The Forever War – Review and Themes

The Battle Between Indoctrination & The Individual

Definition of military science fiction

If you have more than a passing interest in science fiction you will have come across The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman. It’s one of those classic science fiction novels that people who don’t respect sci-fi say ‘transcends the genre’. It doesn’t. It’s simply a great book that happens to be in the science fiction genre.

This review will focus on a couple of the main themes of the novel. If you haven’t read the novel, I hope this will inspire you to make it your next read. If you have read it, I’d love to hear what you thought.

The Forever War – The Battle Between Indoctrination & The Individual

The novel follows William Mandella as he fights in a war between Earth and an alien species. For a novel about an interstellar warfare between two species, there is very little actual fighting. Those that do occur are brutal and brief. Much of The Forever War is taken up with training and waiting. The tension comes from watching Mandella have his humanity warped by military indoctrination.

Mandella is a peaceful man. Perhaps even a pacifist. Through his training and conditioning, he becomes a killer. Mandella is simultaneously repulsed by what is happening to him and resigned to his fate. This internal pressure hooks the reader far more than any gaudy interstellar battles could.

Mandella despises the narrowness and ugly purpose of the military mind. He can’t abide the bureaucracy and lunacy of the military system. Yet his military training makes his reintroduction into normal society unbearable, trapping him into an army he has nothing but contempt for.

The actual aliens in The Forever War are barely a factor in the novel. They fight and they die. And that is pretty much all they do. They are a distraction from the main thrust of the novel, which is the battle between the individual and the groups that would fashion that individual into a weapon.

Sexuality and the State

There is one aspect of The Forever War that will jar with the sensibility of the modern reader: the author’s treatment of homosexuality. At one stage the human race becomes sexually reorientated so that the entire of the human race is homosexual. The way this is handled is far from being in tune with modern sensibilities, which can make it somewhat difficult to read in parts.

It’s clear from the tone that Joe Haldeman is not homophobic, indeed, for his time his approach was actually quite enlightened.

There are two ways to deal with this. You accept it as an unfortunate byproduct of the novel’s era. Or you can interpret it as I do. There are few aspects of your personality more sacrosanct than your sexuality. So to have this altered by outside forces is the ultimate violation.

It’s an interesting subversion of the common alien takeover trope, which has the aliens alter humans by taking away an aspect of their personality or free will. In The Forever War, it’s the government and the military that manipulate the human race. Their final victory being the manipulation of human sexuality.

If you haven’t read The Forever War yet, I’d suggest you fix that right now by getting hold of the book. If you have read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the novel. Even, in fact especially, if you think I’m talking rubbish. You can tell me what you think, in the comments below or on the various social media channels we use.

If you enjoyed this article, it’s probably worth your time checking out our top ten hard science fiction novels.

  • The Forever War


Perhaps the ultimate in military science fiction. A seminal work in the science fiction genre that everybody should read.

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