Monday, November 17, 2008

Joe Haldeman "Forever War": FACT reading group discussion

9 people attended a discussion of Joe Haldeman's "Forever War". Everybody in the group had read a book, most of them decades ago, and most of those people had not reread it recently.

Depressing, except for the love story



A few of them did not remember much about the book except that it was underwhelming. "For me there wasn't much "there" there, even though I had friends who died in the war," said a reader. Another reader, who generally doesn't enjoy war novels (with exception of "Ender's Game") didn't like this book because he happened to pick it up when he wanted to read something with the sense of wonder, but this was too depressing. He also saw no reason why the guy who survived the war should be the only one to do so, when he was nothing special.

Most people agreed that it was rather depressing. Some thought the only thing that saved this book was the main characters' happy ending. As a story of love that endured despite their being separated by space and time without much chance to get back together, it was uplifting. Even after decades of reading it, one reader still remembered a character's words: "I want to be your lover, but if I can't be your lover, I'll be your nurse", and thought there's no greater love than that.

An out-of-the-blue ending



The ending may have been satisfying in terms of certain individuals' fates, but in the global sense it was found to be logically unjustified, at least according to some readers. There is no satisfactory explanation of how the conflict was resolved: "oh, it was those clone things, you wouldn't understand it, the clones just worked it out." One reader also observed that the clever use of the bombs in the last battle would have been something any military group had gamed out. The protagonist wouldn't have to have that clever idea, because anybody would have figured it out long ago and ended the war.

Not just the ending was found problematic: some readers noticed several other plot twists that were poorly thought out. When the soldiers land on a Tauran planet, they run into telepathic natives that look like teddybears, who follow them around and fry their brains. The soldiers never found out what those creatures were or what part they played in the war. It's a proverbial gun on the mantelpiece that's supposed to fire but doesn't, and there are more of them in the book.

The book feels dated



Personally I found the whole book more than a bit dated, science and technology-wise, in the same way that many science fiction books are. They show a society that has unimaginably advanced technology, such as faster-than-light drive, yet the rest of its technology is stuck in the 1950s and worse. In the middle third of the book people plow the fields with manual plows. It is as if invention of FTL did not produce a whole slew of "byproduct" technologies that revolutionized huge swaths of industry. There's also some screwy thinking about economy. The war plunged the Earth into a global recession, yet people are reluctant to end the war because they think it's the only thing stimulating the economy?

Things "Forever War" got right



On the other hand, "Forever War" received praise for the things it did well. If the book was depressing, it was so for the right reasons, since it reflected accurately what goes on in the military. The protagonist gets drafted, trained, and sent to places without having a clue why he's being made to do all that. The absurdities of the military life are highlighted from the very beginning when the new soldiers, as soon as they get trained for low temperature work, are told that they're really going to a planet that's much hotter. Some people pointed out that's the standard operating procedure in the army. Similarly, the brief, meaningless appearance of telepathic bears in the story may not be an example of poor plotting, but something that makes perfect sense in a soldier's life. In the military you are transferred from place to place and meet a lot of people and see things you will never meet or see again, some readers explained. So it is with telepathic bears: the soldiers never got to find out what they were. From the brutal and extremely dangerous training the grunts are subjected to, to being forever torn from everyone they know and love, to the impossibility of integrating back into the society, the honest potrayal of the reality of war was acknowledged to be the strong suit of the book.

"Forever War" as an antithesis to Heinlein's worldview



So in general people thought the book was good enough, but some didn't think it was so good as to deserve both Hugo and Nebula awards. They were a bit puzzled why "Forever War" has a reputation as one of the most important science fiction novels ever (one reader said that people who don't read much SF list "Forever War" among one of the few science fiction books they've heard about, along with works by Asimov and Heinlein). In response to this, some group members reminded us about the political context in which "Forever War" first came out. At that time the society was polarized between those who supported the Vietnam war and those who opposed it. Science fiction writers and fandom were just as divided. "There were ads in Analog signed by people opposing the war, and ads signed by people in favor of the war. They were mostly not talking to each other. Fandom was as caught up in this as everything else. People saw this as a direct attack on Starship Troopers," said a reader. ""Forever War" was one of three novels that were direct responses to the worldview Heinlein had back then. For a lot of people this was fresh and counter to the prevailing tone of the SF, a whole new way to introduce downbeat fiction into SF. A lot of people were beginning to see the world more in that way, rather than the way they were socialized by Asimov and Heinlein, where service is good and the government will do all the good things for you."

One younger reader, though she could relate more to the current war in Iraq than to Vietnam, found this book relevant to today's situation. The part where the military command uses a code word on soldiers that turns off their brains, making them into killers, really resonated with her. She saw it as a parallel of what the army does to soldiers in our times: by not taking proper care of them psychologically, it allows them to commit atrocities against civilians.

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