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THE FOREVER WAR_a sci-fi literary classic?

December 8, 2009

Some great concept art by Steve Simmons

Looking back at my last few posts, I seem to be leaning heavily toward cinema again.  To buck the trend, I thought I’d write about the last book I’ve read:  the sci-fi literary classic The Forever War by Joe Haldeman.  And how do I know this is a sci-fi literary classic? Because everywhere you read the title of this book, the words “sci-fi literary classic” are never far away. So, what did I think of this sci-fi literary classic?  It was good.  But, at least from what I’ve come to expect from the books I read, not great.

Now, before you hardcore sci-fi fans jump all over me for such blasphemy, let me explain how I, rather unintentionally, stumbled across the work of Joe Haldeman.  Being a writer myself, of mostly short fiction, I’m always on the look out for good, short sci-fi.  So when I came across Haldeman’s A Separate War and Other Short Stories I was very, very pleased with what I had found.  The stories were well written, original, and thought provoking.  It goes without saying that, from that moment on, The Forever War was near the top of my list of must-read books.

Haldeman wrote The Forever War not long after returning from the Vietnam War and it is well known that the book, in a number of ways, is a direct reflection of Haldeman’s combat experiences.  The book, written in the first person, follows the story of William Mandella (an anagram of the author’s name), a very intelligent university student (and admitted pacifist) drafted into an interstellar war against an unknown alien race.  The story not only spans the entirety of the war, but also Mandella’s military career, both of which take place over a couple thousand years due to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity’s time dilation (hence the title of the book.)  Weaved through the story is a tender (but, in my opinion, under developed) love story between Mandella and another soldier, who, at times, are thousands of light years, not to mention Earth years, apart from each other.

Some great concept art by Neal Adams (from an aborted TV mini-series)

Obviously admittedly, I am not well versed in the military sci-fi genre. But I did read Starship Troopers, another sci-fi literary classic by Robert A. Heinlein, and between the two of them, I much prefer The Forever War. The two novels have many similarities: both are told from a grunt’s perspective, both involve (what else?) mech suits. — From what I can gather, mech suits seem to be a staple of mid-to-late 20th century military sci-fi (as well as 21st century James Cameron. Yes, that’s a jab at Avatar.) — On the other hand, the two novels are often compared for their contrasting views of military philosophy: Starship Troopers being pro-military, The Forever War being anti-war.

Okay... maybe I do still think mech suits are cool.

It’s interesting to know that Joe Haldeman never intended to write the antithesis of Starship Troopers.  Robert Heinlein was, and still is, a great inspiration to Haldeman. In fact, Joe Haldeman is now on the board of directors of the Heinlein Society.  I guess its good to recognize both works of fiction as products of their respective cultures. When one considers the authors backgrounds: Robert Heinlein served in WW2, Joe Haldeman in Vietnam, the differences are to be expected.

So, to answer my own question: is The Forever War a sci-fi literary classic? Yes. Would I recommend it to a friend? Most definitely. Despite my complaints, good fiction is good fiction and its anti-war stance is just as relevant today as it was thirty years ago. There’s much to be learned from The Forever War, whether it be human nature, the Theory of Relativity, or the craft of sci-fi writing.

The Forever War's Kubrick potential is HIGH

Okay, I really tried to keep this particular post free of cinema references… BUT I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the Forever War movie currently in development.  Sometime last year, Ridley Scott (director of such classics as Blade Runner, Alien, and Gladiator) announced he had finally, after almost three decades of waiting, acquired the rights to the novel.  And, after seeing some of Cameron’s 3-D work on Avatar, Scott also stated the film would be shot similarly and that it would blow our minds.

Will the movie blow our minds?  Perhaps. But only if the content holds up.   Though I enjoyed reading The Forever War, many of the ideas found in the book are out dated (at time of its publishing I’m sure it was ahead of its time.)  Lets hope the writer (most likely writers) that Scott hires take some serious liberties with the source material and freshen it up.  This all leads toward my frequent rant regarding Hollywood’s fear of adapting truly modern, mind melting, sci-fi novels.  If they really had balls, if they (and by they I mean Ridley Scott and James Cameron) truly wanted to make something original, than they should be adapting something from Stephen Baxter’s Xeelee Sequence… now that is truly mind melting sci-fi.

Thoughts?  How about recommending me some more good military sci-fo to read??

2 Comments leave one →
  1. megmme permalink
    December 8, 2009 8:09 pm

    Thanks for the visit to my review of this book! I completely agree with your review–and I’m interested to hear more about the movie. It has potential to be an excellent movie but more a “based upon” movie than a literal book to script rewrite.

    If you are looking for the “classic” military sci fi, I’d have to suggest Ender’s Game if you haven’t read it. Though there are parts that are most certainly anti-war, its certainly a major contribution to the genre.

    Megan @

  2. richard permalink
    March 30, 2011 11:39 pm

    Military scifi? How about David Weber’s Honor Harrington series? OK, kind of space-operaish, but well written and good stories.

    Taylor Anderson has written an amazing series called “Destroyermen” about a WW2 destroyer that gets sucked into an alternate earth where humans never evolved but two other sentient species did – and they’re at war…very well written series. Would love to see movies made of that universe!

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