This book was written by a Vietnam vet in response to Starship Troopers. Much like Troopers, humans face an unknown enemy in a fight for strategic control over territory, namely collapsars (black-hole like portals used for FTL travel). The story is narrated by a single individual, William Mandala who begins life as an army recruit and progresses up through the ranks after experiencing combat first-hand. Apart from this basic framework, the similarities quickly drop off. Mandala is bright and drafted. He has a pacifistic temperament that the military can override at will by hypnotic conditioning. At first the enemy Taurans don’t appear to be capable combatants but are slaughtered nevertheless.Mandala is no hero, though he’s no coward either. His survival is mostly attributed to luck though he does make some good decisions in the final battle.
Gender issues play a much more influential role in this book than I had imagined. Perhaps as a counterpoint to Trooper’s all male MIs or perhaps as a fantasy for an ex-vet, the UNEF infantry is composed equally of males and females with no gender bias whatsoever. “Co-fraternity”, or sex among the troops was common and encouraged even to the point of mandating random sleeping partners. The implication was that people were more “normal” when in mixed company. UNEF (United Nations Expeditionary Force) infantry used powered suits (just like Troopers) so male physical superiority would not have been a factor on the battlefield. Another soldier, Marygay Potter became Mandala’s constant partner and lover. Homosexuality is a recurring theme that increases with each interaction with Earth. Mandala or the author passed no judgement on homosexuality, it was simply accepted as the way things were, though Mandala was not ever interested (or even emotionally understood) homosex himself.
Haldeman uses time dilation to great effect. When not travelling FTL through collapsars, the starships Mandala and the other troops are transported in do reach relativistic speeds. This means mere months subjective time becomes decades of elapsed time on Earth. As a result there are great leaps in technology and societal change after every mission.
Mandala and Potter return to Earth once, after being absent for over 20 years, while they had only aged 2. The year was 2023 and though Mandala was born in 1975 he was still in his 20’s. A full third of humanity was homosexual, a lifestyle promoted by governments as it controlled population growth. Population pressures had resulted in food and electricity shortages, among other things. Currency was based on calories. Three-quarters of all people were under or unemployed. Petty violence was commonplace. A huge portion of the world’s economy was directed to the war effort and all the best and brightest were conscripted into maintaining the war machine in some fashion (or simply died meaningless deaths on a far away battlefield). The world was definitely worse off compared to before Mandala left. The few returning vets are wealthy due to compound interest and Potter and Mandala live it up since they had been so close to death so many times. But violence seems to be inescapable and on Earth Mandala is forced to kill a man in self-defence. Cutting their decadent around the world adventure short, Potter and Mandala having experienced enough unfamiliarity return to the United States. Both Potter and Mandala visit and lose their parents during their stay – Mandala due to medicare bureaucracy and Potter to farm commune raiders.
Not liking the society they had returned to, Potter and Mandala both decide to go back into active duty something mere months before that had never thought they would do. Society was too foreign to them and the military seemed like a stable familiar refuge. They were promised promotions and easy training positions and opted for an assignment together on the moon.
I suspect this middle section, “You Can Never Go Back”, of the definitive edition of the book was what got cut from its first publication in Analog magazine. Yes, it was depressing, but necessary as it illustrated why Mandala and other vets returned to the military they had no particular fondness for.
Mandala and Potter were immediately re-assigned to combat duty – to take command of a platoon in the Tet-2 campaign. Neither was happy and felt used by UNEF.
Both were seriously injured during the drop and their Tet-2 experience was extremely short. For rehabilitation they there sent to a utopic hospital based on a planet called Heaven. The Earth year was 2189. They spent close to a year there, the first half growing back new limbs (similar to what happened to John Perry in Old Man’s War, but Scalzi didn’t read The Forever War beforehand, so purely coincidental). Like their last R&R on Earth, they spent lavishly as they didn’t expect to survive the remaining three years of obligatory service. At the end of their R&R Mandala and Potter were given different orders which separated them. With the effect of time dilation they knew this would be the last time they would see each other. It was poignant not only because Mandala was losing his partner, but because she was his only link to a past and a common culture that no one else shared. His isolation was complete. Mandala contemplated suicide, but his sense of duty convinced him to expend his life fighting the enemy instead.
Mandala lost more time leaving Heaving for Stargate to assemble his strike force. As a combat Major, Mandala underwent an accelerated virtual training regimen where he learned hand to hand techniques, military history, regulations and tactics (again similar to the Ghost Brigades in Old Man’s War). However, his attitude was unchanged. Still a pacifist at heart and not a particularly strong leader. He was now the commander in charge of the Sade-138 campaign to fortify and hold a planetoid next to a far collapsar. Sade-138 was so distant that a round trip would cost the crew 700 years Earth time.
The survival prospects were grim, but his biggest challenge was his own alienation from the people he led.
Humanity had changed once again, homogenizing to being somewhat Polynesian homosexuals He was an aberration, the only heterosexual. In fact at a time in the past heterosexuality was actually illegal. He spoke old English, the new dialect being incomprehensible to him. He was not particularly liked by his platoon through no fault of his own. A subordinate Graubard even attempted to kill him and Mandala was faced with the prospect of ordering his execution, a thought he didn’t relish. However, Mandala did make a friend – his XO Charlie Moore.
For more than a year they fortified and held Sade-138 until an overwhelming force of Taurans arrived. There were a few survivors, including Mandala and Charlie. UNEF won the battle by detonating a nova bomb while the survivors huddled in a stasis field. They limped back to Stargate afterwards. By now the year was 3138. The war was over. Humanity consisted of a male and female clone and a group consciousness. Evolution to a group consciousness allowed Man to communicate with Taurans for the first time since the conflict began. There as a misunderstanding. Humans had been the aggressors. The war lasted over 1000 years, and Mandala and party where the last remaining veterans coming home. Man and Taurans where at peace. Potter had survived her mission as well and had returned to Stargate some 200 years beforehand. She and others used a ship to travel back and forth at relativistic speeds as a means to travel into the future and wait for Mandala’s return. At the end, Potter and Mandala are reunited and settle on the planet of Middle Finger where a small group of non-cloned humans live.
The overall pointlessness of the Forever War and the cost in human (and Tauran) lives and suffering is apparent. All of it over bad or missing information and poor assumptions. Mandala didn’t fit in – either back on Earth or in the military. Though he didn’t face anti-war sentiments, he still felt out of place since so much had changed.
I have mixed feelings about Mandala and Potter reuniting at the end. On one hand it provided a neat happy bow to tie it all up, but on the other I think the story would have been more impactful had it ended with Mandala’s complete isolation. A rewritten ending where Charlie becomes a close friend and confidant despite Mandala’s latent homophobia dies well in battle and upon his return home learns of Potter’s pointless death centuries ago.
However, despite this, The Forever War is a good book. While I enjoyed Old Man’s War more, this book had more of a message. I think it makes an effective counterpoint to Troopers and despite the same single character perspective, it is a more sophisticated story. Troopers preaches and it does so from a simple classroom setting, interspersed with action scenes. The anti-war message in Forever War is pervasive in Mandala’s attitude and their hollow victories.
(Amazon) The Forever War