One of the small concessions of the day job I’m currently working to save for overseas is the ability to keep an earbud piping things into my brain for the five or six hours of repetitive labour. Currently, the weapon of choice is a number of audiobook titles in the Top 100 Science Fiction Novels of All Time that I haven’t yet had time to get to reading, so the exercise is turning out to be an immensely satisfying two-birds-one-stone kind of venture. Over the Xmas period I managed to get through the entirety of Frank Herbert’s millennia-spanning DUNE series, Stephen King’s magnum opus THE DARK TOWER (the final/middle book read by the author himself), and Thomas Pynchon’s GRAVITY’S RAINBOW. Each of these is a lengthy dissection in itself, and I may yet wheel around for them but I wanted to open on something fresh. For those who have yet to read any of the titles I’ll do in this fashion, I’ll endeavour to stick to themes, context and concept in discussion in order to spare the gratifying twists in plot in all but necessary strokes that a reader/listener would want to experience first hand. So, “review” is perhaps inaccurate, especially considering all of these are widely regarded already as being masterpieces and the world doesn’t need one more arrogant blogger throwing around his spare change on the matter.
First up, Joe Haldeman’s 1974 novel “THE FOREVER WAR”, listed as #21.
Our narrator, Mandella (named for his hippy parents love of sacred geometry and not being aware of the correct spelling while at the registry) is a graduate physician turned private in the Terran army sent across the galaxy to fight as infantry against the alien Tauren race. Simple, yes? Well, there’s a number of catches. Firstly, their contracts stipulate an initial two year (subjective) term assuming their survival in the field, to a maximum of four tours of duty in that period. Secondly, and more importantly, is the “subjective” clause. Because in order to travel the vast distances through space the ships are catapulted through collapsing stars to instantaneously move across dozens to thousands to millions of of light-years. Now, subjectively, this is instantaneous to the recruits, however each jump leaps them ahead for longer and longer periods of time dependent on the distance travelled.
At first it’s a simple fifty-year round trip, experienced in a matter of months. The surviving recruits return home to find their families aged and the worlds’ culture and politics radically changed. Overpopulation is rife, currency as economy has collapsed and the world functions on a caloric consumption system. Their masters degrees and other qualifications in their various fields are now laughably inept, and despite being released from active service due to the horrors experienced under post-hypnotic suggestion on the battlefield (a soldier is much more effective if he or she isn’t consciously concerned with killing or being killed in skirmishes), many of them find themselves unable to assimilate into civilian life and re-enlist. A few months in space and you’re home to over half a decade of full salary with compound interest.
Except the greater distance travelled adds to the time dilation, and as each successive tour leaps further out the more time passes on Earth, so survivors begin returning to find the rules of the war have changed, they are now enlisted for five years subjective, global inflation and changes in economic structure have disrupted the way their salaries function, and due to overpopulation culture has adapted from encouraged heterosexual promiscuity to a more polyamorous, homosexual leaning. Think that the cultural divide between yourself and people a decade and a half your junior is alienating? Or how your grandparents must feel being confronted with the exponential boom of technology that seemed like fantasy in their youth?
As the only real constant, Mandella finds himself dropped into a range of social classes and castes, increased military rank, an ever-changing political, social, sexual and ecological climate with centuries of perceived knowledge and experience despite still being only around twenty-three years old. Many of his later recruit underlings are actually subjectively older than he is. It’s the interconnectedness of all these strands that really gives the novel its heft – every shift in time brings a new evolution of what has come before, and we as humans are mostly limited to our perception of time as it exists within our lifespans and forget that history is ever being written in perpetuity, that culture as we experience it is still transitory and changing before our very eyes. Haldeman’s depth and detail is anchored by the everyman narrator’s experience and keeps it conversationally relatable, while remaining extremely high-concept, tight and on-point. All killer, no filler at 236 pages or around 9 hours audio.
THE FOREVER WAR is, more than anything, a look at society going forward driven by the war machine as a way to unify against a common foe that, over generations, eradicates racism within humanity, drives culturally-sanctioned sexuality into every potential permutation, dismantles traditional societal structures and strips them of their excesses and eventually comes back around to view conflict and war as the most foolish of all man’s creations.
For the sake of “review”, I rate this as one of the the best novels I have ever read, and strongly recommend it.
(Currently listening to #24: Neal Stephenson’s SNOW CRASH.)