The Forever War

The Forever War came recommended by one of my favourite columnist/bloggers, Ta-Nehsi Coates. I’ve loved a lot of TNC’s own writing; so I was surprised by how disappointed I was by this recommendation. The Forever War tells the story of a foot soldier in the United Nations Expeditionary Force as it battles with aliens. The writing itself didn’t grab me much, the hard sci-fi was lost on me, and there were several things that I thought were at best (when charitably interpreted) well meaning but products of their time, and otherwise just homophobic/sexist.

The Forever War bookmark

The writing itself is … well, it plods along. Granted, it’s not difficult reading – there’s nothing that’ll make you pause for more than a second or two. But I never really felt a sense of narrative tension, of wondering what would happen next, and there were whole sections that felt as though you’re reading that badly written blog where someone tells you about the bed sheets in their holiday hotel room. I hadn’t thought about this too explicitly before, but I suppose a part of it is that I think everything in a book should serve a purpose – and that purpose can be creating mood and atmosphere, but if it doesn’t do that, advance the plot, help us understand a character, or do something else useful, then you’re wasting the readers’ time. Another problem for me in this area was that none of the characters (gay/straight, male/female) felt particularly well developed – in fact I’d have trouble describing them for you, apart from the narrative role they filled in the novel (protagonist, protagonist’s lover, etc.)

The hard sci-fi is there; but I think it’d take a different reader (I haven’t studied any physics since year eleven, so that’s all lost on me) to enjoy that. There are only two concepts that I remember being actually important to the plot. One is the different experience of time that different speeds give (if you travel to a distant galaxy and back, Earth will age more than you will), resulting in a different society to the one the soldiers left. Given Halderman’s background (a Vietnam veteran with a Purple Heart), that’s clearly a metaphor that’s central to his story, and I think it’s a part of the novel that works quite well – but it feels clunky to have three or four major shifts. If the focus was on the soldiers’ returning experience, it would have made much more sense to me to zoom in on one trip, and one re-entry shock. The other sci-fi concept that’s plot relevant is a stasis shield – essentially a bubble that blocks the outside world, and within which no electronics can operate. I have no idea what that’s based off, if anything.

Finally, there’s the gender and the sex. One passage that jumped out at me was this –

The only area big enough to sleep all of us was the dining hall; they draped a few bedsheets here and there for privacy, then unleashed Stargate’s eighteen sex-starved men on our women, compliant and promiscuous by military custom (and law), but desiring nothing so much as sleep on solid ground.

The passage struck me as something that was written by a teenager – someone like the SNL consultant on Game of Thrones. Later on he talks about homosexuality, and the narrator comments

I never had much trouble accepting homosexuals myself, but then I’d never had to cope with such an abundance of them.

One possibility is that Halderman was trying to create a contrast between the views of the narrator, and what we, the audience, understand (a technique well exemplified in the short story Haircut, by Ring Lardner). But if that was the goal it felt clumsily done – it strikes me as being a little too complex, given what was going on with the rest of the writing.

The other argument people put forward (see the comments thread on this post, for example) is that Halderman is a product of his time – for somebody writing in that era, he’s taking big steps forward, because of what he’s not implying. If I can quote from somebody random on the internet:

Yes, he still thinks about gayness in stereotyped terms. But he’s also imagining an effective military force consisting of nothing but gays. And he’s imagining a society that flips from heteronormative to homonormative and everything’s fine. The biggest step is what he *doesn’t* do: gayness is not linked to a decline-and-fall narrative. It does not bring down mighty empires. It is not decadence. 

So there is that, and credit to the author – I know there are a thousand and more things I might want to include in my writing, many of which I don’t know enough about to tell a full story. But I suppose this comes back to the difference between the politics of an author – is he sexist/just a product of his time – and the quality of the novel. I’m very happy to give Halderman the benefit of the doubt, never having met him or having any real information – but as a novel, I felt that this was one of the points it fell down on.

The Forever War won both the Hugo and the Nebula, but … there was nothing in there to make me think, ‘This is a book I will recommend’.

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