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The Forever War (Leather Bound)
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On the surface, this seems to be a straightforward space-faring military tale, told in the linear fashion typical of mid-20th century sci-fi, with none of the jumping around that modern authors sometimes use to disguise the simplicity of their stories or to cater to those with short attention spans. The world of this novel contains futuristic social features, such as male-female cohabitation in the ranks, drug use that is not only allowed but is integrated into the soldiery, homosexuality, and elimination of natural childbirth. Again, if that is as far as one looks, it might be judged a bit dated and perhaps even tawdry.
The author is a Vietnam veteran, and to me one of the themes that stood out was that of the difficulty a soldier has when trying to return to a normal life after being transformed by society into a warrior and adapting to the self-preservation demands of a wartime environment. The soldier's difficulty is two-fold. The first challenge is resetting oneself to a society whose peacetime norms are radically different from those of the soldier's former battle zone. The second challenge is adjusting to the changes society may have undergone during the solder's absence, both in general terms and with respect to its attitudes about “the soldier's” war.
This second disconnect can often be subtle in real life, but in the novel, it is easy to notice, given that the disconnect is amplified by the time-dilation effect of interstellar travel. During this travel, dozens or even hundreds of years can pass on Earth while the solider experiences only a couple of years in subjective time. Think about going away for something you experience as a year, then coming back to a society where everything has moved forward fifty or a hundred years, and aged likewise; where all of your family and friends are dead, and your only friends are your fellow soldiers.
Some of the things in the societal picture the author paints will seem prescient. The novel was written over 40 years ago, and faint whispers of some of these things can already be seen in today's society. Briefly between enlistments, Mandella is given leave after his first tour, and allowed to return to Earth to look around before making a re-enlistment decision. He is finally forced to conclude that he cannot adjust; Earth is much worse than when he left, although many of its inhabitants don't even seem to notice, and many of the symptoms of society’s decay are described in a way that may seem familiar to a modern observer of today’s society.
The Military’s utter disregard for personal needs becomes clearer as the story progresses. Many military veterans may pick up early on what is coming at certain points, or will mumble "Of course!" to themselves just afterwards, but there are a couple of surprise twists that make the agony even more torturous. There are even one or two leadership insights; one such is a brief discussion Mandella has with a superior where he is described as having a certain leadership potential, but only along the lines of a teacher or minister, having the desire to impose his ideas on other people, but not his will; this is translated as meaning that he will have to change to be a truly good leader from a military perspective.
The ending holds one or two surprises. Some readers will probably see some of it coming, but at least a bit will surprise almost everyone.
It's been good to revisit it, too. Sure, I remembered an awful lot, but times have changed in our world since then, which makes for something of a good parallel with the tale itself.
For those unfamiliar with the book, it's the story of William Mandella, a soldier fighting in deep space for humanity - but the faster than light travel that carries him and his fellow soldiers into battle also means that while only a year or two may pass for them, many years pass on the Earth they are fighting for.
Before they know it, the world they left behind is almost unrecognisable to the soldiers - and the only remnant of the world gone by are the soldiers themselves, finding in one another the familiarity they can no longer see in society.
There are obvious connections here to the veterans who returned from Vietnam - Haldeman himself served there - and came home to a country they struggled to fit into after the horrors they had experienced.
Among the changes they see are changing attitudes to sexuality over the years. I've seen people criticise the book for Mandella's attitude to homosexuality, which becomes more prominent in society in the decades in which he's off fighting alien aggressors, but really that's a representation of both Mandella's place and time, and I would argue a positive showing an increased acceptance of homosexuality. Sure, Mandella has a struggle to accept that - but he struggles to accept everything about the changed world. He is a man literally out of time, with regard to just about every aspect of society.
It truly is a visionary novel, tackling heavyweight subjects of how you go on fighting for a world you no longer recognise, even as you do your duty.
If you've never read it, trust me, put it on your reading list - it truly is one of the greats.