Profundities of isolation and dislocation

I've had the longest fascination about war and the military lifestyle whether in historical books or works of fiction in general. There's just something deeply stirring about men and women giving up their lives in service of country or a government system even when that kind of loyalty demands death, destruction and bitter endings. I have great respect and admiration for this kind of people even if those things are mixed with pity and sadness as well. My enjoyment for reading, watching and learning about wars throughout histories is a double-edged one; on one hand, it does break my heart to know about such fragile and empty lives being sacrificed as people in such compromising positions have to face the sharpest consequences. On the other, I often view the bloodshed and deaths during war-times (fictional or not) to be the most thrilling and exciting stories ever told. To have literature grant me access and safe passage inside the heads of the people who were part of it, and travel the dystopic landscapes of such times will always be the most fruitful of my reading experiences.

"This is really a novel about coping back to regular life after the thrills and traumas of conflict--and finding that you have become alien. If you want to tell a story about war, you need to find a way of articulating a profundity of alienation, a depth of strangeness and dislocation."
Joe Haldeman's science fiction novel The Forever War was not quite what I was expecting and definitely belongs to the scarcity of books that were able to surprise me in both enlightening and despairing of ways right after finishing them. It tackled some themes concerning sexuality in a manner that I still wasn't sure how to feel about even at this moment, and it fulfilled my earnest desire to read warfare in both its cold and exacting nature and its terrible, malicious form. I felt entirely full on these aspects of storytelling because Joe Haldeman's experiences in the Vietnam War (which was partly an inspiration for this story) truly do come alive for this grand novel, and were contextualized with such an aching retrospection and an uncannily sharp-edged clarity infused with a wicked sense of gallows humor. This was a story about war and its aftermath and earth-shattering effects on cultures and societies from someone who genuinely knows what a battlefield looks, feels and smells like firsthand which makes the physical and psychological descriptions of the intergalactic and planetary battle scenes here quite haunting. The horrors depicted are uncomfortably clinical at times too.

What was so notably interesting about The Forever War is its science jargon concerning time dilation during space travel which meant that the soldiers, who fight wars against the alien lifeforms they consider enemies named Taurans, are bound to age in a shockingly slow pace. And this is where the central conflict and existential mediation of the book delve deeply about. Told in the first-person perspective of William Mandella, The Forever War is not just a story about war and death or the dystopic concepts of harmony, progress and social change that have always been essential to any grim science fiction novel. The Forever War is foremost about isolation from humanity in the most visceral level of unfamiliarity that one tends to become alien even to himself. In his service as a war veteran and on-and-off-and-on again soldier on duty, Mandella has lived an almost immortal life where he could stay in a certain planet for five months but come back to earth a century later. This, of course, is a disconcerting transition, particularly when the world that you know changes and destroys itself in order to create a new cultural identity and status quo right before your very eyes and you have no other choice but to adjust to these abrupt changes.

As exciting and wonderfully compelling the moments of Mandella being a soldier were, it's actually the daily grind of his civilian life post-war that provides this novel with its beating, bleeding heart along with all the messy and intricate parts. One of the shift in societal values in Earth is the normalcy of homosexuality and outright abolishment of heterosexuality (which eventually softened in another decade or so where now heterosexuality can be 'reformed' or 'cured'). Procreation between man and woman is now seen as a wasteful activity and biological harvesting is the more prevalent practice so homosexual couplings are encouraged so the population is kept under control as well as the eugenics that come along with it. It's an idea and plotline that has made me shiver. I identify as a queer woman though I'm not very political about it, or at all, honestly. I wasn't offended or anything like that because I always contextualize the times a book was written in before accusing the material to be hate-mongering or promoting discriminatory propaganda.

True, I found the portrayal of homosexuality in this book as slightly offhanded and bizarre because the reversal of what was considered taboo, sexuality-wise, did not sit well with me, though I understand the point Haldeman is trying to get across by switching the roles. Now, I don't think this novel is trying to promote either sexuality but it does make an interesting argument concerning societal attitudes and how much they can be changed decades or centuries from now. Fortunately enough, I believe the generation of today is taking a more positive step forward in accepting homosexuality and other gender-specifics identifications outside what is considered 'traditional'. But The Forever War is a cautionary tale on how a wrong step does lead to a misdirection where an exclusion of one race, sexuality, etc. does in fact only reinforce damaging and harmful (if not utterly barbaric) way of thinking. Much like how the homosexual society of Haldeman's creation is now the oppressor of a minority it perceives to be sinful or unnatural.

There may be plenty of discussions to be had on that aspect of the novel (and I'm sure other people online and in GR have talked about it too), and it's certainly the one that has struck a chord in me.

In spite of that polarizing theme, this novel has a few other ways to engage anyone who enjoys science fiction in its most eye-opening, radical and unexpectedly humorous and moving of moments. William Mandella's crisis concerning the age-generation gap between him and the platoons he must handle and work alongside with had been an interesting development to watch, as well as his bittersweet relationship with Margay Potter, yet another soldier who is his only connection to a world that was lost to him for good, which provides the book with so much needed warmth and insight. 

I also loved the fact that, indirectly, this book also cautions us against the concept, if not the pursuit of some us, for 'immortality' and our rather stupid desire to acquire. Life is only precious because it is supposed to be short. We are supposed to expire. But someone of Mandella's position is not allowed to live a brief yet fulfilled life but rather just exist by default, suspended in a sort of personal limbo of repetitive cycles because he can never be released from active duty as long as humanity keeps fighting its monsters, real or imaginary. This was really well-done in the book; Haldeman has given us a harrowing depiction of Mandella's struggle to fit in in an ever-changing world that always seem to leave him behind as he's stuck in a continuous loop of soul-crushing military service with little to no hope for a normal, well-balanced life.

The Forever War is a highly sophisticated science fiction novel that happens to be only the first book of a series. Its writing is purposeful and meditative, filled with infectious moment of grief, action, philosophical dimensions, and, above all else, one man's tireless quest for a loving life against the suffocating immensity of deaths around him. Now I won't have time to read the next installment this year or the next but I am definitely going to follow up on it once I set up a new reading roster.



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