Sunday, 12 February 2012

The Forever War

There's a set of clichés that attach themselves to war stories like limpets to rock. 'War is hell'. 'Soldiering is nine-tenths boredom and one-tenth terror'. 'Somewhere there's a bullet with your name on it'. Sometimes something is produced that manages transcend the clichés and become truly memorable for its particular depiction of war - an obvious example is Blackadder Goes Forth - although more often than not we're left with the same tired depictions which come back to the same old sayings. It's not to say that those idioms aren't true - because they clearly are - but I'd argue that we've all heard them so often that we've become desensitised. Which is why when something exceptional does come along we heap well-deserved praise on the book or film or series.

The Forever War is hardly new. It was written in the mid-1970s by Joe Haldeman, a veteran of the Vietnam war. It won the Hugo and Nebula awards, and became the first title to be released as part of the SF Masterworks imprint from Gollancz. Rumour even has it that it was written as a response to Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers.

It's not even new to me. I read it when I was 17, just after I first read Dune. At the time I was struck by the violence. Some of the emotional impact was fairly hopelessly lost on me, as was much of the cultural significance of what Haldeman was saying. All I knew was that I was being treated to a rip-roaring story about the horrors of war.

I've grown up since then, but it hasn't stopped me enjoying the re-read. The story remains as strong as ever. William Mandella is a young man conscripted to the United Nations Explorer Force (UNEF) following the Elite Conscription Act. He has an IQ of over 150 and the physical attributes needed to fight humanity's newly-discovered enemy, the Taurans. He - and 99 others - are trained up (which is where we come in, with the memorable opening line, 'Tonight we're going to show you eight silent ways to kill a man'), and then sent off to fight in a series of hellish encounters.

Thanks to time dilation (a topic I'm not convinced is covered accurately by Haldeman, but I'm no expert on the subject), when the recruits get back to Earth decades have passed while they have only aged a matter of a couple of years. Mandella is incapable of adjusting to the new Earth, being alienated by the massive changes in society, and chooses to re-enter the army with Marygay Potter. Yet more military fun and frolics ensue.

The whole book is good. The action scenes are brutal, with matter-of-fact descriptions of horrific injuries. In between, we have the military discipline and turmoil of a man who doesn't particularly want to be there. Mandella is a sympathetic character, and he's easy enough to like.

But, for me, the most haunting part of it isn't anything to do with the battles or the science or the sex (and there's quite a bit of that, on the quiet). It's the return to Earth. The soldiers are warned beforehand of the changes, but it's jarring once they get there. Mandella's inability to adjust to the planet he has been fighting for is almost heartbreaking. There's a palpable sense of almost traumatic alienation throughout the sequence, which only lasts for 30 pages or so, but which sticks with me more strongly than any of the blood and guts. All he has throughout is the companionship of Marygay, one of his co-enlisted. Eventually, the couple choose to join up again, the army being the only thing they're adjusted for.

It's this which marks The Forever War out as an exceptional war novel. Haldeman's own experiences come through strongly (and some feel that The Forever War has an autobiographical element to it - I for one wouldn't disagree with them), and they leave an almost bitter taste in the mouth. It's a war novel that makes you think beyond the battlefield, and one I'd recommend to anyone. Whilst the clichés are there, Haldeman works expertly with them to bring home more than just the bombs and bullets.

Sadly for Haldeman, I've yet to come across anything else which even comes close to The Forever War. Its sequel, Forever Free, was a train-wreck of a novel, the companion novel Forever Peace merely passable and the short stories I've read have been underwhelming. But if you're going to write one great novel, it's better that it's something like The Forever War.

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