The Forever War by Joe Haldeman (1974)
For military science fiction, there can be no better example than Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War. Not only does it show the life of a military grunt as he proceeds through the ranks, but it gives us a young man easy to relate to as he fights an alien enemy. The novel is split into clever sections: Private, Sergeant, Lieutenant, and Major and takes us along on his life trip as he grows to be a man and a leader.
But this isn’t any old war. It’s an alien war against the mysterious Taurans. To engage the unknown enemy on faraway, hostile planets, the soldiers must first battle the laws of relativity. While enduring twenty-three gees to reach planets they’ve never heard of, they’re enclosed in water-filled cocoons. Subjective time for them is days, weeks, or months to reach the aliens, but hundreds of years have passed on Earth during that time.
So, we not only see the extremely high casualty rate on the front as young Mandella loses comrades, friends, and lovers, we also get to see how Earth society changes over the centuries. At first, I was surprised at how equal the sexes were for the mid-seventies. Women are the same rank, have equal sexual aggression, and perform the same tasks whether building bases or blasting the enemy. It doesn’t take Mandella long to settle on one young woman and when they are recuperating from getting lost limbs regrown, he realizes she is more than a friend and bed partner.
They smoke joints, invest their ballooning pay, and treat sex as only a biological function. My only disappointment was how they were all proudly heterosexual. I thought society would have become more diverse in the centuries ahead.
I should have realized that Mr. Haldeman was too forward-thinking to maintain that status quo for long. By the time our hero is a major, he’s the only straight person in his platoon. Earth has decided that homosexuality and selective breeding outside the womb are the only ways to handle over-population and crowd control. To his men and women, Mandella is a pervert, but they treat him with kindness and respect. Unfortunately, his girlfriend has her own platoon and is fighting different battles. That means she will be far older or far younger than Mandella if they both survive long enough to retire.
All along, Mandella has noted that the Taurans aren’t really the blood-thirsty aliens they’re supposed to be. In fact, they seem rather simple and always on the defense and not the offense. During a skirmish on the very outskirts of the galaxy, Mandella discovers the Taurans are a group mind, a mind that wishes peace.
What happens to a soldier who has lived for hundreds of years, yet is barely twenty? Should he retire to Earth and cash in his millions? A lot has changed on Earth. Cloning, long outlawed, is now the only human life form left on Earth. It, like the Taurans, is a group mind (which lead to peace with the Taurans finally). Earth has no need for money, ambition, or conflict.
However, the clones have dug themselves into a hole and are losing the species’ benefits of random genetic selection. The clones have allowed some of the colonies to reproduce in the old ways and offer Mandella a ship to join one of them. In his records, he finds a note from his old girlfriend saying she’s waiting for him on one of the colonial planets.
This book does a great job of giving us an internal view of the protagonist and his reactions to his life. It also shows us how Earth society is forced to change over the centuries, for better and for worse. Surprisingly ahead of its time, this novel is as pertinent today as it was forty years ago.