A Nebula, a Hugo AND a Locus? Let me tell you, it deserves each and more. Satisfyingly hard enough science fiction for the physicist in all of us with enough action to satisfy even the most bloodthirsty Tom Clancy fan, The Forever War
manages to pull of the most serious and plausible speculation in the contemplative fiction genre that was so popular in the post-WWII era while weaving a successful and emotional story of a man coming to grips with war and bureaucracy as well as culture shock resulting from the very real effects of time dilation over a plot line that spans thousands of years.
Born in the 1970s, William Mandela is drafted into the United Nations Exploratory Force sent to wage war against the Taurans - an unknown race of aliens that apparently have been attacking human colonists' ships as humanity takes its first tentative steps across the galaxy through Einstein-Rosen bridges, discovered at various locations throughout the galaxy. Mandela is no grunt, to fight this sophisticated foe, the UN has drafted Earth's best and brightest. He's a physicist who goes through extensive training through a combination of exercise and hypnotic suggestion to prepare him for the very real and oh-so-often overlooked hazards of fighting in space ignored by even the most prestigious and celebrated works of science fiction. The Forever War
is a gritty space opera filled with pitched battles on planets so cold the main hazard is sublimating frozen bits of hydrogen and helium with the exhaust from your suit as you try to traverse the terrain interspersed with socio-historical reflections upon the evolution of humanity as Mandela travels from battle-to-battle, organized and planned for by people who weren't even born when he was first sent into space and who would be long dead by the time he reached his objective and either succeeded or failed. In the very real world of relativistic travel, you could get out of a three year stint in the military 1000 years from when you were first enlisted depending on how much travelling you had to do.
Like all great works of speculative fiction, The Forever War's
success can be measured by the number of intriguing questions it poses, rather than its purported answers. Here are a few examples:
How many people can the Earth possibly sustain and what will we do to fairly decide what to do about population growth? If you were to wage war on an interstellar scale and had to take time dilation into effect, how do you manage such a campaign from Earth? Would the nature of such a war demand control from the front line? If you were a soldier on campaign that had to travel at speeds near light for a few months, years would pass in real-time. How could you be sure that the target you were initially sent after was even worthy of being a target anymore? Furthermore - how could you be sure that the war wasn't already over and Earth destroyed? Or that you were about to attack a species you were now at peace with? If you were travelling really
far and the time lag was really big, how could you be sure that anyone on Earth would even remember sending you and what the point of it was? Of more immediate concern, how much more advanced is the enemy, who've had centuries to continue to develop their technology while you've been in transit? Enough to render your attack puny, obsolete and suicidal? Are you even sure that the Earth you signed up to defend in your original time is worth defending? What if you couldn't fit in at all when you got back? What if you couldn't even speak the language?
These last two were certainly problems faced by Haldeman and other returning veterans from the Vietnam War and translate quite nicely no matter the time frame used. The alienation experienced by Mandela due to the effects of time dilation are a pretty clear metaphor for similar feelings experienced by soldiers of that era. An excellent reflection on the futility and absurdity of war and the disillusionment and adaptation problems experienced by so many vets who've endured horrors beyond imagining for centuries before trying to return to "normal" life only to find that it's passed them by. Relevant, poignant and still scientifically plausible over 30 years after it was initially written. It's not included in NPR's top 100 list for nothing.