Tuesday 23 September 2008

Joe Haldeman: The Forever War (1974)

Published: Millennium, 1999

In the military subgenre of science fiction, there are two major classics, Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers, and this, less well known but classic enough to be chosen as the first in Millennium's SF Masterworks series of reprints. Starship Troopers is not a book I like very much, not among Heinlein's best, and with something of an old fashioned feel to it now. It is a novel which is really about comradeship, and which ignores many of the more unpleasant aspects of warfare. The basic plot of The Forever War, describing the training and deployment of soldiers from the first person perspective of William Mandella, is shared with Starship Troopers (and a lot of other military fiction), but the attitude behind Haldeman's novel is very different.

The basic reason for this is that The Forever War has its roots in Haldeman's Vietnam War experiences. While some details are obviously different (even allowing for the science fiction aspects, few sixties US army camps would not only be mixed but encourage sleeping with different partners every night, for example), The Forever War is a more ruthless, brutal novel in which the enemy aliens are far more like us than Heinlein's giant bugs, so that killing them seems more like the death of a person to the reader than the extermination of vermin which is what it feels like in Starship Troopers. Heinlein, whose military service as a naval officer was during peacetime and was thus very different, does not really make any attempt to deal with moral issues, partly because he is so securely convinced of his own personal philosophy, while Haldeman is keen to try to get the reader to feel what he felt. This makes The Forever War far more ambitious than Starship Troopers, and fits in with the trend in literary depictions of war in the twentieth century, following from All Quiet on the Western Front.

The main concept in The Forever War, which gives the novel its name, is that the soldier on active service becomes increasingly distanced from his or her civilian contemporaries. Haldeman uses the idea of relativistic time dilation to give a physical aspect to this psychological affect, one which particularly affected Vietnam veterans because the eventual unpopularity of the war affected the welcome they expected when they returned to the States, and made it hard fort them to be reintegrated into civilian life. From the genre point of view, the use of time dilation makes The Forever War one of a fairly small number of space-based science fiction novels to take build relativistic restrictions into the plot. Each mission lasts weeks to William Mandella, while decades pass on earth. So each time he returns, he is more a fish out of water, and Haldeman gives over more pages to describing this than to the description of the war itself (which is reasonable, as interstellar warfare is going to be pretty confusing to a soldier on the ground). Many of the changes to human society come about because of the massive effort required to prosecute the war, so veterans are an object of curiousity, but as Mandella points out, "The most important fact about the war to most people is that if it ended suddenly, Earth's economy would collapse".

The culture shock goes both ways, too. When Mandella is appointed to a command, the new recruits have almost to learn a new language, the old fashioned English of a four hundred and fifty year old man: as far from them as Shakespeare is from us. Haldeman seems to have thought about this future in some depth, but oddly seems to have missed the possibility that during the next four centuries English may be replaced as the principal world language, say by Mandarin, Hindi or Spanish. And that is perhaps less problematic than changes in technology would be. As a commander, Mandella surely needs to understand something of the changes in technology that have happened during his life in order to be able to fight effectively, but instead of the total incomprehensibility that would be seen by a sixteenth century cavalryman asked to command a modern stealth air bomber squadron using satellite imagery for targeting, he has only to cope with improvements to the basic technology used in the early years of the war.

Space warfare faces some serious difficulties, particularly the space marines style scenarios which form the main part of Haldeman's narrative, where groups of men attack fortified positions on the ground from spacecraft orbiting the planet. (The basic issues stem from the overwhelming advantage that gravity gives to the attackers, an edge which goes away if they land on the planet.) Haldeman brings in a far greater problem with the vast timespan of the war as perceived from Earth, and the resources required to prosecute the war over huge distances. The closest historical parallel is the Hundred Years' War, shorter in duration, far less organised, intermittent rather than continuous, involving far smaller proportions of a far smaller population: yet the economic and political stresses it caused proved a major factor in the formation of the English and French states which proved so influential in the development of the modern world.

By concentrating on one confused individual participating in a remote war, Haldeman increases the impact of The Forever War at the expense of a broad picture of the future of the human race. The resonances with Vietnam perhaps make the novel seem a little dated, particularly with the setting of the initial chapters at a time now in our past (the date being chosen by Haldeman to make it possible for some of the soldiers to be Vietnam veterans). Yet it remains a powerful picture of what it is like to fight a war that alienates the soldiers from the non-soldiers, and it could be argued that with America involved in another unpopular overseas war, it is more relevant than ever.