If you like scifi you need to read Joe Haldeman’s Forever War. I loved Forever War. It was my first exposure to science fiction where travel between stars takes a very very long time. Seeing the characters leave Earth repeatedly and return many years late after subjective months and having to adjust to the changes they found was fascinating and induced just a little bit of existential dread.
I LOVED the first book, but I was confused when I read Forever Free. Now, years later, I think I might finally understand why Hademan wrote the two books the way that he did.
First, I will give a very truncated summary of both books.
Forever War: In the late twentieth-century humanity goes to war with a species of aliens called Taurans. Many centuries later it is discovered that the war began as the result of a misunderstanding. Because of relativistic effects veterans of the war return home centuries or millennia after they left.
Forever Peace: By the end of the forever war humanity transcended the normal bounds of evolution and is now a race of clones living in harmony with the Taurans who are also a clone race. Veterans of the war are discontent and decided to leave the galaxy and return in 2000 years. Their journey is impeded and they learn that the galaxy has all been an experiment controlled by a god-like entity who ensured that two species on the same technological level came into contact when they did. The being leaves, and the protagonist spends the rest of their life studying the changes the being made to universal constants before they left.
If you couldn’t tell already, the second needs a lot more explanation and also makes a lot less sense.
When I first read it my first guess was that the meaninglessness of it all that was revealed in the second book was a result of Haldeman’s effort to portray a feeling of pointlessness that he and many veterans of the Vietnam War experienced when they go back home.
In retrospect, I think that a slightly more nuanced view is more appropriate.
The war between humanity and the taurans was pointless. That much is clear by the end of the first book. It is made especially clear by the end of the second.
When I first read it I was extremely put off. I hated that I had watched the characters I loved struggle for nothing…and then I realized that was the point.
Did the Vietnam war have a point? Was anything made better by it happening?
That’s the point of the two books.
In the first book our MC is faced with plenty of standard scifi conflicts and returns home to find that all of them were pointless. Then he tries to live in the world he returned to. That doesn’t work either. Finally he and many other veterans tries to escape the world they came home to and they fail, all because some greater being wanted them to fight to begin with. In the end he finds joy in discovering the changes wrought by that great being. And by small I mean minor changes to cosmological constants.
When I first finished Forever Peace I was very confused and I felt a little cheated. There hadn’t been any hint before that in either of the books. What was the point of getting invested in the characters and their struggles? With time and some perspective, I think I know.
I think that Joe Haldeman was trying to come to terms with his experiences as a Vietnam Veteran. He and thousands of others were taken away from their families, forced to fight and die, and when they came home they returned to a society that had been changed by the war. A war that history would later find was largely pointless. After suffering through a pointless conflict Haldeman was left to find some kind of meaning in life. Which is exactly what our protagonist did.
I think that this is something that should feel especially relatable to those of us who have lived through the COVID pandemic. There is no reason for more than half a million people to have died except because Trump wanted them to. Vietnam can be thought of in the same way. People died for no real reason. None of the dead sacrificed their lives for a greater future, they died because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Haldeman’s work was all about understanding this pointlessness. It’s an amazing piece of science fiction and it has never been more relevant than now. At once it makes us question the society we find ourselves in and at the same time encourages us to find something to enjoy.
I think that’s both beautiful and tragic.