The Forever War

Is it possible for a book to be both timely and timeless? The Forever War by Joe Halderman makes a great case for it. Halderman, a Vietnam veteran and recipient of a Purple Heart, wrote The Forever War back in 1975, fashioning a hardcore military tale from a grunt's point of view that swept all the major awards, including the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Awards for Best Novel that year, and served as a foundation and template for what would become a growing sub-genre within science fiction.

The story focuses on William Mandela, a physicist recruited for a military task force being set up to wage war against the Taurens, a hostile alien race that due to the immense distances between stars and the quirks of relativity, no one has ever seen. The novel walks through training and deployment on distance star gates that allow for instantaneous travel for the soldiers, even as the rest of the planet goes on for years. Halderman has a gifted imagination, going into a lot of detail on the ways and means of interstellar warfare, and the new technologies he conjures up have a hard basis in science. As William trains and learns to use the equipment that will save his life, the novel talks about the real implications of fighting in a war - the acceptable losses, the importance of training above all else, and the abject fear of fighting an enemy you can't see or even identify if you could.

If The Forever War were simply that - a war novel - it would be good, maybe even award-worthy good. But what makes it stand out among others is the use of time and relativity, and how it changes everything for both the soldiers in the field and the people at home. During the course of Mandela's first two military exercises, lasting approximately a few months for him, decades have gone by on earth, and his return home to a world he no longer knows echoes the sense of despair and alienation felt by many war veterans coming home from the front, whether it be Saigon back in the 70s or Baghdad today.

And that's what makes The Forever War special. Yes it's wrapped in the guise of a science fiction novel, and a damn good one at that, sporting the imagination, dialog, and action that mirrors efforts by some of the best writers working in similar fields today (John Scalzi springs to mind, who also wrote the introduction the the definitive version recently released), but it also eloquently speaks of the dislocation felt by many who have traveled to foreign lands, engaging in acts that may not be able to understand, only to come home to a place even more foreign than what they left. As it says on the cover, Joe Halderman has crafted an excellent and moving war novel that stands above and beyond the genre his story takes place in.