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Why Haldeman's Forever War is One of the All-Time Great Novels: "Transcending is ultimately the point"

Illustration for article titled Why Haldemans emForever War/em is One of the All-Time Great Novels: Transcending is ultimately the point

Over at the Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes about having just read Joe Haldeman's The Forever War, which he now considers one of his top ten novels of all time. In singing the praises of Haldeman's classic war novel, Coates also advances an idea that the best works in any genre are ones that transcend that genre, or at least do more than simply fulfill the requirements of the genre:

Haldeman is writing science fiction, in the same way that E.L. Doctorow writes historical fiction. That is, that the foundation of science and the past are there, but only as the foundation. I think this is really true of any genre, or subgenre, by the way. In 1994, Nas was doing something beyond what I had recognized MCing to be. Same for the Bomb Squad. My point is that this isn't a shot at sci-fi; transcending is ultimately the point. And there's just so much in this book-questions of war, the ghosts of Vietnam, questions of sexuality, etc.


There's also a lively debate in the comments over Haldeman's well-intentioned but flawed approach to homosexuality. Worth checking out. [The Atlantic]

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Jane, you ignorant slut.

As a soldier, I appreciated but didn't particularly like The Forever War. While I thought it was well-written, and that the parts about returning home to find everything changed, and reenlisting out of a lack of ideas about what else to do with one's life were particularly good, I felt that it left out the idea that one could find the military a fulfilling profession on it's own.

Now here's where the ghost of Vietnam hits especially hard, I think, that complete and total disillusionment with the military that comes with what is seen to the unwilling, drafted soldier as a pointless war. Haldeman's novel (SPOILER) mostly does away with the idea of fighting for something, whether it be the folks at home or, more common in today's Western militaries, the fellow service member on your left and right. The nature of the war in Haldeman's novel and the high casualty rate make that cause of fighting for your platoon mates, a deep and meaningful bond to most modern soldiers, a moot point. The tortures of command, and wanting to see all your soldiers come home alive, are also mostly unexplored.

This is the major flaw, in my view, and why The Forever War didn't touch me in a way that, say, Ender's Game or Starship Troopers did. I still did appreciate it for what it was, but it didn't grab me the way the other two did. Ironic, seeing as Haldeman served, where as Card did not, I believe.

For a book that does capture the feeling in Vietnam of fighting for your fellow soldiers on your left and right, I highly recommend The Things They Carried. It's not science fiction, but it's an amazing novel.