Review: The Forever War

The Forever War - Joe Haldeman

This book is a little hard to rate.  My three-star rating is based more on my level of enjoyment while reading the book than on its merit as a work of classic military science fiction.  My interest fluctuated and, despite that it’s only 278 pages, I started to get particularly impatient with it in the last third.

The story follows William, who starts off as new recruit drafted into the military.  Earth has begun exploring space, and they’ve managed to get into a war with an alien species.  The war is being fought in an area of space distant from Earth, and their method of space travel means time passes slower for them in relative time than it does in actuality.  Hundreds of years pass while the main character is traveling to various mission objectives but, for the main character, the story takes place over only a few years of his life.  This means that humanity is changing a great deal as the story progresses, and we see that when William is in-between missions.

Although there isn’t anything I would consider explicit, sexual themes are dealt with quite a bit throughout the story and I think most people would find a lot of it disturbing.  Very early in the book we learn that William and his fellow recruits, who are evenly split between men and women, are given bunk assignments pairing males and females together in the same bed.  Those assignments are rotated so that all the guys are sleeping with all the girls sooner or later.  As the story progresses, it becomes pretty clear that women in the military are expected to be “compliant and promiscuous”.  Those are the exact word used at one point.  Looking past all the disturbing implications of that, the most obvious next question would be, “What about homosexuals?”  Well, I mentioned that humanity changes quite a bit over the course of the book, right?  Homosexuality gets addressed eventually too, and it’s addressed in a way that I’m pretty sure people of most orientations and belief systems would find disturbing.

Regarding the aforementioned sleeping arrangements, my initial thought was that the author was indulging in his own fantasies about what he might like to have seen in military life.  I changed my mind once I got further into the book.  This is not a fluffy, cheerful book.  Pretty much everything that happens is disturbing, and that includes the various things revealed about the evolution of human society as the centuries pass.  I don’t think the sleeping arrangements were intended to be seen as a positive thing, because it wouldn't fit the tone of the rest of the book.  I think it was intended to represent yet another disturbing aspect of human society in the future.  

It’s a pretty bleak book, and there are quite a few other disturbing things that happen beyond what I mentioned.  It definitely isn’t all about sex, although it did get mentioned frequently.  I was only moderately invested in the main character, and I wasn’t at all invested in anybody else.  The story had moments where it got very interesting, but it also had moments where it got pretty boring.  The book made me think a little bit, but those thoughts were more about the issues brought up than they were about the plot itself.  The plot itself was straight forward and simple, and I thought the ending was pretty predictable.