In 1974, Joe Haldeman, armed with his bachelors in Physics and Astronomy along with his experiences in the Vietnam War, would craft a military science fiction tale of UNEF soldier William Mendella. This book, The Forever War, would go on to win every major award and prize, rocketing Joe Haldeman into the realm of sci-fi literature. Since its original publication, The Forever War would be re-edited, translated into every major language, and be adapted into various forms, including an major studio film has been in the works since 2008 and the effort seems to be active. The book's legacy is being hailed has the best military science fiction book of all time and it has been a source of inspiration for decades. In this installment of the continuing Masterworks series, we will explore and explain why Joe Haldeman's The Forever War is the best literary military science fiction work. A word of caution: this blog article contains spoilers on key moments of the book. Read at your own risk!
Why is The Forever War the Best Military Sci-Fi Book?
The use of Time Dilation in a Space Conflict Setting
One of the strongest elements of the novel, is how the author demonstrates the separation between the military and the civilian worlds. The author used his experience in Vietnam during 1967 to write The Forever War, Mr. Haldeman was using an sci-fi metaphor and real physics to explain the concept that no soldier can escape the battlefield without trauma, as much as any astronaut cannot escape the laws of physics. When the soldiers returned home after their service in southeast Asia, they came back to a world and society altered by their war and the politics involved. Unfairly, the soldiers were blamed for the horrors of Vietnam, separating them from the civilian world. As much as William and Marygay come home to an economy run by calories and limited jobs, or that everyone is homosexual, the soldiers returning home were greeted by the counterculture movements brought on by the Vietnam War. This world of hippies, free love, and anti-war protests were as alien as mandatory homosexuality and clones. While this is a familiar and often used trope of science fiction, it is done with an expert fashion that serves as an excellent plot device and parable for us non-military folks. Another use of the future shock element was UNEF soldiers running into aliens from the future with improved technology. This is an exciting and unique use of time dilation applied to a future war scenario.
The Horrors of Killing and Combat
Putting it all Together and the Overall Story
What Others say about The Forever War
Nathaniel Danes author of The Last Hero book series
Junot Diaz, Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
“Perhaps the most important war novel written since Vietnam . . . Haldeman, a veteran, is a flat-out visionary . . . and protagonist William Mandella's attempt to survive and remain human in the face of an absurd almost endless war is harrowing hilarious heartbreaking and true . . . like all the best works of literature THE FOREVER WAR takes you apart and then, before you can turn that last page, puts you back together: better, wiser, more human. Simply extraordinary.”
Stephen King, author of The Shining, The Dead Zone, The Stand
“If there was a Fort Knox for Science Fiction writers, we'd have to lock Joe Haldeman up.”
Greg Bear, author of Moving Mars, Eon, The Forge of God
“FOREVER WAR is brilliant--one of the most influential war novels of our time. That it happens to be set in the future only broadens and enhances its message.” —
The Forever War in other Forms and Media
The 1983 Boardgame
During the 1980's heyday of tabletop wargaming, Mayfair Gaming Inc produced an one-to-six player wargame using the scenarios found in the novel. This hex-and-counter boardgame was devoted to squad combat on airless portal planets with some being close to Hoth. One of the interesting things packaged with the boardgame was an article by Mr. Haldeman over the tactics and weaponry of The Forever War universe called "A Million Wars". This game fulfilled some of my wishes of seeing more of the combat during the Eternal War with APS donning humans and the Taurans. There is little information on this 1980's game, and I've seen a few times during the 1980's in the expansive RPG section of my local Tulsa comic book store, Starbase 21. One of the cool elements of the game involves a major plot-point of the novel: future shock. During the book, human and alien forces encounter each at different technological levels due to time dilation. This elements is incorporated into the gameplay, but I've been unable to understand how. I guess that player(s) encounter enemy forces at various levels of military technology. Most blurs I have come across say that the game is half-baked and the cover-art is odd...space knights, I guess?
The 1983 Stageplay
One of the least known adaptations of the novel was the Organic Theater's stage play and it story shrouded in mystery. In the beginning of the 1980's director Stuart Gordon had been hired by Chicago Pubic Broadcast Station (PBS) to adapt the novel into lavish highly-fund short mini-series, when PBS funding dried in early stage of production Mr. Gordon asked Haldeman to rewrite the intended last episode in the series into a live stage play. Other than dipping his toes in the TV industry, Gordon was also the owner & director of Organic Theater in Chicago. Haldeman accept the challenge and in October 18th 1983 the Forever War stage play aired. The show runs for only six weeks and ended without leaving a bloody trace! Since the entire lifespan of the show was in the pre-internet dark days the available information about this unique and unorthodox experiment was non-exist … but not for long! In the very near future FWS will air a great show of its own – MSF oddities: The Forever War Theater Adaptation. Take your seats ladies & gentleman; the curtain will be raise in a moment...
After Starship Troopers was made into a major Hollywood film in 1997, it was believed that The Forever War would be next. Fans of the book became excited when it was announced in October of 2008 that none other than Ridley "God" Scott was going to helm the major motion picture adaptation of the iconic 1974 novel. After the release of military sci-fi film Avatar, Ridley stated that his Forever War would be films in 3D as well. In 2010, it came out that the 4th draft of the script was being penned after the first had been written by BLADE RUNNER writer David Peoples. Never a good sign. In May of 2014, author Joe Haldeman said that the film was on draft number seven and it was still no closer to seeing reality. In May of 2015, Ridley Scott's rights lapsed and Warner Brothers bought the rights, putting writer Jon Spaihts in charge of the script and producing with Channing Tatum in the starring role as William Mandella. As of the writing of this blogpost in March of 2016, there is STILL no word on a release date or if the production as moved forwards besides yet another script. This begs the question, will we ever see The Forever War on the silver screen?
The Graphic Novel (1988 and 1990)
Honorable Mentions and Runners' Up
The Old Man's War by John Scalzi
In my opinion, John Scalzi's 2005 The Old Man's War is the second best military sci-fi novel of all time, and it was by the slimmest margins that The Forever War was chosen over this iconic novel of future war waged by senior citizens. That begs the question of why I chose The Forever War over The Old Man's War? This was not easy, and Old Man's War NOT being chosen caused me to be deeply vexed. There was something so unique about The Forever War and its presentation of deep space warfare that it altered military science fiction from one of glorious conquests in outer space to one of the grim realities of warfare, no matter the century. While Old Man's War is grim, violent, and laced with brutal combat scenes, the journey of William Mandella and Marygay Potter was so real and human, that it leaves you haunted and numb to the normal presentation of combat and heroic deeds in mass media. In the positive side, over all, the Old Man's War universe is stronger than The Forever War. In that novel, the Eternal War begins and ends at the conclusion of the book, making a sequel difficult. That is not true of the Old Man's War, which has spawned no less than four sequels to the original book, each being good in its own right. As I said, this was a very hard choice.
Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein
FWS Friend Derek Restivo's essay and review of The Forever War
The Various Cover Art Gallery of The Forever War
The First Edition Hardcover Release 1974
The "Robin Williams in a funny hat" 1991 Avon Release by Dorion Vallejo
The Recorded Books Audiobook 2008 Release
The Jim Burns Limited Edition Centipede Press 2013(?) Release
The 2003 Eos Unabridged Release (This is the copy I have)
The Ridan eBook Cover Art 2012 Release
The Leatherbound Easton Press 1988 Release
The Orbit 1976 Release by Patrick Woodroffe
The AvoNova 1991 Release by Jean Pierre Targete
The SFBC 50th Anniversary May of 2005 Release
The SF Masterworks 1999-2001 Release
The 2004 SF Masterworks Release by Chris Moore (this features the character of Marygay Potter)
The Ballantine Books 1976 Release by Murray Tinkelman
The Elmar 1978 Release in Dutch
The 1985 Hayakawa Publishing Release in Japanese (one of my favorites!)
The J'AI LU 2001 Release in French
The Mondadori 2003 Release in Italian
The Polaris 1996 Release in Polish
Next Time on FWS...
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