William Mandella, a genius studying physics, has been drafted into the elite division of the United Nations Exploratory Force, which is fighting a seemingly never-ending war with the Taurans. After strenuous training with other elites on the Earth and in space, William and his colleagues are sent on various missions throughout the universe, traveling through black holes to get to each warfront. During each mission some of William’s friends die, but that’s expected. What’s surprising is that when he returns home, very little time has passed for him, but space-time relativity has caused many years to pass on Earth. Thus each time he comes back, he’s shocked by the changes that have occurred — changes in people he knows, changes in society, and technological advances which affect the progress of the war.
These changes are so drastic that Mandella, who was a reluctant soldier to begin with, would rather re-enlist — which means almost certain death — than live in a society he no longer relates to. He quickly moves up the ranks, but only because he’s the only soldier who has managed to survive this long, though it’s only been a few years of his own lifetime. The cultural changes on Earth have affected the military, too, and soon William, who’s so different from the people he leads, feels like an old man living in a young man’s body.
As you can probably tell, Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War is a military science fiction story that’s so much more than that. On the surface, it’s got all the stuff you’d expect from the sort of tense and exciting story where humans are fighting hordes of aliens, but on a deeper level, The Forever War is surprisingly emotional and thought-provoking. Joe Haldeman has called it “an sf treatment of what I’d seen and learned in Vietnam.” It deals with the expected themes — the horrors of war, xenophobia, survivor’s guilt, the disappointment of a tepid reception at home, the use of drugs and alcohol to cope and, especially in the case of Vietnam, the meaningless of it all. Haldeman’s SF-spin cleverly uses the relativity problem to show us the plight of soldiers who come back to a culture they hardly recognize, who lose family members and lovers who die or move on while they’re gone, and who feel like they’ve lost their former place in society and have trouble settling down. It’s tragically beautiful with an ending that offers hope.
Joe Haldeman wrote The Forever War as his thesis for an MFA. It was serialized in Analog Magazine and published as a novel in 1974. The Forever War won the Nebula Award, the Hugo Award, and the Locus Award. I read Recorded Books’ audio version, which was superbly narrated by George Wilson.