I keep coming back to this book. Not that I re-read it much, I don’t have that kind of time-luxury these days. But when Mark asked me to do something for his Appreciation Month1, it was the one that came straight to the front of my mind. It’s easy, that’s why.
The internet never fails to make me laugh, I go with Charlie Booker on this: debate on the internet is like throwing shoes into the sky to knock down the clouds. However, Mark has chosen to debate the issue, or at least stand his ground. There is good SF out there, but in this case I’d go one step further, and say The Forever War is simply a good book –genre irrelevant. Why? Because I first read it in the seventies, and it’s stayed with me. By any definition that is a good book. Joe Haldeman was a soldier himself, serving in Vietnam. And that experience shows throughout the novel. It shows in the dark, sleek seduction of military hardware, it shows in the attitudes of the soldiers, it shows in the way officers screw up, the betrayal of politicians and government, and finally it shows the absolute futility of physical conflict. It tells the story of William Mandella, a lowly grunt who goes on to be the only soldier who survives the whole war, which thanks to relativity gets to stretch out for centuries. So long in fact that the reason for the war in the first place is lost and finally overcome by a home culture which itself grew and evolved in parallel to events on the frontier. Mandella’s is an everyman story, of struggling to survive and adapt in circumstances completely alien to the one he originated in.
In that, the message of The Forever War is timeless. It remains as readable today, thirty years on, as when I picked it up in the seventies with all the politics and conflict that was going on then. In itself that shows a masterful SF talent, the technology in the book is still valid, still believable. Joe wasn’t predictive, but he did make his story as future-proof as possible. Don’t use excessive detail is a golden rule of SF, especially when dealing with gadgets. I find films made in the eighties difficult to watch these days, they appear modern, but they don’t have the internet or mobile phones, in short they’ve become period pieces. In the Forever War, that feeling of retro is absent. Yes there are a couple of scenes when Mandella deals with people on the phone that don’t quite blend into our culture, they weren’t extrapolated out of the now, but because the rest of the novel is so believable the narrative simply carries you through.
All right, Joe has an advantage over the authors writing ‘classics’ back in the forties and fifties; back then there was no solid state systems, no real perception of how things would develop (but plenty of wild guesses which kept SF fun). Electronics was big glowing valves, and computers the size of cars had tape reels spinning round on the front; no matter how good the story, how intriguing the characters, if that’s the background the story is forever locked in the past. I guess that makes Forever War the first wave of the new classics, the ones that don’t date and age so easily. Proof of that is the fact that it’s still in print and available all these decades later. It makes its contribution to the market for SF which doesn’t diminish. Yes books come and go, they fall out of fashion, but there are always new ones to take their place. Today, The Forever War jostles for shelf space with a great many titles, some of which are inevitably destined to fall by the wayside. Think of it as a sedimentation process, those books that keep going harden their place in culture and the market, becoming the bedrock of SF. It’s an island genre which is constantly growing, adding new layers, new sub-genres to itself. Dying? No. Expanding and changing out of what it used to be, and in doing so becoming harder to define? Thankfully yes, in no small part thanks to good, endurable novels like The Forever War.
1 – originally published in April 2010 as part of a Science Fiction Appreciation Month.