Reading,  Review

Book Review: The Forever War

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Part of my quest to read all of the Hugo and Nebula novel winners. This book won both in 1976.

I remember reading this book for the first time during my university years, recommended by a friend. It’s been a long time since I’ve read the book, so when I started the quest to read all of the major SF/F award winners in the novel categories, this was obviously going to be on the list.

Finishing the book this time, I almost wish I’d let it live in memory as I had to downgrade my rating on the book.

Conceptually, this is great. Realistic physics surrounding space travel and development of combat systems. A realistic portrayal of how the government would treat its soldiers in training, development, and combat surrounding a war that, by its nature, will last for centuries or millennia. And a reasonable presentation of alien aliens with motivations we can’t wrap our heads around because, well, they’re alien.

So there’s a lot to like about this book.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of meh here too. The characters are mostly flat and there really isn’t a lot of growth for the main character, William Mandella. Don’t get me wrong, he learns from his experiences and changes not just his outlook but his habits and actions. However, a lot of those experiences don’t seem to affect him on a mental level all that much. More than once, the unit he’s serving with is nearly wiped out, but he’s fully functional and continues on, accepting the next promotion that he only deserves because he was lucky enough to survive.

And the story is less a story overall than a set of almost self-contained novelettes held together by the basic premise. Growth in the narrative is slow, and while there are a lot of neat ideas built into things, their presentation isn’t always that exciting.

My preference would have been to see a lot more of the effects of time dilation on both the soldiers and the society they were supposedly protecting. We really only got brief glimpses of earth for the most part, except for the stretch after the survivors came home the first time, and I found a lot of the changes there to be unreasonable, or at least not reasonably justified in the narrative.

Overall Rating: 3 stars. It’s not a bad book, and there are certainly still things to like about it, but it doesn’t come together as a classic, award-winning novel anymore. I’d stack a lot of recent military science fiction up against it fairly easily. I think the big thing to note here would be its influence on the genre at the time, that you could still write an interesting book, especially in a military SF vein, using reasonable extrapolations of current technology and science that actually fits the understanding of the day. That influence ripples forward even to books being written now.

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