Retro Review: The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

Joe Haldeman’s “The Forever War” won the Hugo, Nebula and Locus Awards in 1975.

Joe Haldeman


St. Martin’s Press, 1974, reprinted 2009.

One of my goals with this blog is to revisit the winners of the various award-winning sci-fi and fantasy books of the past. And two tools I’m using for this retrospective journey are Gollancz’s S.F. Masterworks and Fantasy Masterworks series. The British publishing house has curated an unimpeachable selection of the best Sci-Fi and Fantasy novels from the past 100+ years in these massive series.

And they include a good many of Nebula, Hugo and World Fantasy award winners.

forever-war sf masterworks

Gollancz’s S.F. Masterworks edition of “The Forever War”

So I’m starting my journey with S.F. Masterworks vol. 1, Joe Haldeman‘s military sci-fi classic, The Forever War. Often compared with Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, Haldeman’s novel, which won the Hugo, Nebula and Locus awards in 1975, is the opposite of Heinlein’s classic in many ways.

Written in the waning days of the Vietnam War, the novel is both a technological examination of future warfare a’la Starship Troopers, a poignant examination of society’s treatment of its returning veterans and a powerful treatise on the futility of warfare. Haldeman, himself a Vietnam vet, blends all into one of the best anti-war novels of the 20th Century.

How’s that for ya? An anti-war military novel.

The story follows Mandella, a 20-something physicist who has been conscripted for an interstellar war by the United Nations Exploratory Force in the mid-1990s. Warp-like travel has become possible thanks to the use of “collapsars”, wormholes that allow near-light-speed travel throughout the galaxy, albeit with relativity-influenced time distortions. Humanity is at war with the extraterrestrial Taurans, a race that no one has seen or knows anything about.

The first quarter of the book follows Mandella’s training and on Earth and later on the distant planetoid Charon. Along the way he falls in love with fellow soldier Marygay Potter (named after Haldeman’s wife) and somehow survives a brutal battle on the far side of the galaxy.

But when he returns everything has changed – years have passed, the Taurans now possess vastly superior technology and society on Earth has radically changed. Mandella and Marygay attempt to reintegrate into Earth society, now totalitarian and crime-ridden with strictly controlled food and reproductive rights, but ultimately decide to return to the UNEF. They soon find themselves back in the War – being sent light years away, getting decimated and returning centuries later to a world they don’t recognize.

There is little I can complain about with The Forever War. It is a powerful commentary on Vietnam, the military-industrial complex and the apathy on the home front. However, one facet did strike me as problematic.

In Haldeman’s future homosexuality has become the norm. Due to overpopulation, people were encouraged, then bred into homosexuality. Mandella professes no problem with gays initially, but the more he has to face homosexuality, the more homophobic he becomes – leaving his mother’s home when he realizes she is in a lesbian relationship with her “roommate”. As the book progresses and he becomes more the “other” this becomes more prevalent. And  the portrayals of homosexuality – with men described like 18th century fops in some places and lesbians exploring “latent heterosexuality” are horribly dated. Indeed, the book ends with a pair of his close gay friends deciding to go through conversion therapy and marrying.

Times were different in the ’70s, and I’m sure that influenced how Haldeman approached the topic. The Forever War could have been groundbreaking – recasting the dominant culture as the minority and examining how it faces prejudice, e.g. the Roddenberry approach. And I truly believe that if it was written in the 21st Century that would be the intent.

I do not believe that Haldeman intentionally portrayed gay characters as caricatures or deviant, but it does mar this otherwise flawless book. Had the homophobia been more offensive, like Heinlein’s racism in Farnham’s Freehold, I would view The Forever War differently.

So slack is being cut for this poignant anti-war masterpiece. But it is also getting docked a star.

—Michael Senft

Buy The Forever War

About Michael Senft

I am a freelance writer and critic from Phoenix Arizona. I spent 10 years covering music, the arts and pop culture for the “Arizona Republic” before life circumstances took me away from newspaper. But I never lost my joy at writing. Or reading.
This entry was posted in Four Stars, Hugo Award, Locus Award, Nebula Award, Reviews, S.F. Masterworks and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Retro Review: The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

  1. Pingback: Shadows of the New Sun: Stories in Honor of Gene Wolfe | The Relentless Reader

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