Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Forever War

When first contact is made with a extraterrestrial intelligent species in the form of the kidnapping of a colonizing ship, Man replies by starting a millennium-long war with this new species he didn’t even know about a few years ago. The colonies on other worlds are now guarded, and not by any other soldier: the finest elite have been chosen, all with IQ higher than 150 and with exceptionnal bodies.

Private William Mandela, son of two hippies and pursuing a degree in physics when he is recruited, is one of the first foot-soldiers to really see what these Tauran people really look like in an offensive against one of their colony planets. Traveling at near-light speed and voyaging through collapsars, stars who serve as portals between each other, Private Mandela comes home to a mother and brother twenty years older than when he left them because of time dilation.

Mandela goes back to fight the enemy, only aging a few months at a time as earth ages decades. Coming back to a world he no longer knows and is more and more foreign to him, he quickly climbs up in the military hierarchy with his loved one, Marygay Potter.

The rather unappealing cover of this book at first frustrated me (I had the earliest version of the book in my grasp, a picture of the horrible monochrome cover can be found here.)

Because of its rather old age (1974 is old for me) and the bland cover artwork, I was expecting a hardly digestible piece of science fiction. But I learned never to judge a book by its cover, for in the first few sentences of this novel I was hooked. With witty comments and just enough vulgarity, the writing style amazes me. It is so much better than I ever would have expected. In fact, I want to go back for more by this excellent science fiction author.

Of course, man against alien is a big subject in science fiction. I understand that such a war has been done, done again, and done once too much, but the way this book treats the story makes it much better than most. Spaced over 1143 years, earth time, it rapidly shows the evolution of mankind in spite of Mandela’s seemingly perpetual youth, and his major adaptation difficulties. Hence, he returns to the army every time he has shore leave, in order to run away from this society that has alienated him. It is interesting how mankind evolved in order to control the blooming population, and how it is contained.

The characters of this book all have their own personality, even though they are developed very little (other than Mandela, of course). Sadly, some of them are even quite cliché. The beautiful, soft-hearted biologist and loving, loyal girlfriend, known here under the name of Marygay Potter, is quite a recognizable stereotype. But other characters, such as Charles, another veteran, make up for it from their more unconventional self. Android from waist up, Charles doesn’t pity his condition or cry over his fate continually. Luckily, even though some characters fall into categories, there is no Mary-Sue alert to be rang here. None is invulnerable (both Marygay and William are wounded in an important battle) and come out unhurt from battle, none are seducers. None of that. They are as realistic as real people.

As I said earlier, the story itself can seem, at first, quite unoriginal. But the approach, through a 1143 year conflict, is very original. The evolution of mankind, too, is different from other approaches. No end of the world scenarios, no starving populations, no environmental catastrophe. Man seems to get along with his planet quite well, thank you very much. And the final solution, to the absolute, perfect man, is, while predicable when considering the setting, rather innovative.

There are no major cliff hangers, anywhere in the book, if not the evolution of man and of the war. It all goes on very smoothly, nicely, and chapters are concluded. This may be a weaker point. To make up for this, though, the pace is quick, and the author doesn’t linger on small details. It is a very straight-forward book, with no detours to visit a random mailman’s great uncle’s cat’s best friend’s master’s cousin-in-law.

Overall, I think this was an excellent book. Well written, well structured, with characters easy to love. It did have quite complicated physic notions, though, making it difficult to understand sometimes, when there are no explanations to help the reader. It is also filled with army slang and terms, which also make it hardly understandable at times. It’s a quick read, and one that will not be forgotten. It is definitely one of my favourite books of all time; right up there with classics such as Asimov’s I, Robot and Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. Then again, I guess I should issue a warning: have an open mind when you pick up this book, and please don’t tell me the word f*ck bothers you.


The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
Rating : 8/10

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