Review: The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

The Forever War

I really expected to like this one – it’s a Hugo and Nebula award winner from back in the golden age of science fiction. Only I didn’t. Glancing at reviews, no one seems to have picked out the greatest flaws in this book.

It was interesting, had it’s moments, and I laughed a couple times as the author’s extrapolations of where we’d be fifty years from now. For example, he figured by the 90’s we’d be way past mars and have a military base on Charon, one of Pluto’s moons. On the other hand, he also anticipated that we’d have electronic money transfers by the year 2115 or something like that. I suppose back then they were hopeful that exploration and human curiosity would be the leading drivers of innovation, rather than convenience.

That wasn’t what disappointed me though. Those things – see, those are the same as H. G. Wells’ man eating orchids and anything else he wrote about that we know can’t exist now. I don’t have a problem with that.

It was the story crafting that lost me. See, the theme of the story is embedded in the setting. The extrapolation of the progress of culture is the point of the novel. The fact that the main character was going away, losing time, and coming back, fifty, a hundred, seven hundred years later, was the macguffin the author used to show the theme. The problem is the plot has almost nothing to do with the theme.

The main plot is the romance between the main character, William, and his fellow soldier, Marygay. The plot does nothing to further the point of the story. Furthermore, the main character is not in a position to affect anything to do with the state of the world, so he’s not exactly the idea candidate for a main character. The only reason William goes back to view the changes that occur in the world each time he returns from a mission is so that he can observe the state of the world now. The theme is wedged into the plot, like an after thought. I was expecting the plot to eventually have some link to the theme, and it never did. There are those that argue that, well, it does, sort of, but should a story’s plot only touch on the point obliquely?

Robert J Sawyer has a great article on how to choose and create an effective main character, here: http://www.sfwriter.com/ow02.htm. He explains that your main character should be the one in the best position to illustrate the purpose of your story. Plot, I believe is the same – you choose a plot to illustrate your point, to make your story a cohesive whole. As I learn more about the craft of writing, I notice these things more, and they annoy me more.

Did it get a Hugo and Nebula because the readers of the time were less discerning? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe it’s simply that what they considered important about the novel was different. There are people who are nuts for Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, and I didn’t care for that one either. I supposed that’s just not the time period I’m nostalgic for.

Back to H. G. Wells.

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