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The title of this article refers, of course, to The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman, one of the greatest science fiction books of all time. I’m on the side of the majority (this time) here too, as it’s gained a massive readership ever since it first came out in 1974. It’s certainly one of my favorites, though I’m hardly an expert in the science fiction genre.
That being said, I’ve been quoting this book, thinking about it, pushing it into people’s hands, thinking about it some more, ever since I first read it.
It stays with you, colors and informs everything you read subsequently, and really does change the way you think. It’s one of those powerfully affecting books that gets talked about, argued about, debated, and ultimately, remembered, and the sequel, Forever Free, is a worthy one.
The first book opens with Earth engaged in an interstellar war with a race called the Taurans, though no one is quite able to say how the war started or why it continues to be fought. Haldeman uses the concept of “time dilation” to address the real-life psychic distress and alienation waiting for American soldiers coming from Vietnam in the 1960’s as they realized that they weren’t welcome home, and that they didn’t recognize their own country anymore even if they were welcome.
Okay, okay, back up. What’s time dilation???
As a philosophy major (shut up haha), I think I can answer this in a way that everyone can understand:
I’m not a physicist or anything, but my understanding is that time speeds up the closer one gets to the speed of light, although for anyone traveling within any spacecraft that’s going that fast, time ticks away normally.
So, for example, if you’re traveling at 1/30th the speed of light (not real calculations, just an example), you would experience one hour as one hour, but when you slowed down, you would see that everyone on, say, Earth, had aged five hours for every one hour you had been away. And then as you get closer to the speed of light, you’d have ridiculous situations where you would still experience that same hour as one hour, but everyone on Earth would have aged by hundreds of years. I know, it’s wild. But true!
You could return to Earth and be shocked to discover that your twin brother was now decades older than you! In fact, it would be particularly shocking if you didn’t even realize that you had a twin brother.
Anyway, I’m not alone in this by any means, but I think that’s a brilliant angle from which to take on the disastrous mental health externalities of something like the Vietnam War, of which Haldeman was himself a veteran. He’s writing from devastating personal experience here, and that’s part of what makes his books so powerful.
I won’t spoil anything for you, but the Forever War is one of the saddest books I’ve ever read, despite the fact that it also reads like an action movie. I’m surprised it isn’t one, actually.
(Wait — I just checked. The movie is in development, actually! Channing Tatum is attached to the film so far…)
Forever Free, the sequel, has a really weird ending, and like I said, I won’t spoil anything for you. I’m just going to share a few quotes and passages from the book, and you can decide whether it’s something you want to add to your reading list.
If I can bring you to the point where you’re curious enough about the book to check it out, then I’ve done my job.
Anyway, The Forever War is an absolute classic, but Forever Free goes off in a totally different direction. It’s not better or worse, it’s just…different.
There’s a random, unexplainable event that reconstitutes the laws of physics, they meet the Creator of the universe, mount a daring escape from their planetary prison — yeah, it’s wild.
Ahead are some of the best non-spoiler quotes, and remember that you can watch more great book reviews on my YouTube channel as well. For every new subscriber to the channel, I donate $1 to the children’s educational charity First Book.
“Gods make war to step men from becoming gods. Without the beat of drums to stop our ears, what heaven we could make of Earth!”
-Forever Free, by Joe Haldeman
Alright, lock and load:
The first quote I want to share reminded me of another excellent book I once read, called Shakespeare Saved My Life, by Laura Bates, about a woman who started a Shakespeare study-group inside one of the toughest prisons in Indiana.
“We’re in jail, Charlie. We can’t see the bars because they’re over the horizon.”
-Forever Free, by Joe Haldeman
In Forever Free, we encounter our — somewhat aged — main characters from The Forever War, who, having never returned to Earth, settled on a remote planet technically outside the jurisdiction of Earth, but where they are, in fact, prisoners.
They need to get permission to leave from both Earth AND their former enemies, the Taurans, both of whom have no real incentive to let them leave in the first place.
While there are no bars — it’s a farming planet, primarily — there may as well be bars, since everyone knows that they will be stopped by force if they try to leave. Hence, the “bars” being over the horizon.
In Shakespeare Saved My Life, one of the most hardened convicts, Larry Newton (who turns into a tragic yet incisive Shakespeare scholar in his own right), notes that life just “goes by so fast. Everyone overlooks enjoying it. They just put themselves in so many prisons.”
Freedom versus imprisonment, free will up against a deterministic universe devoid of agency and opportunities to express genuine freedom is a theme operating just underneath this story, and in The Forever War, Haldeman revolts against a military command that proved time and again that Haldeman’s future was expendable to them.
But Haldeman can also be quite funny, especially in a sort of cynical, ironic, sardonic way. Here’s a quote from when they finally manage to escape (near the beginning of the book) and head out toward their new planetary home:
“Less than an hour into the flight, Diana had to treat her first broken bone, when Ami — who had lived for months in zero-gee — instinctively tried to float down a staircase.”
That would absolutely be me, by the way. We all have that one friend who would forget that gravity is a thing and that flotation only exists in zero gravity!
Then there’s this:
“So the aquaculture pools would be their workplace, rather than a forbidden ‘attractive nuisance.’ I’d never heard of that phrase until Cat used it. Describes some people well.”
Attractive nuisance. I’m going to start using that one. Haldeman can be incredibly funny sometimes, too, even though his science fiction is hardly meant to be “comedy.” His fiction often comes from a deep anger and a disorienting confusion after having been used by forces more powerful than he as an individual growing up in the era of Vietnam. But this made me laugh:
“I could reach through and unlatch the window, and it swung out to make a large, if inconvenient, portal. The sheriff and Charlie sort of heaved me through it, and then we pushed and pulled until we were all inside. Then I realized I could have gone around and unlocked the door.”
“Shall we leave by the window, or the door?”
At this point, I’m worried that those who haven’t read The Forever War won’t know — or care — what’s going on, so rather than go on and on about characters you may not have read about yet, I’ll wrap this up. This one quote though can be read and appreciated out of context, however:
‘You know,’ he said, ‘this looks like the result of some ideal weapon. Kills all the people and leaves all the things untouched.’
‘They had one like that back in the twentieth,’ I said. ‘The neutron bomb.’
‘It made their bodies disappear?’
‘No, you had to take care of that part yourself. Actually, I guess it would preserve bodies for a while, by irradiating them. It was never used.’
‘Really? You’d think every police department would have one.’
Charlie laughed. ‘It would simplify things. They were designed to kill whole cities.’
‘Whole cities of humans?’ He shook his head. ‘And you think we’re strange.’
-Forever Free, by Joe Haldeman
Ahead, There Be Spoilers!
“There are all kinds of futures. Else why bother to experiment?”
-Forever Free, by Joe Haldeman
There’s almost literally nothing else I can tell you about this book without giving away major plot points, and I REALLY want you to read it. So I have to leave some mystery. But, thankfully, so does Haldeman, as we get to learn a bit more about his view of the universe, and some of the questions he and his characters have about the ultimate nature of that universe.
Case in point, the main characters’ discussion with the Creator of the universe towards the end of Forever Free:
“‘We see things like a line, a line of cause and effect. But you see millions of lines on your table.’
‘An infinity of lines.’
‘Okay. Is there anything else in the universe besides your table?’ He smiled. ‘Are there other tables? Is there a room?’
‘There are other tables. If they’re in a room, I’ve never seen the walls.’”
I will keep waiting patiently for you to read The Forever War, and I won’t push you to read Forever Free, but I don’t think you’ll be able to stop yourself after first becoming acquainted with Haldeman’s humanism, his heart, his humor, and his cosmology.
There’s just so much here to ponder, obsess over, enjoy and remember, and while no sequel could possibly live up to what The Forever War became to me, Forever Free is a more than worthy denouement. But it’s more than that. It’s what you just need to read when an author hasn’t given you enough of the characters you’ve come to care about and admire in the first book, and when you demand to know more about where they’re headed and what they’re going to do when they get there.
All the best,
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