Haldeman, Joe - The Forever War (St Martin's Press, 1974, 254pp)
A Vietnam war novel set in an alternate future The Forever War was originally serialised in Analog, but owing to editorial interference the middle section's bleak outlook was toned down to suit the magazine's family readership. Restored to its original form in the 1990s the novel attempts to conflate the author's experiences as a reluctant draftee into a future in which humans have declared war upon an unknown alien culture blamed for the loss of colonial missions. Due to the effect of time distortion (owing to the vastness of space and relativity) the soldiers involved find themselves not only fighting an enemy whose technology has unpredictably advanced during their travels, but also returning to an Earth whose culture has passed them by leaving friends and family either aged or dead.
As a Vietnam parable the novel is fairly transparent, but works well in capturing both the alienation of technocratic warfare and the dislocation suffered by soldiers "back in the world." Haldeman's central message that war is pointless and solely motivated by economic greed was certainly not unusual for the time, but what marks the novel as unique is its ability to rise above cliche and to focus upon the effect of war and peace on the individual soldier.
Above all the novel simply makes for gripping reading whilst also serving as a healthy antidote to Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers. Where Heinlein celebrates genocide and the ideology of militarism Haldeman demonstrates that what this largely amounts to is minds and bodies being blown apart for reasons that those involved can rarely fathom or relate to. Many of the differences between the two authors can be attributed to their generation gap, but perhaps also to the fact that whilst Heinlein served as a naval officer during peace time and later worked in military research Haldeman was a draftee who recieved a Purple Heart after being wounded in battle.
Other than being a much heralded anti-war novel The Forever War also possesses a number of enjoyable countercultural touches whether it be in the fact that the military of the future has made room for drug use and sexual activity or in that at one point all of humanity converts to homosexuality. Despite its original departure point taking place in the 1990s the book feels as relevant as ever although whether this is down to the author's skill or merely the state of our world is sadly hard to tell.
"I hardly heard him for trying to keep track of what was going on in my skull. I knew it was all post hypnotic suggestion, even remembered the session in Missouri when they'd implanted it, but that didn't make it any less compelling. My mind reeled under the strong pseudo-memories: shaggy hulks that were Taurans (not at all what we now knew they looked like) boarding a colonists vessel, eating babies whilst mothers watched in screaming terror (the colonists never took babies, they wouldn't stand the acceleration), then raping the women to death with huge veined purple veined members (ridiculous that they would feel desire for humans), holding the men down while they plucked flesh from their living bodies and gobbled it (as if they could assimilate the alien protein)... a hundred grisly details as sharply remembered as the events of a minute ago, ridiculously overdone and logically absurd. But while my concious mind was rejecting the silliness, somewhere much deeper, down in the sleeping animal where we keep our real motives and morals, something was thirsting for alien blood, secure in the conviction that the noblest thing a man could do would be to die killing one of those horrible monsters... I knew it was all purest soyashit, and I hated the men who had taken such obscene liberties with my mind, but I could even hear my teeth grinding, feel my cheeks frozen in a spastic grin, blood-lust..." (page 67)
For more information -
Joe Haldeman's site - http://home.earthlink.net/~haldeman/
(The author's site featuring interesting biographical information.)
Judd Brother's review - http://www.juddtech.com/index.cfm/fuseaction/reviews.detail/book_id/1169/The%20Forever%20War.htm (For a rabid right wing take on the book that bizarrely confuses many of its central points).