Wednesday, February 08, 2012

"The Forever War," by Joe Haldeman

The Protagonist: William Mandella. A good-natured pacifist with a master's degree in physics, he's conscripted into the war effort against the alien Tauran race.The Rub: Interstellar travel involves "collapsars" - portals in space that warp time - meaning an eight-month battle might keep Mandella away from home for 20 years - or longer.
Secondary Cast:

Marygay Potter: A young woman conscripted at the same time as William, their relationship deepens as they bond over how the war has affected their lives.

Sargeant Cortez: Potter and Mandella's commanding officer for their first battles and missions - a hardass whose methods challenge wartime ethics.

Captain Charlie Moore: Mandella's executive officer during his first command.

Diana Alsever: The ship's doctor during Mandella's command.
Science Fiction Convention Checklist:
Several Time-Dilating Black Holes

2 Surprise! Lesbians

1 Ship of Heterophobes

1 Nutless Cyborg

1 Instance of Hypnosis-Influenced Bloodlust

1 Billion Clones

1 Middle Finger
The Word:
I read this book for my dad.

I was influenced a lot by my parents, and I think my reading reflects that. There were a couple of years in my childhood in which our family's financial straights were nowhere near sound - but to this day I could not have picked out which ones they were. Apparently, those were the years where we had no dance lessons, rented no movies and the only furniture we had in the living room was bookshelves - but I was little. I had no problem sitting on the floor. We had carpeting.

But what I do remember is how every single Saturday, my dad would drive my sisters and I to his office downtown and walk to the main branch of public library. I could pick out whatever book I wanted. I took out books on biology, books on how to choose and train the dogs and cats I would ultimately never have, RL Stine and Ann Martin and Garfield anthologies. I discovered the fantasy section and took out The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror.

The only time my dad refused me a book was when I tried to take out a true crime novel about a young man who murdered his mother. He said it wasn't appropriate - I must have been eight or nine at the time. When I ask him about it now, he denies it. He says that doesn't sound like him, he would never have refused to let me read anything.

Even when we were poor, we were never without books. And we never had to go without hearing about books. For my father, he was always passionate about military history and science fiction. Isaac Asimov, Verner Vinge, Kim Stanley Robinson. His voicemail has directed callers to "press 0 to reach that human we have enslaved to be our receptionist, live long and prosper!" for more than a decade. He adored Men In Black and frequently recreates the scene where the alien eats Vincent D'Onofrio, his hand arching up and shooting down like the tentacle that skinned that poor redneck farmer.

I have never read Starship Troopers but thanks to him, I know the famous lines - "I always get the shakes before I drop." "Everybody drops. Everybody fights!" When they made the movie based on the book, he organized a whole event for his friends to go and see it. He went into the theatre with his buddies all wearing nametags with their favourite lines from the novel on them - and he came out with his sci-fi reader heart broken into a million pieces.

But the novel he's always brought up the most, at least when he's suggesting sci-fi, is The Forever War by Joe Haldeman. According to him, Haldeman was drafted for the Vietnam War and subsequently wounded. While being treated, he read a couple of sci-fi novels and was disgusted with how unrealistically they portrayed the wartime experience and decided to write his own.

A couple of weeks ago, while visiting my dad while my mother and sister were overseas, I broke down and decided to read it. Our reading tastes don't overlap very often (I tried to get him to read Linnea Sinclair's Games of Command with a piece of scotch tape futilely masking the "romance" label on the spine, but he didn't bite), so I decided I really, really wanted to read this book, so that we could talk about it, and find out what made our particular inner readers tick.

Our hero is William Mandella, a young physics major who is drafted into the army to fight the alien Tauron menace. But this is no ordinary war. Humankind has discovered an ingenious means for interstellar travel - portals called "collapsars," through which ships can cross insane distances in the span of a microsecond. The only caveat? While the people inside the ships subjectively experience only a second of time - years will have passed in the objective world. For Mandella, it means that for each campaign, he returns to find that life on Earth has progressed without him, new technology has been invented, and human society has evolved - and not necessarily for the better. And for every attempt he makes to get out of the war, the military finds a way to drag him back in.
While there are definitely some kick-ass battle sequences and interesting technology scattered throughout the novel, this is essentially a book about the useless, wasteful ridiculousness of war and the disorienting effect it has on the soldiers forced to fight in it - which I enjoyed. I mean, cool sci-fi ideas are interesting and all, but I find the best sci-fi narratives use them to explore what we already know about humanity.

The use of collapsars is, in fact, a cunning way of both highlighting the alienation felt by war veterans and examining the changes of human society and tolerance by placing the hero in the position of the "old codger" who is literally behind the times.

In a particularly gutsy move (this book was published in 1975) Haldeman uses sexuality as the societal litmus test. When Mandella first returns to an Earth that's aged 20 years without him, he learns that one-third of the Earth's population is openly homosexual and that homosexuality is now encouraged as a means of bringing down overpopulation. When he travels back to Stargate as a commander, by the time he arrives, Earth's society is exclusively homosexual, and he's derisively nicknamed "The Old Queer" by soldiers who now consider heterosexuality a barbaric and deviant sexual proclivity.

Here's a snippet of a conversation between Mandella, his ship's doctor Diana and executive officer Captain Charlie Moore (both of whom are homosexual):

[Diana, regarding the elimination of natural childbirth:] "Mostly, though, it's not ... having to ... have a man. Inside me. You understand. It's disgusting."

Moore laughed. "If you haven't tried it, Diana, don't --"

"Oh shut up." She threw the empty capsule at him playfully.

"But it's perfectly natural," I protested.

"So is swinging through trees. Digging for roots with a blunt stick. Progress, my good major; progress."

It's these moments that made me enjoy the book. But I have to admit that this was a book I appreciated more than I enjoyed. The novel doesn't spoonfeed you characterization or story - it drops you right into the action and the details and the science and lets the experience wash over you. It also doesn't have much of a complicated, overarching plot - the narrative follows a linear episodic format as Mandella is bounced around from experience to experience, trying to adapt to rapidly-shifting history as best he can.

Personally, I wasn't very emotionally invested in the protagonist. He seemed like the prototypical "regular guy," nothing special about him at all. His only real claim to fame is his talent for Not Dying. And I understand that that's The Point, but at the same time, I couldn't really care about him. I think he could have had more personality - just because you're ordinary doesn't mean you're not special or different in some way. Mandella doesn't have a whole lot of agency in this story, either. In fact, he's more of an observer. In this way, I found it hard to care about the stakes since he has little power over what happens to and around him.

Ultimately though, I thought the storytelling was incredibly clever. It gives us cool space-age battles, but also demonstrates the bureaucracy, tedium and hypocrisy of life in the military - such as when Mandella, despite having no head for leadership and being barely older than his inferiors, is given command because objectively he's been in the military for hundreds of years and thus has the most seniority.

It gives us a fastforwarded look at human history and social mores, and how even the most "righteous" war looks pathetic and petty with the benefit of centuries of hindsight. And it also tells a story that, despite the battle suits and the invented technology and the alien battles, enacts a reality that actually exists - that soldiers go out to fight for their country, but it won't always be the same country by the time they return to it.B+.

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