Book reviews / Science Fiction

Book review: The Forever War

So. The Forever War was written in 1974. Wikipedia says it was a reaction to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and the author’s experiences to the Vietnam War.


So I’m divided about this book because the concept and actual war bits were fantastic. The story follows William Mandella from being conscripted into the military in the first war between humans and aliens. The interesting mechanic is that they have to travel at relativistic speeds to get to the battles. So while the war lasts about 5 years for him, it lasts about 1000 years for everyone else.

As well, the technology between two jumps to different battles, increased at alarming rates. This was because they could be either meeting an alien at roughly the same time in their history, or one that has jumped in from basically their future.

Cool right?

The uncool bit is all the fucked up social change that happens over the course of the war.

It’s rare that I’ll read a book and actively think about privilege and patriarchy. But one thing in this book really made me fee like it was from the 1970s.

The orgy that night was amusing, but it was like trying to sleep in the middle of a raucous beach party. The only area big enough to sleep all of us was the dining hall; they draped a few bedsheets here and there for privacy, then unleashed Stargate’s eighteen sex-starved men on our women, compliant and promiscuous by military custom (and law)…

So the thing that really gets me about this is that there doesn’t seem to be the reciprocal law for men to be compliant and promiscuous (it’s just assumed, perhaps?) But what is even more hard to get over is that the women are all soldiers as well. Because they basically have this exo-skeleton battle suit that enhances their strength (and it has weapons) there is no difference in their capabilities. Yet, in this sentence it just assumes subservience.

There are some other problematic instances of depictions of women. So for example, after 700 years he gets made a Major but his girlfriend who as served equally as long only becomes an executive officer. She’s never been ‘suited to command’ it seems and has a hard time killing the aliens. Another woman further in the future is spoken of quite derogatory but only so because she seems quite capable. The other competent women seem to be doctors, not soldiers.

It got even worse (to me anyway) when it got sufficiently far into the future. William and his girlfriend were discharged after 2 years (they later join back up) because they finished their tour of service. They go back to earth but it’s basically fucked. It’s this weird dystopia where people are sort of taken care of but all quite violent in the pursuit of more rations. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

However what is more unlikely is that 1/3 of the population are now gay. It’s the UNEF policy to encourage it because of overpopulation. Which seems to be an assumption on behalf of the author that gay couples don’t want to have kids.

William always seems a bit homophobic. He’s staying with his mother (his father has died in the 25 years he’s been away in normal time but only 2 years for him) and finds about her room mate.

‘Rhonda’ – I settled down in the chair across from her. I didn’t know exactly how to put it. “What, uh, what exactly is your relationship with my mother?’ She took a long drink. ‘Good friends.’ She stared at me with a mixture of defiance and resignation. ‘Very good friends. Sometimes lovers.’
I felt very hollow and lost. My mother?’

Basically, his next jump into the relativistic future, he finds that everyone is gay. 100% of the population and being heterosexual is seen as some sort of sexual dysfunction. Kids are grown rather than born as well.

Maybe Joe Halderman was making some sort of point about criminalising people’s sexual preference is wrong. Fine. But it was just improbable. Without knowing his intention it just mostly seemed homophobic, or at least just broad brush stereotypes. Case in point: he finds women have sex together fine but not men.

It could be clever if it was a parody now. The idea that some fundementalists have about being gay is a choice but completely reversed. Though, perhaps where it was clever is that at some point when everyone becomes homosexual in the future, being heterosexual was criminalised.

I don’t think the author is homophobic. He just handles the issue with the delicacy of a hammer hitting a glass nail. He suggests that homosexuality is as normal as heterosexuality. But the main character’s attitude towards it is super stereotypical and in some ways still quite homophobic.

Or perhaps that was subtle and clever in 1974 but now is just cringeworthy.

At the end, the war has ended basically because it was being run by clones of a single human who recognised that their enemies were also clones. They find out that they each thought the other started the war. So it ends.

Humanity is now this race of clones. Though some humans have gone off to start new colonies, reproducing in the archaic fashion. These were the returning soldiers who had been flung off to battles. Mandella and the surviving soldiers from their last campaign are the last to return (they had been sent on the farthest mission ever). Mandella’s executive officer decides ‘to become’ heterosexual. Mandella indicates that he won’t switch back.

I also don’t think his opinion of women changes. Sure, gay people can be equal but women? The sexism isn’t overt, just subtly implied. Which is immensely aggravating.

Anyway. Problematic. Interesting and problematic. The kind of book (even though it’s short) that probably has a lot of essays written about it. I’d be interesting to see what other people’s impressions of it are. Read it and tell me! It won’t take you very long.

I give it a 3 out of 5 because it made me think but I mostly thought bad things about it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s