When we think of the Vietnam War, we get disillusionment, alienation, cynicism, and a sense of detachment between leaders and their people. Joseph Haldeman’s science fiction novel, The Forever War, captures all those sentiments perfectly, albeit with an unusual twist.
He puts Vietnam in outer space. And instead of crossing thousands of miles, his soldiers cross thousands of light-years,but because of the relativistic effects of space travel, they are traveling through time itself.
Sci-fi readers will find some familiar trappings in this story: futuristic soldiers sent to battle an enigmatic alien menace, firing lasers and being sealed up in massive starships blazing through the cosmos. But at the heart of this story is time dilation, the idea that our perception of time changes as we change velocity.
What becomes a two-year tour for the soldiers appears as a decade for their loved ones on Earth. It is not only culture shock that awaits the veterans, but future shock as well. As their families and friends move on, and their world changes far beyond their comprehension, soldiers like William Mandella and Marygay Potter can only find meaning in the war against the inhuman Taurans.
Haldeman deserves a lot of praise for what he achieves in this story. He is able to do what many science fiction writers have struggled with–his story illustrates its central concept without having to sacrifice its quality. We not only see the effects of time dilation, but how space travel can change our culture and politics, how it can effect the very nature of warfare, and how two people can try to pursue romance despite existing in different timelines.
I recommend this story on many merits, but mainly for its success in honoring an Idea while remaining an unabashedly Good Story.
Bibliography: Haldeman, Joseph. The Forever War. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1974.