The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

Anthony G Williams

Apr 18, 2007
This Hugo and Nebula award-winning story of interstellar warfare was first published in book form in 1974, but in a different version from the one the author intended. It originally appeared in serialised form in Analog magazine but one of the sections was felt by the book publishers to be too downbeat, so was changed. Not until 1991 was the book published with the excised section reinstated, and this is the version being reviewed here.

The Forever War is set in an alternate world, apparently similar to our own up to the Vietnam War (experience of which prompted Haldeman to write this book) then diverging rather radically to include interstellar space travel by the 1990s. However, the early explorers found themselves fighting the Taurans, an alien race very loosely humanoid in form. William Mandella is a college graduate drafted to fight in the war, and this first-person story follows his perilous and brutal combat career from one star system to another.

Haldeman emphasises the relativistic effects, which mean that a journey lasting only a few months in subjective time can result in a return to Earth decades or even centuries later. This not only means that the soldiers become increasingly cut off from Earth, where conditions change radically on each visit, but that weapons and other technology evolve considerably while they are travelling. It also means that if two lovers are posted to different star systems, they will never meet again.

I first read this about a decade ago, and recall admiring it more than I liked it. That's still the case, simply because the hero's situation is so grim and gloomy throughout. The combat casualty rate is frighteningly high, and society on Earth changes to become as dystopian as you are likely to find. Almost all of this book is very good indeed, the author's war experience providing a gritty ring of truth, emphasised by the laconic and cynical writing style, but for me it was spoilt a little by a rather bizarre ending which drifts more towards fantasy. The author suggests that clones would not only have perfect communication but would effectively have only one shared mind; a moment's thought would have revealed that identical twins (who are effectively clones), while often very close, are separate individuals. Despite this, The Forever War merits its awards and its place on the SFF Shelf of Fame; it is a true classic. But I felt a strong need to read something light and upbeat after finishing it.

Scifi fan

Well-Known Member
Oct 20, 2008
It's a classic, and many feel it's a response to Starship Troopers, though Haldeman denied that he had that in mind. I liked it, and I felt it was a sardonic comment on human society.


Non Bio
Staff member
Jan 5, 2001
Way on Down South, London Town
My take on it was that the soldiers were giving up everything; in reality, their whole lives - family, friends and everything they knew - to return to an Earth that was increasingly so different from the one they left that they didn't know why they were fighting for it at all, yet they went back again because the War was more real to them. And you can see a clear parallel, not just with Vietnam, but with soldiers in any War. That, I thought, was extremely clever and very poignant. Often Science Fiction can make a point that can't easily be made any other way, and this is a case.

Similar threads