The Forever War

Posted by Richo On July 22, 2011 4 COMMENTS

Welcome to the fifth installment of Dust Jacket, our regular revue of the best that Sci-Fi literature has to offer. This week, we’re stepping onto the battlefield with Joe Haldeman’s 1974 classic The Forever War.

As always, I’m joined by Luke, the world’s harshest critic, but also the man who recommended I read this novel in the first place. So thanks to Luke and let’s get on with the review.


William Mandela is a university student conscripted into an elite military force to fight a war against an alien race known as the Taurans. After a grueling training regime, he and his fellow soldiers are sent to do battle on harsh alien worlds against their alien enemies. They travel via ‘collapsars’, a wormhole-like experience that allows ships to travel at near-light speed, covering thousands of light years in seconds. This form of travel creates massive relativistic effects; while only a year or two passes for Mandela and his fellow soldiers, decades pass on Earth.

Mandela forms a bond with Marygay Potter, a fellow soldier who becomes his companion and lover. Attempting to return to civilian life after their tour of duty, Mandela and Marygay find a world drastically changed from the one they left. Overpopulation, food wars, embracing of homosexuality as a means of reducing population growth; all these things leave the soldiers feeling as outsiders. They re-enlist in the military to escape society, accepting the soulless comfort of military life over a society that no longer has a place for them.

Slowly, the reluctant Mandela begins to see the futility of war, and the dramatic effects it has on his life. Each return to Earth heightens his alienation and isolation, and losing contact with Marygay enhances those feelings further.

Eventually, humanity develops cloning techniques, which results in the creation of a new species – Man. Man develops the means of communicating with the Taurans, only to discover that the war was a misunderstanding caused by a random series of events and a total lack of communication.

This new race of Man establishes colonies for the disillusioned soldiers, who no longer fit into society. With the war over, Mandela is reunited with Marygay on one of the colonies. The story ends on a hopeful note, with the announcement of the birth of William and Marygay’s first child. The year is 3143.


DAVID: As he is a reluctant draftee, it’s easy to feel a level of sympathy for Mandela right from the earliest stages of this novel. As we follow him through the gruelling training regime and into battle, that sympathy develops into a genuine empathy with our protagonist. That empathy is heightened upon each of Mandela’s returns to Earth, where we see how time dilation and changing attitudes to the war and soldiers leave him with a sense of alienation and culture shock. More and more, Mandela finds that he does not fit in with the society around him, and Haldeman presents a compelling picture of isolation and estrangement.

LUKE: He seems to be keenly aware from the start that the conflict is going to be neither glorious nor quick, and that the men ordering him into combat don’t have a clue as to why they are fighting the war or how it should be fought. He dismisses the official reasons why he’s been drafted into the army (Intellectual and physical elite of the planet, going out to guard humanity against the Tauran menace), realising that it was all just a big experiment. See whether we could goad the Taurans into ground action. He’s not yet in battle, but these are not the words of a wide eyed youth about to be schooled in war. Once in the in the midst of battle, he grows quite weary of the blood and death.  The thought came to me that the next time I closed my eyes could well be the last. And partly because of the drug hangover, mostly because of the past day’s horrors, I found that I really didn’t give a shit. He doesn’t want to fight (certainly not engage in this war). But he has no choice, which is partly why we like him.

DAVID: Using relativistic effect deftly, Haldeman presents an allegorical tale of soldiers returning from the Viet Nam war, highlighting the alienation those soldiers felt and the difficulties they suffered trying to reintegrate into society. It’s important to note that Haldeman himself is a veteran, a draftee who served in Viet Nam. Clearly, the Forever War is partly autobiographical, and that plays to the strength of the novel as a character study of the nature of war and the effect it has on the soldiers who fight it.

LUKE: That experience (as horrifiying an ordeal as it must have been) is what makes this book a classic. Haldeman uses an archetypal SF ideas like interstellar space travel and intergalactic warfare. Filtered through his experience, these ideas never seem clichéd or throw away. The relativistic effect of space travel means (in very simple terms) that Mandela  ages a few years whilst the earth ages centuries, meaning Mandela never really returns home, just to a world he no longer recognises or feels part of. The war is not an adventurous romp through space, nor a chance for personal glory. Instead it is senseless state occasionally bordering on irony. Invaders from outer space, yes sir, Mandela thinks as he and the other grunts look over the first planet they’re about to attack.   

DAVID: Unlike many SF war novels, the protagonist in The Forever War is no hero, no expert soldier leading troops to victory. Mandela survives the war through sheer luck more than anything else. His efforts have negligible influence on the battles he fights in, subverting the usual sci-fi clichés of the space opera war hero. This lends an air of credibility to the story, a realistic depiction of war despite the science fiction setting.

LUKE: Neither is he the everyman. He is trained, however ineptly, for war. What I think makes him credible is that he behaves the way we might in that situation. Mandela is us fighting the war. We might harbour daydreams of saving the galaxy singlehanded. Haldeman here tells us we’d be lucky to walk off physically unscathed. Psychologically no one gets off.

It should be noted that The Forever War is often called the anti-Starship Troopers because it rejects Heinlen’s glorious, macho attitude to war. Indeed another comparison could also made to the film Aliens (1986, another Vietnam metaphor). Yet, The Forever War is never as concerned with action and suspense (although it does have these) as James Cameron’s opus. Instead it is about the impact the war has on Mandela and how that shapes his ability or inability to cope with life and society outside the conflict. It shares just as much with films like The Deer Hunter (1978) and Apocalypse Now (1979). As the war and isolation take effect, Mandela seems only a few short stops away from Willard’s breakdown at the start of Francis Ford Coppola’s war epic.

DAVID: The greatest impact in The Forever War comes in its examination of the nature, and ultimate futility, of war. For hundreds of years, humanity has fought the Taurans based on misunderstanding and a lack of communication. Countless lives have been lost due to a conflict that could have been resolved with greater understanding, driven by a seemingly random chain of events.

LUKE: Throughout training , the soldiers have no idea what the enemy looks like. Assumptions are made about their physiology based on pieces of Tauran no bigger than a scorched chromosome. “Tonight we’re going to show eight silent ways to kill a man,” a sergeant tells Mandela’s training class. I already knew eighty ways to kill people, Mandela reflects in response, but most of them were pretty noisy. Extra, albeit pointless, information the grunts will be expected to use so they themselves might find the Tauran’s physical weakness. Hell, the military sends in footsoldiers in the hope the Taurans take the bait and get caught up in a land war. Again, this is probably Haldeman referring to his Vietnam experience. War as a concept maybe futile. This war is completely stupid.

DAVID: The nature of the military machine is also examined, and ultimately condemned, by Haldeman. The military sees its soldiers as nothing more than cogs in the wheel, easily sacrificed for the greater good. This is prevalent even before Mandela goes to war; casualties occur during training as trainees adjust to battle in hostile environments and train using live weapons. Later, Mandela rises through the ranks not due to bravery or skill, but longevity: he is eventually the oldest and most experienced soldier despite his reluctance.

LUKE: As bad as the military behave during training, the army as an institution doesn’t become frightening until the skirmish with the Taurans on Aleph.  Sergeant Cortez begins whispering post hypnotic suggestions into the headpieces of his grunts. Images of Taurans eating human babies enter their minds. Blood-lust rises. Trigger fingers get itchy. Grunts get caught in the cross-fire. And then the skirmish ends and the hypnotic compulsion drops. At first it was pretty grim. A lot of the people, like Lucky and Marygay, almost went crazy with the memories of bloody murder multiplied a hundred times. The military strips them of their free will, incites them to commit bloody murder, and Cortez’s only response is to order them to take a sedative. And yet, this leads to one of the most profound pieces of introspection in the book, as Mandela tries and fails to assuage his conscience  over his actions (‘I was just following orders’ was an inadequate excuse for inhuman contact…but what can you do when the orders come from deep down in that puppet master of the unconscious?).

DAVID: The Forever War succeeds on multiple levels. It is a fascinating character study, a compelling look at cultural isolation, and a damning depiction of the military mindset. More importantly, as a study of the futility of war it remains as relevant today as when it was written more than 35 years ago. 4.5 lukes.

LUKE: The best military SF novel ever written. 4.5 Lukes.  


The best military SF novel ever written! Even the world’s harshest critic loves the Forever War. What do you think? Is this novel worthy of our praise, or is Luke’s proclamation the work of a depraved mind?

Send us your comments, criticisms and, most importantly, your votes! Help us compile the definitive list of Greatest Sci-Fi Masterpieces.


The Forever War claims equal first place alongside the Foundation series as our definitive list slowly begins to take shape.

POSITION       TITLE                                         AUTHOR                     RANKING

1                      Foundation series                    Isaac Asimov                   4.5

1                      The Forever War                     Joe Haldeman                 4.5

2                      The City and the Stars          Arthur C. Clarke                4

3                      Non-Stop                                   Brian Aldiss                    3.5

4                      Player of Games                       Ian M. Banks                 3.25

 What do you think of our rankings? Send in your own score out of 5 and we’ll add your votes to our own.


Join us on Monday as we begin our ambitious 5 review in 5 weeks, looking at each of the 2011 Hugo Award nominees. Every Monday from now until the award winners are announced on August 20th, we’ll give you our thoughts and critiques on the books the World Science Fiction Society has deemed the best of the year

First up is Margaret Lois Bujold’s Cryoburn. See you Monday.

4 Responses so far.

  1. Jason Franks says:

    Nice review, fellas.

    One other notable quality of the book is the way that Haldeman allows female combat troops. A notable editor (I think maybe even J. W. Campbell) is said to have passed on the book when Haldeman was trying to sell it because he couldn’t believe in a mixed-gender army.

    Interested to see you review John Scalzi’s OLD MAN’S WAR: a more recent military SF book in this vein, which recently won ‘best SF novel of the last 10 years’.

    • Richo says:

      According to the Author’s note, 18 publishers rejected the book, although mainly because they didn’t believe readers would want to read a SF novel about Viet Nam. I never realised it was also rejected due to it’s depiction of female soldiers. Amazing to think how attitudes have changed over the last 30 years.

      I’ve heard good things about Old Man’s War and its definitely on my list. I should also get to Starship Troopers while I’m at it.

  2. Mike "The Duke" says:

    I have to say, nice going. You can say that the purpose of the review is the make someone get a grasp of the book and make them want to read it. Well, I would say you have been a success, as I would like to go and read this book.

    Keep it up, looking forward to the next one.

    • Richo says:

      You should definitely check this out Duke. I think you’d like it.

      Also, as a big Ridley Scott fan, you should know that he’s announced plans to do a film adaptation of the Forever War. In June 2010, he stated that a fourth draft of the script was in the works. Not sure what the current state of play is for the adaptation though, since Scott is currently working on Prometheus.

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