The Forever War by Joe Halderman is another excellent example of hard science-fiction of the sort that, on the surface, makes them so difficult for the average reader to pick up and get into. Like Rendezvous with Rama, it provides often clinical description of its world and how it functions to the point of ignoring major character development. Unlike Rama however, rather than focusing on the strict mechanical and geological working of a large moving planet, The Forever War chooses to focus instead on the evolution of a society over the course of hundreds of thousands of years, yet still through the eyes of a single man, named William Mandela.
Focusing on humanity rather than geography means that it is much easier to attribute themes and moral judgements to The Forever War, even if Halderman may not have intended it that way. Through the narrator’s sometimes cold and impartial description of the changes in society around him, we get glimpses of his society, like an ethnography. But no matter how impartial an ethnography is, at some point it passes judgement, even if only by virtue of what it chooses to focus on. To but Rama and The Forever War into perspective: what do you imagine would have more moral implications: an exacting description of a chair, or an exacting description of a man’s life and family tree? Exactly, no question.
So is it all about war? Well, yes and no. War is certainly the backdrop. There’s certainly a war in it, but that has little to do with the meat of the story and more to do with the mechanism that gets the plot going. It goes like this: humans are at war with an alien species known as the Taurans, who live millions of light years away. In order to engage them in battle, humans have to travel to where they are, and to do that, they have to travel near the speed of light. As you travel faster, time slows down for you, and when you approach the speed of light, time has all but stopped.
That’s not science-fiction, that’s science-fact. That’s what E=mc2 means in practical terms: the faster you go, time actually slows down. If you’re going 100 miles per hour, time is actually moving slower for you than someone walking alongside you. it’s just so minimal nobody will ever, ever notice. But when you get to really fast speeds, speeds approaching the speed of light, it matters a great deal.
The practical result of this is that when William goes to battle, fights the enemy, and then returns to Earth, to him the whole trip lasted only about two weeks. But when he returns to Earth, twenty years have passed. As such, William is forced to assimilate himself into the changes in society, and thus is the process explore them and explain them to the reader. He does so often alone, sometimes with the members of his family that are still living, and often with his perennial female love interest, Marygay.
There are many changes that happen in a society over the course of twenty years. It’s the reason for the generation gap. But even those perplexed by the generation gap and by new trends and changes have had time to become accustomed to it. No matter how alien it seems to us, unless you were literally on an island all those years or in prison or some other such isolating event, things aren’t that different. But for William, they are.
Here’s where things really began to become interesting for me, because in dealing with the changes in society Halderman proves himself to be far, far ahead of his time. One cannot speculate about the changes in humanity and western society without in some way also commenting on what our society is. While there are any number of things Halderman could have focused on, her chose to focus of two main items, sexuality and currency, until these two eventually dovetail.
For the first quarter of the book or so, Halderman presented William, Marygay and the rest of the crew as having a sort of commune relationship. The male and female shipmates paired off with different members of the opposite sex every night. They weren’t being promiscuous, this was just the culture at the time. This book was written in the 70s, just after the sexual revolution of the 60s, so one could see where Halderman thought society might go this route. And who knows, if HIV hadn’t put fear into sexual freedom, we might well have. This sort of sexual freedom was common in a lot a sci-fi: it’s in Stranger in a Strange Land and many other great novels. I understand the point, but at the same time, when reading this I couldn’t help but think: “if only they realized that humanity wouldn’t become less monogamous as a whole, but more accepting of homosexuality.”
Well, this is where the whole “don’t judge a book by its cover” thing comes in. In fact, also don’t judge a book by its first 10 chapters. Because this is one of the more progressive works of LGBT science-fiction I have ever read.
When William returns to Earth some 20 years after the left, he discovers two things: the current currency is currently measures in calories, not dollars (because of food shortages), and being homosexual is very much encouraged by the government because of population problems. William finds himself a heterosexual man from a time-period that placed high value on hetero-normality, thrust into a world where the opposite is true.
Some might say that Halderman isn’t actual ahead of his time, that this is a warning. I do not believe so, and point to the fact that William never once reacts with fear or disgust or homophobia to this change. The most extreme reaction he can said to have is: “Oh, that’s odd.” He’s even presented with a change that even the most inclusive person might find difficult to manage, that his father is dead and since then his mother has become a lesbian. Once again, there is no homophobia or judgement on William’s part. Halderman at no point says these changes are bad, nor for that matter does he say they are good. They just are what they are. William is confused by them — as anyone that time-traveled twenty years would be — and the people who have grown with the changes and become accustomed to them explain them to him as a point of fact, as they would explain changes in the model of car. Because they’re used to this fact.
Think of it like this: if you took a person even from 10 years ago – regardless of orientation and political view – and transported them to today where the United States just passed equal marriage laws, they’d at least have a moment’s surprise. That’s all this is, William becoming accustomed to the changes in society but not being hampered by them or judging them.
So it makes sense then that at the start of the novel his squadron was mostly heterosexual. That wasn’t sexism on Halderman’s part, that was necessary from a narrative standpoint to make the shift to homosexual inclusion something to be remarked upon.
William and Marygay have some fun in this time-period, but quickly realize that even though their paychecks have been accumulating interest for 20 years and they expected to be millionaires when they returned, the adjustment of inflation means that those millions don’t go as far. Before a few years go by they both reenlist in the army, go on another tour, and return some 200 years later this time.
Now although money is back (and all on debit cards, Halderman called that one), homosexuality is now not only accepted and encouraged: it’s mandatory. Everyone is homosexual, and heterosexuality is considered abnormal. People aren’t born, they’re grown, to prevent population spikes. The idea of heterosexual relations sickens most who think of it. People who are born heterosexual go through “sexual conditioning” to change that fact, and there’s a chance William will have to go through this, but he’s too old and it wouldn’t take.
Once again, there is no judgement here. Nobody calls him a freak or a faggot or anything for being heterosexual, and the worst reaction William has to this change is perhaps a slight discomfort when he thinks he’ll be “reconditioned,” and relief when he learns he won’t be.
Think about what Halderman is saying there. When we say it like that, that even though there’s no judgement on a heterosexual person we’re going to make them undergo a procedure to make them homosexual because that’s what’s normal is our society, its clear to the reader how insane that is. But if it’s insane that way, than it’s insane when you flip it back to reconditioning homosexuals, something that does still go on today. This point isn’t belabored, and that is what really drives it home how wrong this is.
There’s no typical science-fiction scene where William runs from this new society and the tie him down and force him to be recoded. There are no villains in this book, only an exploration of culture and society through the eyes of one time-lost man.
When returning from a third jump, in which William led a crew comprised totally of homosexuals from his time, they return to find that times have changed and now heterosexuality is once again the norm. The homosexual crewmen react with disgust that they will be expected to do “that,” to which William just smiles and says “you’ll get used to it.”
In the end he decides to meet Marygay, whom he thought dead, on an asteroid named MiddleFinger where she has been waiting time-locked for him to return, telling him via letter that she loves him and doesn’t want to be with anyone else. The novel ends with her going to meet her.
I think this novel has several very important themes and messages. The most important being that, to find happiness, you cannot get bogged down or tied up in the shifting changes of society. Through most of the novel William is dealing with the changes from one time-period to the next, and while he’s never presented as unhappy, he’s never presented as happy either. Until that is the end of the novel, when he’s going to meet his lost love Marygay. Rather than try to find his place in society, he’s found his place with that one special person who he loved whether he was told to be gay, straight, or abstinent. It advocates personal happiness and personal goals as the role to happiness, rather than trying to ride the changing tides of major societal changes.
This novel is also about the culture shock that can come from soldiers being away at war returning. This novel was written being the height of the Vietnam conflict, and its clear that Halderman was inspired or influenced by soldiers returning home to find their world not the one they left behind. One of the only consistent emotions present throughout the novel is that people don’t seem to believe William when he asks them questions: they don’t get why he doesn’t know why the world is the way it is, and are suspicious of him as a result.
Despite the novel, this novel isn’t about a war so much as it’s about the personal effects of war. In fact the war abruptly comes to an end when humanity finally learns to communicate with the Taurans and they learn that the whole thing was just a big misunderstanding.
But could the title allude to something else? Is “The Forever War” actually the struggle to assimilate into society and to mediate personal happiness with what society wants from you? I’m not sure, but I like to think so.
Bottom line: read this books. It is one of the most amazing examples of how hard-science fiction can be entertaining, engrossing, and above all culturally relevant. Possibly more relevant today than when it was written.