In the blurb and foreword there is a lot said about the book’s background as a commentary on the Vietnam War, a link that was probably much more obvious 40 years ago. A lot has happened since and now we can ignore the political commentary and enjoy the book for what it really is – an excellent sci-fi story.
I have read a number of books based around interstellar conflict, but none as thought provoking as The Forever War. The story starts in the mid-1990s (but could actually be any time in the near future) when mankind comes face to face with an alien race and immediately goes to war.
Relativistic physics means that time for the troops, travelling through wormholes and space at near light speed, passes much more slowly than it does back home. For those sent to fight in the war, tens or even hundreds of years can pass between return trips to Earth. Not only do these troops find themselves alone as their families and friends have moved on or died, but also alienated from a world they no longer recognise. Social and political changes mean that they no longer fit in (this I think is the Vietnam commentary). And the longer they spend as part of the Earth’s military, the more alienated they become.
The book follows the story of one man, William Mandela, as he progresses through the ranks of the United Nations military following his conscription. Drafted after finishing University, William is forced into a life he didn’t want and is ill equipped to handle. Sustaining any kind of relationship is almost impossible as separation inevitably means that people do not meet up again – their timelines become divided.
The conflicts themselves are different from other books or films. Missiles take weeks to reach their targets, communication with any form of command is almost impossible. Even travelling through wormholes, the time it takes to travel between locations is measured in months rather than hours. The battles portrayed in the book are messy ground affairs.
There are some very interesting though not wholly original ideas about how mankind evolves over the thousand years that pass on Earth. But it is the story of the people behind the conflict that is the most impressive. The use of relativity to real science makes this book not only believable, but quite original. Science fiction is much better when it avoids the use of “instant” space travel. Like the original settlers who traveled across America, those who venture into the unknown expanses of space must also be prepared to leave everything they know behind them if the are to reach their goal.
It is an insightful, believable and thoroughly enjoyable book.