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Classics Review- The Forever War

G D Penman By G D Penman Published on January 11, 2016

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This article was updated on February 8, 2016

There are a few core books that make up the heart of the military scifi sub-genre:

Old Man's War is an ongoing series by John Scalzi that explores the subject from a very middle of the road perspective, more interested in an entertaining story than a message. It is clever and fun and well worth a read.

Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein is written from the right wing perspective, firmly promoting military service and the use of violent force as an expression of political power.

The final book of this triumvirate is The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, it assumes a left wing position on the subject, presenting a clear case on the futility of war. Interestingly enough the author is the only one of the three writers to have done military service, fighting in the Vietnam War upon which he based The Forever War.

The premise of the book is quite simple provided you have a decent understanding of physics and well enough explained that it won't be a hindrance if you do not, as you approach the speed of light you experience time at a different rate. The soldiers being sent off to fight on distant worlds experience only a few days as they travel while years pass back on earth.

The story follows William Mandella, a new recruit to earth's intergalactic army; an army that is selected not from the strongest or the most violent but those capable of making the complex calculations required to use the advanced weaponry. Mandella's story mirrors the life of many Vietnam veterans, going off to war young and returning home to a world that has changed so drastically that their service is no longer appreciated.

Many veterans find it hard to adapt to the unstructured society outside of military service but the massive passages of time and the huge changes to society on Earth emphasise this point beyond all doubt. Each time Mandella returns to earth he is confronted by the differences, is utterly unappreciated and it stays only very briefly before choosing to re-enlist and find some value in his life again. While the book manages to finally give him some peace and closure in the end it is only by shipping him off to live on an isolated colony built for veterans to resemble their pre-war lives.

He is forever severed from the world that he risked his life to protect and the incredibly advanced society that has developed in his absence looks down on the veterans as brutal savages unfit to live among them and simultaneously pity them for their inferiority. Mandella and the author seem to agree with their assessment. The discovery that the century long wars that tore soldiers away from any possibility of normal lives was actually caused by a mix of misunderstanding and human aggression is just the bitter icing on the misery cake.

The best way to read this book is back to back with Starship Troopers, their fictional technologies are eerily similar and their premise of necessary war to defend humanity makes them enough alike that their differences stand out in harsh contrast.

G.D. Penman writes about queer monsters for a living. He is the author of Call Your Steel, The Year of the Knife, Heart of Winter, Apocrypha and many other books. He is also a full-time freelance ... Show More

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