characters between those scenes and fill in the blanks. It was the same way with ‘Starship Troopers!’ A great book and so very different from the movie!

    Great review!

  7. I only read it for the first time a few months ago. As such, I was sort of prepared for a slightly different experience than it actually was.

    For one, almost nobody admits how short this book is – but, frankly, it really is a short-feeling piece. It’s slightly odd to see it praised as one of the all-time great epics when it’s.. well, a pseudo-novellette, imo.

    THe other issue is that nearly always people praise it as if it “covers a thousand years of interstellar war”.. I trust I don’t have to say explicitly why that’s utter nonsense; All in all we see, at best, about a month of character’s experienced pure time, split apart as days with very very long breaks.

    And that partial nature is odd as well – some of the breaks are so immeasurably long that it feels like far too many details and events have passed.

    One point – is it really a hard sci-fi book? It’s focus is still very much on characters and their experiences. Yeah, the land-battles are short, but frankly *everything* in this book is short and sparse.

  8. If you look at the other books when it was published–it’s an average size for the time. Books started bloating over the years, especially with the advent of word processing.

    I rather liked it for the length.

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