I posted a while back about how a lot of classic SF novels from the last 40 years – Ender’s Game, Old Man’s War, even the most recent Star Trek movie – use Heinlein’s Starship Troopers as a template. If only Paul Verhoven had done that when he made a Starship Troopers movie.
Joe Haldeman is no exception. But where as Orson Scott Card saw video games as a rising influence, Scalzi wrote an homage, and JJ Abrams needed to reboot James T. Kirk, Haldeman had something else on his mind. Heinlein was a World War II vet, which makes Haldeman the perfect successor. Haldeman served in Vietnam, and Vietnam is very much a part of his classic The Forever War.
Joe Mandella is an elite, a student of physics drafted by the United Nations in the 1990’s to help fight the Taurons, a race that began attacking humans almost from their first encounter. So Earth goes to war. Unfortunately, war means expected fatalities in training. Interstellar war means a three week mission leaves in 2001 and comes back 20 years later. Each time, Earth changes.
When we meet Mandella, it’s the late 90’s. Mind you, this was originally written in the 1970’s, so it looks nothing like the .com boom, pre-9/11 decade we all miss. Still, it’s close enough to recognize as what we would consider “normal”. Mandella first goes to a remote outpost in the solar system to train for combat on planets that orbit collapsars, the main means of traveling faster than light. Several of Mandella’s fellow trainees die in the process. During this time, he bonds with frequent bunkmate Marygay Potter. Together, they take part in a mission that exposes the mysterious Taurons and reveals their true nature, or what seems to be their true nature. All this takes place over a period of months, but they return to Earth twenty years later, thanks to relativity and the time dilation effect.
Upon their return, they find Earth changed. Homosexuality is encouraged by the government after overpopulation caused food riots and several wars. The economy is almost completely based on the war with the Taurons. Mandella and Marygay cannot cope with the changes and re-up.
Their combat takes them forward a few hundred years and nearly kills both of them. Because of relativity, they find their fellow soldiers are changing. At the end of their next mission, they get a break on a planet called “Heaven,” where Earth’s seriously wounded go to recuperate. Marygay is discharged, and Mandella is promoted. By the time he becomes a base commander, Earth’s culture has become unrecognizable. Heterosexuality is considered deviant and the soldiers call him “The Old Queer” behind his back. By the time he comes home for the last time, over a thousand years and an epoch in human evolution have passed.
Mandella is a man placed in the midst of an alien landscape having to listen to bureaucratic doublespeak and accept the irrational commands of his superiors as he and his comrades put their lives on the line. They are drafted, taken away from home for extended periods of time, and thrown back into a culture that sees them as oddities or worse. Mandella experiences less than a decade in subjective time, but actually lives over a thousand years as the war forces them to move at speeds where the normal rules of time make no sense. It’s this time dilation principle that allows Haldeman to exaggerate the isolating effects of combat. You may go to Saigon or Kuwait or Afghanistan for a year, but the world moves on without you while you’re gone.
Haldeman’s novel was born partly out of his frustration during his time in Vietnam. Still, it should probably resonate more clearly in today’s world, where the military uses stop loss (a questionable practice Haldeman foreshadows) to keep its volunteer soldiers from leaving when recruiting numbers are down. More importantly, the human race’s next iteration shows a higher level of thinking that the present one is capable of. It shows Mandella just how futile the whole war was.
And if anything, The Forever War destroys any romanticized notions about war with just a touch of absurdity.