After the earth is threatened by alien invasion William Mandella is drafted as part of the world’s first elite corp of soldiers and sent into battle light years across space. A story as old as science fiction, perhaps, but what happens to William when he returns to an earth where decades have gone by during the months he spent travelling at nine-tenths light speed makes Joe Haldeman’s novel The Forever War both a story of alien combat and of multiple utopian and dystopian futures.
It’s a mind-bending ride.
The Forever War is one of the defining examples of hard science fiction in that everything in the future Mr. Haldeman constructs is based on serious scientific knowledge. Interstellar and intergalactic space travel is based on the use of collapsed stars, the alien race is based on real world, or real space, biology, and most importantly, the effects of relative time are a key part of the novel. Private Mandella participates in several battles, each involving a different trip to locations farther away from earth, taking him a few decades, then a few centuries into the future since his time, spent travelling at near the speed of light, passes much more slowly relative to time back on earth.
This allows Mr. Haldeman to create a race of technologically advanced aliens along with several sets of futures for the earth, one just a few decades ahead of his own time, one 30 years past that and then two more much farther into the future. Private Mandella is not only a soldier, he is a time traveler in a hard science fiction novel that recognizes time travel goes only one way, into the future, and that there is no going back.
While the worlds around Private Mandella change throughout the novel along with the cast of characters, his character remains the heart of The Forever War giving it a human touch many people who don’t read it think hard science fiction lacks. Private Mandella is forced to give up not just everything he owns but everything he knows when he is drafted into the elite force. He returns when his two year tour of duty is over to find that 29 years have passed on earth leaving a world so different from the one he left that he no longer has a place in it. Even his own mother has changed so much he can no longer find a connection with her. After his second tour of duty he finds the human race so changed he has trouble seeing himself as part of it any longer. Each time he leaves for the battle field he knows that decades of relative time will pass before he reaches the front making each attack an invasion from the past as far as the enemy is concerned and leaving the elite corps always at a disadvantage. How can they fight an enemy who is always years ahead of them? Should they even attempt to attack when the war may have been won or lost in the time it took them to get to the battlefield?
When Mr. Haldeman wrote The Forever War the greatest threat to humanity, at least in the popular imagination of the time, was overpopulation. When Private Mandella returns to earth for the first time, he finds a society that has begun to encourage homosexuality as a way to deal with overpopulation. He finds his mother is in a relationship with a woman. His second return to humanity finds a strictly homosexual race, bred in laboratories, engineered to be gay as a means of population control. Private, now Colonel, Mandella must adjust to an army where he is the only straight person–the soldiers in Mr. Haldeman’s elite corp are equally men and women from the start of the novel.
I’ve no idea just how seriously this idea would have been taken as a cure for overpopulation when The Forever War was first published in 1974 nor if it would have been received as pro or anti gay rights. Mandella is not bothered by it much, though he rejects the surgery that would make him homosexual in spite of how lonely his position in an all gay society makes him. In retrospect, overpopulation has not turned out to be the world ending problem we once feared it would become, so it’s difficult to judge its possible cures and consequences as presented in the science fiction of of the period. Could Mr. Haldeman’s future have happened? Today, genetic science is determined to find a DNA combination for every human characteristic. When they do, if they do, they’re bound to try turning this sequence off, that one on.
But this story idea begs a more literary question. How many science fiction novels have you read that imagined a world where something other than strict heterosexuality was the norm? How many of those were written by someone other than Ursula K. Le Guin or Samuel R. Delany?
It’s been a couple of years since I read The Forever War for my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. but science fiction and fantasy still remain largely heterosexual genres.