The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I didn’t intend on giving it 5 stars until I read some of the other reviews and saw what these absolute dumbs are complaining about.
Haldeman wrote about a ridiculous war with an alien species that lasted hundreds of years, but that was the setting, not the story. The social programming, the doomed attempts of the individual to resist conformity, the nowhere to run and no means of escape, the parasitism and violence that grew from collectivism, and the inevitable divorce from humanity to which all these things contributed, that was the story. Mandela’s experience seemed repetitive and cyclical because it was. That was the point. Every few hundred years, the bureaucrats sank their claws in a little deeper, and things became a little more bloodless.
The shifting sexuality subplot was a nice touch, though a bit taboo in the present climate if the chiding white girls with their 200-like “um, I just think the homophobia was kind of icky?” reviews are any indication. The idea is that norms can be steered by propagandists. Any norms, no matter how deeply rooted or ostensibly innate.
The whole shebang is a cautionary tale against government overreach and, more opaquely, the military industrial complex, played out like a less tongue-in-cheek Catch 22, but in space. The happy ending felt a little rushed, but it was nice that my mans finally caught a break, considering the shit he put up with for half a millenium.
Mandela is a bright guy, so the whole book has a tone of gentle mockery as he describes the back-asswards way the Powers That Be are trying to maintain the world. He’s initially recruited into the Space Force by an arbitrary government fiat drafting people with 150 IQs and athletic prowess on the supposition that the “best and brightest” could better defend against the alien onslaught that we’re picking a fight with, which is ruling class logic if ever I’d heard it. He comes back to earth and finds himself in a communofascist hellscape where UBI made money worthless and now everyone’s a heavily armed criminal. He and his girlfriend try to live their lives on their collective military largesse, but the world is too broken, and soon all their loved ones are dead, hers from raiders, his from bureaucracy. They try their luck on the moon and it doesn’t go much better. They wind up re-enlisting and become amputees, then get sent to Heaven, which is the nicest allegory for a rehab facility/psych ward I’ve ever read. They love their time there, but the spectre of returning to the real world and their military service is hanging over their heads, and even though the military pinky-swears they won’t be separated, they’re immediately separated. Mary Kay stays on Heaven, and Mandela gets shipped to another stargate; the jump causes a 200-year gap, and he begrudgingly accepts that she’s dead and his universe is pretty much empty.
Mandela is promoted to upper brass. He gets sent to active combat zones and watches more kids die, either from the rapidly accelerating technological arms race that totally changes shape each time he comes out of another century-long relativistic stargate jump, or from avoidable accidents caused by some higher-up giving orders they didn’t fully understand. No one trusts him because the zeitgeist has changed and everyone is gay now, while he remains just your average schmuck from 1994. Also, they decant babies like in Brave New World. They call Mandela mean names, but it’s okay. He’s already dead inside.
Another active conflict with the alien force resulting in most of his platoon getting annihilated, and he makes the jump back to earth, another few hundred years. He gets there and Earth is now a hive-mind consciousness of genetically identical clones, sort of like that episode of Adventure Time with Finn’s mom. The hive mind tells him that the war is over, and was only started due to miscommunication. Whoops! There are a bunch of other planets in the galaxy to choose from now, and they all run different rule systems; he’s “a free man” now and welcome to do whatever.
He doesn’t wanna do anything, though. What’s left? Then he cracks open his military record and finds a dusty old note from Mary Kay that says she’s been driving around the intergalactic block for the past three years, doing a 10-year jump every month and waiting for him to come back from the edge of the universe like Fry’s dog in front of Panucci’s Pizza. She’s sequestered in a hetero holdout called Middle Finger, and it’s still standing.
“Hot damn!” says Mandela. “Purpose!”
He chugs along to the secret straight enclave and the epilogue is him knocking up his 500-year-old girlfriend. Roll credits.
It rings mostly of lamentation for the plight of non-joiners, since joiners are eventually and invariably consumed by the machines they want to be part of. I don’t think it was a coincidence that his name was Mandela. He was innocent, but imprisoned by the circumstances of his life, passed down by these faceless arbiters that were so vague as to never had been conceptualized beyond “up the chain”. He wanted freedom, but didn’t know what freedom was, right up until the whole big bastard imploded and the new gods told him “go do whatever you want”. And what he wanted was to live on the cheekily named Middle Finger, a modernized caricature of traditionalism in a pocket of the universe that time forgot. It’s like he eventually decided to go be Amish.
But you know what? Spend some time in the Philadelphia subway at rush hour, then tell me how bad the Amish have it.
It was an incredibly intelligent, well-written, thoughtful book. I’m headed for the sequel next.
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The Forever War by Joe Haldeman