The Military Science Fiction sub-genre is filled with epic battles, daring heroes, and a lot of reactionary politics. It is the enclave of warmongers, militarists, and Rightists. While there are a minority of progressive writers who try their best to contend with the conservatives, it is always an uphill battle. This is where Joe Haldeman comes in: writing in reaction to the Vietnam War, Haldeman’s perennial classic, The Forever War, tackles the concept of conventional warfare as its reality actually is- brutal, bloody, and not as amazing as the traditionalists claim.
Haledman taps into this reality by being apologetically hostile to the Vietnam War. He treats his characters as real persons, not caricatures of military men and woman. They express fear, hesitation, rage, despair and more when in combat and after; there is no hallowed procession of “hoorah! Lets kick some alien ass!” nonsense which infects most of the genre. Whether it is commanders fleeing combat or soldiers openly criticizing the brass as incompetent fools, and deriding the war itself, one shouldn’t go into this novel expecting a triumphant victory march of conservative values.
The story is simple: there is this interstellar war against an alien species (the Taurans). Humanity is bravely fighting with all of its resources, yet it is a protracted affair. Losses mount and continuously drastic measures must be taken on the home front. Conscripts like protagonist William Mandella are forced to do their best to survive in a hostile, unbearable conflict a thousand years distant. Returning home for shore leave, however, is little solace as the time dilution has caused centuries to pass in the few months he has been away; the changes in society, from reproduction to social life, doesn’t make the battle any easier. And so Mandella must fight a two prolonged war: one in the void of space and one in his home.
The story is told in a “hard sci-fi” vein. The dynamics of space battle are not glossed over into a star wars or star trek-esque formula of masses of ships zooming and shooting each other in a crowded area completely unrealistic in terms of hard data regarding space travel. Expect a lot of scenes going into the mathematical details of light weeks and missles taking days to reach the foe. This is slower way, not the fast paced “soft” version of your childhood. That being said, the writing is solid and told in short chapters. So it is easy to get lost in the story and read ‘just one more chapter.’
There are some ideological faults with the story. An example would be the social setting of Earth and what the author describes as “homosex,” or, humanity blended into a sort of pseudo-mono-racial-sex. The descriptions bemoan an ignorant heterosexist understanding of non-heteronormative identities and rub any contemporary reader the wrong way. Likewise, the protagonist’s drive post-war digs into this ignorance essentially making the story one of conventional romantic habit. Nonetheless, written in the 70s the book could have been far worse, socially. It may have its faults but the concept of anti-war military sci-fi is seldom pulled off with unremitted skill, and so any fan-dedicated or curious-should not pass up Haldeman’s gift.