Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

I learned the other day that Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War was now available as an ebook. Well, I had a paperback copy that was signed by Joe back in the 1970s so I wasn’t inclined to buy it until I noticed that he had updated it, or more precisely, had put back in some of the material that had been edited out when the book was first published. Since I liked the story that was enough of an incentive for me.

In Joe’s new introduction, he told us that he had set the beginning of the story in the mid-1990s because he thought that would be about the time the last of the Vietnam Veterans would be leaving the military. Joe, like me, is a Vietnam Veteran, and I suppose it was something about the mindset that he wanted to incorporate into the story. Interestingly, he could have set the beginning around 2005 or later. I retired from a variety of military assignments and organizations in 2009 and after a fourteen month deployment to Iraq. The last member of the Iowa National Guard to have served in Vietnam retired in 2011 (and I suspect the Iowa National Guard is glad to be rid of all of us).

I first read the book in the mid-1970s, with the events of the 1990s still twenty years in the future. At one point in the story, after the return of the main character, William Mandella to Earth after his first campaign and the vagaries of time dilation, he talked of events in 2007. It was strange reading these things as if they were past history, and knowing that Joe’s predictions about the future had not to come to pass. This is not meant as a criticism, merely a comment on a first reading of the book long before we reached the 1990s and the twenty-first century and looking at them now because they are part of the past.

Of course, once Mandella and his companion, Marygay Potter reenlist in the Army because it is all they know, and because Mandella’s physics education was as relevant as that of Isaac Newton’s would have been in the twentieth century, they are off on another time travel adventure… time dilation again.

Since the copyright on the stories that make up The Forever War were published beginning in 1972 (it was a serial that was eventually put together into a novel) there are probably few surprises for the reader of today. Mandella, because he survives the various battles he is in, climbs up the military ladder until he is leading his own strike force which is what we’d have called a company. There is an interesting disconnect here because it is clear that Mandella doesn’t care for the military, but because of his experience and his training (some of it forced into his unconscious mind as he slumbers in hibernation for three weeks) he is a good commander. He has found an occupation that he is good at, that his training and experience help him be good at, and takes him away from the civilian world.

Anyway, The Forever War is a good book that is still in print (though I wonder if an ebook is actually “in print”) and for those who haven’t read it, it gives a nice slice of attitudes in the early 1970s. There are a couple of very minor things that seemed clever then but not so much now, but those are a matter of personal taste and probably a sign of my age rather than Joe’s creation. Even those who are not into military orientated science fiction, this should be a fun read because the point is not the evolution of the military, but the characters who are thrust into what turn out to be unreasonable circumstances. The characters make it worth the time and all that other stuff is just the gravy. 

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