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Literature: The Forever War
The Forever War is a science fiction war novel by American author Joe Haldeman. Considered one of the classics of Military Science-Fiction, alongside Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers, the book is a post-modern, post-Vietnam take on the standard sci-fi war novel and as some critics note, a philosophical rebuttal/Deconstruction of Heinlein's work (though it's worth noting that Heinlein himself praised it). The book won the Nebula Award in 1975 and the Hugo and Locus awards in 1976 for Best Novel.

Haldeman, after graduating with a degree in Astronomy, was drafted into the U.S. Army and served as a combat engineer in Vietnam, where he was wounded. His experiences — the terror of combat, the inhuman randomness of government bureaucracy, the sense of coming back to an unrecognizable world, and the futility of the war — are all reflected in the novel. In a re-publication in the 1990s, Haldeman, in a foreword, stated that writing this book was his primary therapy to cope with the after effects of the Vietnam War.

The story is told from the point of view of William Mandella, a recent college graduate with a physics degree who is drafted into the United Nations Expeditionary Force (UNEF) and sent out to fight the enigmatic Taurans, who have been destroying human ships and colonies. The grueling training and enemy attacks are bad enough, but the worst part is the effect of Time Dilation caused by repeated travel at relativistic speeds, which causes the world around Mandella to age and change into something unrecognizable. Mandella's only remaining connection to his old life is his fellow soldier Marygay Potter, and the two must fight a hostile species to save a world that has been lost to them.

The direct sequel, Forever Free, came out in 1999.

There are two different versions of the middle section of the novel (Mandella's first return to Earth). When the two short stories that make up the beginning and end of the novel were to be collected he wrote a story to tie them together. He wrote a second version of the middle story after the first he submitted to his editors was regarded as too bleak. The author has said he prefers the original, more downbeat version, and more recent printings have the original version.


Provides Examples Of:

  • Action Survivor: It's debatable, but Madella and Marygay. Despite being nothing less than an elite super soldiers in Powered Armor, their repeated survival in the unfathomably brutal combat zones is almost entirely through blind luck.
  • Adaptation Expansion: The first part of the graphic novel version of the sequel Forever Free shows what happened to Marygay Potter during the final part of The Forever War, after she and William Mandella were assigned to different teams. This is in part because while the novel Forever Free is told from William's POV, the graphic novel Libre ŕ jamais is told from Marygay's.
  • Alien Invasion: Deconstructed. The Taurans never get close to Earth, but the effects of the Forever War turn Earth into a Crapsack World.
  • Anyone Can Die.
  • Archaic Weapon for an Advanced Age: The first stasis fields slow down anything faster than 16.3 m/s, forcing people fighting within them to use melee weapons or bows and arrows.
  • Arm Cannon: Well, laser fingers, anyway.
  • Badass Army: The soldiers all have an IQ of 150 or over, and physical fitness to match. They have survived (well, some of them have) a grueling training regimen on a Death World, and are equipped with Powered Armour and armed with high-powered lasers and tachyon grenades. Later recruits are genetically modified Super Soldiers with enhanced reflexes and intellect. Unfortunately, despite all this, they still have a casualty rate more in line with a Red Shirt Army.
  • Bug War: Possibly deconstructed, depending on whether the Taurans can be considered "bugs."
  • The Chains of Commanding: Experienced by Mandella's previous commanders and eventually by him. The situation would be tolerable if only there was someone he could relate to, but by then everyone from his era is gone.
  • Celibate Hero: Mandella after Marygay's reassignment, though not through choice. The one closet heterosexual female who gets drunk enough to consider doing it with him passes out before things can get going.
  • Comic Book Adaptation: The novel was adapted into a three-part graphic novel for the Belgian publisher Dupuis by Joe Haldeman and the Flemish artist Marvano as De Eeuwige Oorlog (La guerre éternelle). This adaptation has been published in English as well. The sequel Forever Free was adapted and published by Dargaud as Libre ŕ jamais..
  • Compound Interest Time Travel Gambit: In force but ultimatedly subverted. The soldiers get quadruple pay for being away in a combat zone for the equivalent of twenty years. At the end of their first tour Mandella and Potter are quite well off, and go on a spending binge. When they recuperate from lost limbs on Heaven several objective centuries later they live the high life (along with everyone else on Heaven, with over-inflated prices). At the end of the novel, most other humans are clones in a group consciousness who do not use money, so all of their combat pay becomes worthless - but Marygay came back early enough to use hers and the pay of a few buddies to buy a ship.
  • Conscription: Often conscription ends up collecting those too poor or untalented to avoid it. Here, the "Elite Conscription Act" drafts only those people who are physically fit and have an IQ of 150 or better. Instead of a poor and ill-disciplined military protecting a rich and talented society, you have a rich and talented military protecting an increasingly poor and ill-disciplined society.

    Potter's father comments that the war is the reason why everything is so bad when they return after their first tour; "the very best fell to the Elite Conscription Act and wound up being cannon fodder." Even Mandella comments that wars in the past often accelerated technological and social progress, but this one was doing the exact opposite.
  • Crapsack World: It starts as a Dystopia, and it gets crapsackier with every relativistic year.
  • Death World. Charon. Outdoor temperature is just above absolute zero. If your Powered Armor cracks, you'll freeze to death before you have a chance to die from loss of oxygen. Ditto if your suit's heating unit is damaged. If you accidentally touch your heat radiator against a frozen gas "rock", it will vapourize with the force of a grenade going off by your neck. Even if the thing you whack your heat radiator against isn't frozen gas, a damaged radiator can broil you to death inside of a few minutes. If you stand on frozen hydrogen, it will instantly melt, creating a zero-friction surface, causing you to fall over, which will probably result in one or more of the above happening. If you run or jump too hard, gravity is low enough that you risk either exceeding escape velocity and disappearing into space, or crashing into a mountain at lethal speeds.
  • Deflector Shields: Stasis field. Only problem is that nothing inside can go faster than 16.3 m/s, rendering most projectile weapons useless, and any living thing not wearing special armor dies instantly when inside of it. Which means that inside of the field, it's a Sword Fight.
  • Drop Ship
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: It takes 1,143 years, but Mandella does. With the only other surviving member of his original squad, Marygay. And Babies Ever After. The End.
  • Eternal Prohibition: Averted. Marijuana cigarettes are commercially available, and at the end of his first tour Mandella finds heroin being sold in the officer's mess.
  • Everyone Is Gay: Literally. After a world-wide famine, The Government encourages homosexuality ("homolife") as a means of population control. Gradually, as such people get drafted into the military and the practice expands, this makes Mandella one of the few straight men left in the service, and the human race.
    • The work bizarrely self-subverts this trope when Charlie, by far the most prominent representative of all-homosexual Earth, accepts a heterosexualization treatment at the end of the novel, his cultural and technological distinctiveness absorbed into their own. Although it might be unfair to claim that that's representative of a gay-is-a-disease attitude on the author's part, since it's pretty clear that through biological and social engineering homolife-era Earth had turned sexual orientation into a more or less manipulable quantity anyway; it's hard to shout "Ex-gay programs are crimes!" when they're being consensually chosen by a member of an ex-straight society.
    • Charlie seems to have chosen to convert simply because he wants to fit in with the other relics.
    • However, in the sequel Forever Free it is mentioned that even after heterosexualization he had an affair with another man. And Marygay and Cat, the woman with whom she had a lesbian relationship during her final UNEF mission, still have strong feelings for each other even though Cat had herself heterosexualized as well.
  • Explosive Leash/Self-Destruct Mechanism
    We were under no circumstances to allow ourselves to be taken alive, and the decision wasn't up to us. One special pulse from the battle computer, and that speck of plutonium in your powerplant would fizz with all of 0.01 percent efficiency and you'd be nothing but a rapidly expanding, very hot plasma.
  • Faster-Than-Light Travel: Falling through a collapsar will take you to another collapsar instantly, with no limit on the distance between the two. The whole galaxy can be crossed in this manner — if you don't mind driving through normal space for a couple of months or years to get from your exit collapsar to the next entrance collapsar.
  • A Father to His Men: Subverted. Mandella tries to be this but his 'deviant' sexual practises (he's hetero), and the fact that he is a stranger to their language and culture, as well as the suspicious death of a soldier who tried to assassinate him, all exacerbate the normal tension the grunts feel towards their Commanding Officer. Eventually most of his men end up getting killed because they ignore his order to evacuate a bunker. Mandella only succeeds in breaking down these barriers after he fights shoulder-to-shoulder with them against the Taurans and comes up with the plan that saves their lives (those that are left).
  • Field Promotion: Mandella starts as a private, and ends the war as a major commanding his own ground force. Not because he's particularly suited for command, but because he's adaptable, and it looks odd for someone who's been in the military for 500 years not to be an officer. Oh, and he has the seniority thing down to the max!
  • The Film of the Book: Coming in 2013, to be directed by Ridley Scott. [1] "I've got a good writer doing it" has been reported to be David Peoples. [2] Unfortunately this may be a misunderstanding.
  • Forever War: Not the Trope Namer, but a shining example.
  • Free-Love Future: By law no-one can be conscripted into the military unless they are already promiscuous, and in basic training all recruits have a 'sleeping roster' where they're assigned a different partner every night (which leads to grumbling that you always get the dead-tired ones when you're horny, and vice versa). By the end of their first tour everyone has settled into a regular (though still not strictly monogamous) relationship with someone, so they don't like it when a rumor spreads that the roster will be resumed.
  • Frickin' Laser Beams: Each Powered Armor suit has a laser built into one of its fingers, which can melt through steel.
  • Future Slang: Someone or something that gets killed/destroyed is said to have gotten "caulked."
    • When a hospital worker sees Mandella's image over the phone, and realizes she's talking to one of the few living veterans of the War, she says, "That's max!"
  • Gay Best Friend: Charlie Moss, Mandella's executive officer.
    • In a weird way, this is an inversion of the trope. By that point in human history, pretty much all humans are homosexual (see Everyone Is Gay, above). So it's more the case that Mandella is Charlie's Straight Best Friend.
  • Gender Neutral Writing: When Mandella rejoins civilian life (the first time), he discovers people are now saying "tha" for he/she, "thim" for him/her, and "ther" for his/hers.
  • Hopeless War: The war's revealed to be this for the Taurans.
  • Instant Expert: Mandella learns military history and how to kill using all sorts of mundane objects and weapons by being hooked to a machine for a week or so.
  • In the Future, Humans Will Be One Race: When Mandella returns to Earth around 300 years after he left, everyone on Earth is a nice even tan, with dark hair and eyes. This was done deliberately through eugenics, in an attempt to remove racial conflict. When he returns again 700 years later they are now a cloned unified conciousness, so the need for individualization is gone anyway. One doesn't need every one of one's fingers to look wildly different, does one?
  • Inertial Dampening: To avoid being liquefied while aboard spacecraft that can pull accelerations of up to 25g, humans use the immersion in a fluid method. Since the spaceships tend to change velocity at high speeds, support for internal organs is needed as well. This is accomplished by injecting the characters with special substances and placing them in special suits, wherein they are then surrounded by extremely high pressure fluid, equal to several kilometers underwater. The results of the pressure failing are not pleasant. Marygay almost dies from a badly-fitted pressure suit.
  • I Will Wait for You: Mandella and Marygay, who have stuck with each other through firefights, injuries, and the loss of everyone and everything they've ever known, are separated by being given different military assignments. The death toll in the war is horribly high, and Time Dilation caused by near-lightspeed travel means they can never expect to see each other again. Mandella mourns for her as if she's dead, but doesn't take up with anyone else because in the future that he's been thrust into by the time dilation, everyone else is gay. Marygay, on the other hand, leaves a note for him to find if he survives, assuring him that she will wait forever, tells him where she's going, and buys a ship which spends the next two hundred years going backwards and forwards at near-lightspeed, stopping every five years, during which time she has aged about a month... leaving her still in her late twenties when William, aged thirtysomething, catches up with her. Now that's an optimistic lady!
  • Knight in Sour Armor: Mandella. His psychological profile in his military file says he's a failed pacifist who shifts the guilt he feels for having to kill to the military.
  • Last Stand: 126 Humans against 600 Taurans backed up by a cruiser. Then the cruiser got whacked by a rogue missile.
    • After the final melee, it's closer to 28 Humans against 300 Taurans. To prevent another melee and eventual Tauran success they pull out the last nukes (not actual nukes, but they have a similar effect) and detonate them just outside the stasis field.
  • Lie Back and Think of England: during his stay on Stargate, Mandella mentions that military women are compliant and promiscuous, by military custom and law.
  • Living Relic: The soldiers who manage to survive their tours of duty find themselves in this situation. Few and far between due to high mortality rates, they return to their homes centuries later only to find entirely new and alien cultures.
  • Manipulative Editing: Mandella is interviewed on his return to Earth and asked silly questions like "What do the Taurans smell like?" He replies that you can't smell anything inside a spacesuit. The press (which is controlled by the UNEF) reedits the footage to make him say that the Taurans smell so awful they make you want to throw up. They also remove all reference to the soldiers being conditioned to kill.
  • Mars Needs Women: Subverted. a Mind Probe produced by the Earth military and set off with a Trigger Phrase portrays Tauran soldiers raping human women with gigantic purple members, an entirely fanciful depiction as at the time the film is made nobody on Earth has the slightest idea what a Tauran looks like, in order to get the human soldiers angry enough to kill. The hero is aware that it is totally false but his subconscious makes his teeth start grinding in readiness to kill! Ultimately the Taurans turn out to be an androgynous clone species who have no interest in human women.
  • Military Academy: Subverted. Officer Training is done via Upgrade Artifact.
  • Military Moonshiner: Forms the basis of an entire underground economy on board Mandella's ship.
  • Mohs Scale of Sci-Fi Hardness: Fairly hard. Yes, there's Faster-Than-Light Travel, but there's a lot of conditions on it, and Time Dilation is a bitch. The work is also is very realistic about the Pluto-orbit-range planetoids much of the action takes place on. Piles of powder in bins marked 'oxygen.' And the weakness in the super-powerful powered armor implied below is because the suits have radiators on their backs - the effect of even a body-temperature radiator landing on a chunk of frozen gas is "like a hand grenade going off between your shoulders." They've also got "tachyon bombs", and a "tachyon drive" on their space ships that never seems to run out of fuel. In 1997.
  • The New Rock & Roll: Mandella says that all art in the future - music, movies, literature - sucks.
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain: While the Taurans aren't exactly "villains," their alleged attack on a UN spaceship not only started the war but also sparked humanity's return to militarism. It's mentioned that up until that point, Earth was in the process of growing more pacifist. Ironically, the war also provided a justification for unifying humanity.
    • As it turns out, the initial "attack" likely never happened, and the inevitable accidents that occur in spacetravel were instead trumped up as Tauran attacks by Earth politicians and generals to justify a war (and thus, extend their power over the whole population).
  • No Heterosexual Sex Allowed: Due to massive overpopulation, heterosexual contact and sex is entirely outlawed and considered lewd. Whatever reproduction there is occurs by artificial insemination. The heterosexual male time-traveller runs into problems with his preconceived notions of decency. At the war's end, since most people are clones, the soldiers can choose to have their preference changed so they can go be happy with whatever gender of soldiers they might prefer.
  • Powered Armor: Just don't fall or take a hit to your back.
  • Poor Communication Kills: The entire conflict is the result of a misunderstanding with the Taurans, who are a clone-based species that (for unspecified reasons) cannot communicate with humans. That is, until humanity becomes clone-based itself, and the two sides figure out that the entire war was the result of miscommunication and some asshole humans eager to get their war on.
  • Portal Network: The collapsars form a naturally-occuring one.
  • Ramming Always Works: Justified, since the ramming object is moving at 0.99 c. Close to lightspeed, it hardly even matters what it is that rams your ship, you're toast; aiming is rather more difficult, however, unless it's something big, like a planet.
    • Or what your ship rams. "The logistics computer calculates that we have about a 62 percent chance of success, should we attempt to destroy the enemy base. Unfortunately, we would only have a 30 percent chance of survival - as some of the scenarios leading to success involve ramming the portal planet with the Anniversary at the speed of light."
  • Sequel: Forever Free.
  • Sci-Fi Writers Have No Sense of Scale: The tachyon bombs that the troopers are hurling around in Mandella's first assignment are "microton" weapons. A microton device would be an explosive with the same yield as one one-millionth of a ton of TNT, or about 1 gram of TNT. This is about the same explosive yield as an old M-80 firecracker; it wouldn't be enough to blow open a locked wooden door, let alone excavate a crater.
    • The bombs they use are described as several hundred microtons, though, not singles. This might be a revision in the text. Still not much explosive power, being equal to a stick of dynamite or so at best.
  • Schizo Tech: No energy weapons can work inside the status fields so swords, quarterstaffs, arrows and throwing darts are used. Also happens due to Time Dilation when you might find yourself fighting alien technology from decades in your future, or vice versa.
  • Shown Their Work: Haldeman has a degree in astronomy, first hand experience as a soldier in wartime, and does the calculations on any math he deems important to the story.
  • Sickbed Slaying: The soldier who tried to frag Mandella dies on the operating table (after he attempted suicide) under the care of a doctor who has a covert attraction to Mandella. Unfortunately the suspicious timing of this death offsets the morale problems he avoided by not having him Thrown Out the Airlock.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Very, very cynical about the world, rather idealistic for his main characters (though in a "holding out some dignity against all odds" style).
  • Space Marine: They're technically Army, not Marines, but close enough.
  • The Spartan Way: three recruits die in training on Earth. The survivors are sent to continue their training on a Death World, Pluto's moon Charon, where the slightest mistake (or just bad luck) can be (and is) lethal, and any disobedience is punishable with summary execution. The final test involves surviving a surprise attack with live missiles. Not everyone passes.
  • Spiritual Successor: Forever Peace.
  • Starfish Aliens: The Taurans.
  • Stranger in a Familiar Land: Played to devastating effect. Mandella and Potter's return to Earth after their first tour of duty. Mandella's father is dead; his mother is dying of cancer which The Government's medicine system refuses to treat because she is not considered worth it, and she has taken a lesbian lover. Potter's parents are forced out of their home for defying government regulations, and end up on an agricultural commune under assumed identities. They are killed while Mandella and Potter are staying with them by raiders looking for food. Needless to say, the two re-enlist in the Army and get off the planet.
    • Note that they only re-enlisted with the assurance that they'd be stationed on the Moon as instructors. On arrival at their new station they are immediately reassigned to fight in another star system.
  • Trigger Phrase: The poem Scots Wha Hae by Robert Burns, seemingly the words of Robert the Bruce to his troops before the battle that would win Scotland's independence. It's also the trigger for a hypnotic suggestion showing "Taurans" killing men and raping women to get the soldiers ready for combat.
  • Take That: Some considered the novel to be an attack on Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers. However, The Old Man himself once went up to Haldeman and congratulated him for writing "the best future war story I've ever read!"
  • Time Dilation
  • Twenty Minutes into the Future: At least in the beginning...
  • United Nations Is a Superpower: Over the course of the novel, the UN evolves from a fledging One World Order to a transhuman polity.
  • Unrealistic Black Hole: Collapsars used for FTL travel. The book was first published in 1974, so it may actually 'predate' the astronomical use of the word
  • War Is Hell: We're fighting them because they are fighting us because we are fighting them because... (not to mention the 50% plus death rate per mission)
  • Weapon of Mass Destruction: The Nova Bomb.
  • We Will Spend Credits in the Future: When Mandella returned to Earth, a famine had resulted in the adoption a Global Currency based around food rationing: the kilocalorie, or "K". One dollar in 1997 money was worth about a hundred K.
  • Write Back to the Future: Cleverly done by Marygay. She leaves a note for Mandella at the front of his army record, knowing that this will be kept safe to give to him if he survives the war, even though near-lightspeed travel has caused their personal timelines to diverge and therefore from her point of view, he won't be back for hundreds of years. She corrects this problem by staying aboard a starship at high relativistic speeds going out and back.
  • You Can't Go Home Again: Due to Time Dilation, every time Mandella returns from a combat mission he has to deal with a military, government, and society that is virtually alien to him.

The DispossessedNebula AwardDoorways in the Sand
The Accidental Time MachineCreator/Joe HaldemanMarsbound
The Inverted WorldHugo AwardDoorways in the Sand
The FogLiterature of the 1970sThe Forgotten Beasts of Eld
The Flight EngineerMilitary Science-FictionThe Helmsman Saga
Flowers for AlgernonFilms of the 2010sFree Birds
The Forerunner SagaScience Fiction LiteratureFor the Win

alternative title(s): The Forever War
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