09 March 2016

The Masterwork: The Best of Military Science Fiction-(Literature) The Forever War

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
Science fiction is stuffed to the gills with tales of very soft-serve FTL drive systems that allow our heroes and enemies to crisscross the vast interstellar distances in the space of a commercial break. However, the realities of lightspeed travel is rarely used in sci-fi, especially, in military science fiction. I was truly unaware of the horror of time dilation, and this book crystallized the pitfalls of fighting a war in deep space prefectly. At the time, this use of this real scienific phenomenon was rare and given the success and notoriety of The Forever War, it became an ambassador of the phenomenon to the sci-fi reading public along with Poul Anderson's 1970 classic Tau Zero. What is unique with regards to the use of time dilation in The Forever War is the novel using it in the context of an deep space war.

Emotional Realism
Isolation, despair,alienation, trauma, and love are all emotion handled within the pages of the novel, and each is given consideration with regards to the character and the situation. The Forever War is not a celebration of war and the crash of arms like other MSF novels, but an emotional realistic journey through a surreal conflict that separates the warfighters from each other and the world that they left. While it does tap into feelings that Haldeman and other veterans had from their time in Vietnam, it also rings true in the sci-fi context and the Eternal War setting. There is also a love story that begins in the assigned sexual partner roulette, and becomes the anchor of their surreal lives in the Eternal War. That relationship and how it is presented is one of the emotional cores of the novel and it is bittersweet, heartbreaking, and rewarding.

Stranger in a Strange Land via "Future Shock".
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
Experience alters your point of view, and the horrors and psychological stress of the war in Vietnam, altered Joe Haldeman's. The primary characters of the novel start off as innocents to the cruelty of war, and when the moment comes, the process of killing and the stress of combat weight heavily on them, as well as the people that they lost during the campaign. This remains an theme throughout the novel, and much like Platoon is the anti-war war film, The Forever War is a "anti-war military sci-fi novel". Its combat is not glamorous nor overdone, it is as real as a science fiction combat scenario can be. This set a different tone than Starship Troopers and a little later, Star Wars, and while these themes were present in other fiction and non-fiction works on war, it had never seen in sci-fi.

Putting it all Together and the Overall Story
The entire inventory of science fiction media is littered with high concept works attempting to mine a current event for mileage in a sci-fi story...like Star Trek. The Forever War does much more than retell elements of the Vietnam War in a futuristic setting, it puts it all of the elements together, forming a strong overall narrative. This future warfare novel is more than just battles and strategy, but it about the toll of war on the soldiers and how no soldier leaves the battlefield unwounded and unchanged. There is no glory in the victories, no macho chest pounding, the reasons for the war seem hollow and distant. While people read and reread Starship Troopers, it lacks an overall story, and seems more about the politics and political theory of the author more than the story itself and the characters. That is where The Forever War eclipses SST, it has a great story that ties it all together with ending that leaves the audience satisfied and on the verge of tears.

What Others say about The Forever War

Nathaniel Danes author of The Last Hero book series
"I believe The Forever War should be rated near or at the top of military scifi because it is far more than just great writing. The story is innovative and deep. It's more than battle after battle but dives into complex questions and explores human nature in a way many novels never dare go. It's the kind of book that makes you, even years after you've read it. It's the kind of work that inspires people to write their own novels or hooks them on the genre. Me included on both those counts."

William Gibson 
“To say that The Forever War is the best science fiction war novel ever written is to damn it with faint praise. It is, for all its techno-extrapolative brilliance, as fine and woundingly genuine a war story as any I've read.”

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 ShiningThe Dead ZoneThe 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...

The Movie...?!
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)
I first became real curious about this novel due to the graphic novel adaption. In the 1980's and 1990's, comic book shops carried a free newsletter called "the comic shop news". One of the copies I picked up during the late 1980's, teased the release of the graphic novel in this country by publisher NBM. While I would see it from time-to-time in comic book stores, I never became interested in picking it up until after I founded FWS in 2010, along with reading the novel poolside in the summer of the same year. The three volume graphic novel adaption of The Forever War was published by Belgium publisher Dupuis with spot-on art from Marvano. Originally published in 1988 in several languages including Dutch and French, the graphic novels would come over to this country in 1990 through noted independent graphic novel publisher NBM. Three volumes were published, and have become harder and harder to find over the years. FWS has all three thanks to a reader, Mile High Comics, and Lone Star Comics. FWS has published several blog articles on the graphic novels and if you are a fan of the novel, they are worth picking up, and they are a worthy visual adaption of the original novel. At the moment, NBM does not plan to re-release the graphic novels.

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
In 1959, Robert Heinlein would publish the founding classic of Military Science Fiction: Starship Troopers. To some people and critics, this automatically selects that book for the honor of being the best MSF novel. However, I think differently. While I recognize and celebrate the importance and impact of SST, it is not the best story, nor it is better written than The Forever War. To me, SST sets some of the stage for the iconic elements of MSF for decades to come, but it's overall story is weak, the characters are unimaginative, and the best part of the book that feels well-rounded and fleshed out is the opening raid on the Skinnies' homeworld. After that, SST descents into political theory, military jargon, and 1950's sensibilities....and it is kind of boring. While Old Man's War lacked some of the emotions and reality of The Forever War, SST lacks a great deal of basic storytelling and narrative. What there is lost in the political rhetoric and Heinlein's own philosophy. Other authors, like Texas native John Steakley, would use the basic core concept of SST and craft their own novel to complete the lost and broken elements of the 1959 novel.


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 Current St. Martin's Griffin Paperback Cover-Art 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...
After the Second World War, the Western world began to accept Eastern Martial Arts into their society and military. However, it would take pioneers like Bruce Lee to create an Martial Arts explosion in the West during the 1970's and 1980's. As the popularity grew, Martial Arts began to appear in science fiction. While creators were using established Martial Arts, some were developing Martial Arts for their sci-fi universe. In the next blogpost, FWS will be exploring and explaining the world of science fiction Martial Arts!

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  1. I can't believe I still haven't read The Forever War. It has been on my list for years, but I've never got around to buying a copy. Really want to get a hardcopy over a eBook, so that has slowed me down a bit, but still no excuse.

    Great post, and I look forward to the one on martial arts. I don't know how common fictional martial arts are, but two of my favourites are the Gun Kata from Equilibrium(movie) and a similar concept from the book Hegemony by Mark Kalina. In Equilibrium they used computers to analyse combat footage, finding the best possibles stances to use in a gunfight. In Hegemony there was a gun based martial art making use of bullet-time through cybernetics and drug use.

  2. Thanks for the kind words...and read the Forever War, it is quite good. FWS will be discussing Gun Kata and I will look up the fictional Martial Art in Hegemony...thanks for the tip!

  3. Awesome article William!
    For me- I like TFW cause of the little things… it clear that the author is a veteran and much of what he write about sounds too familiar. Give a little example: In Heaven planet the economy is based on inflated prices to drain the pockets of vacationing soldiers of the Eternal War. As a IDF soldier when training there were a merchants we called Gaslans (looters) who drive their beat up minivan to the training fields to sell Cola and ice cream at quadruple prices… such little similarities were a good touch.


  4. A little correction if you don't mind :). The Polaris 1996 cover art you described as Polish is in fact Czech. By the way your blog is awesome, keep up the good work.

  5. Awesome article, it was exceptionally helpful! I simply began in this and I'm becoming more acquainted with it better! Cheers, keep doing awesome! Cattleya Relief

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