Ever since I started reading science fiction, I’ve been fascinated by military science fiction. I read Starship Troopers and Ender's Game numerous times over the years, and remain impressed each time I read them; I find them as interesting as I they were on their first read. A couple of years ago, I spoke with a friend of mine, Jaym Gates, and we hatched a plan to co-edit an anthology, one that captured what we liked about Military SF, but with stories that were a bit more relevant than stories from the middle of the century. With a past decade of conflict, there's an entirely new generation of soldiers who have experienced war, and that was something we wanted to examine. The result was War Stories: New Military Science Fiction, and it just came out earlier this week. One of the authors included in the book wrote the one Military SF novel that I hold above all others: The Forever War by Joe Haldeman.
Joe Haldeman was born on June 9, 1943, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. He was the younger brother of Jack Haldeman (who would also go on to become a science fiction author). He and his family traveled much throughout his childhood: By the time he turned 7, the family had moved a total of five times. Home became a “plastic designation, one that made the unearthly more accessible to [him] than it would have been to a child who grew up in a more prosaic place.”
Fascinated by the stars overhead, Haldeman convinced his father to purchase him a telescope when he was 12, and he spent many of the following years watching the skies: "I'd look at it under low power, then slip in a medium-power eyepiece, and then the highest power, imagining I was in a spaceship approaching a that then-mysterious world. As the Earth turned, the cratered surface slid silently under my porthole, as if I were orbiting dangerously close. I lost myself in it—Plato, Copernicus, Tycho, Kepler; all were intimate friends, but not as philosophers and scientists, just as the odd names of craters on the Moon."
Around the same time during his childhood, Haldeman fell in love with science fiction, introduced to him through Philip St. John’s (pseudonym for Lester del Rey) juvenile novel Rocket Jockey. A teacher caught him reading the book in class. After returning the book to him, she told him not to read during school, but provided him with several other books from her daughter’s own collection.
Haldeman attended the University of Maryland in 1964, taking his interest in physics and astronomy with him. There, he met and married Mary “Gay” Potter in 1965. In his final year, he took a creative writing course, penning a pair of science fiction stories, “Out of Phase” and “I of Newton,” receiving high marks for each. He put them aside and in 1967 graduated with his BS in Physics and Astronomy. He applied for a job with the Naval Observatory, which would have him taking pictures of the cosmos in Argentina, but while he was being considered, he was drafted into the U.S. Army. Already six years into operations, the Vietnam War raged across the world. Haldeman was not a willing draftee: He considered himself a pacifist and wasn't happy with the country's involvement in Asia. He seriously considered moving to Canada or Sweden, but ultimately, the dream of becoming an astronaut was a powerful one, and a track record of being a draft dodger would kill that dream quickly. He reported to basic training. There, he found he was the oldest member of his company, and the only college graduate. Most of them couldn't read, and only two read for pleasure. "These illiterate men had a very high regard for the books they couldn't read. That's not meant to be ironic...I learned invaluable things from them. Not being able to read is a handicap, but it doesn't make you subhuman. I was astonished (in my naiveté) at how much we had in common."
Haldeman was made a combat engineer, and in February of 1968, he was deployed to Vietnam in the midst of the Tet Offensive. He likened the trip from the United States to the Southern Hemisphere as though he had entered an alien world: the environment was different, and he couldn’t recognize the star patterns in the skies overhead. He was involved in combat operations from March to September, noting that he “passed through it like a very realistic nightmare.” One day, his unit overtook a North Vietnamese position, discovering a pile of ordinance left behind. Rather than destroy it immediately, their superior officer had them hold off for lunch and a short break. Unfortunately, while they waited, the pile exploded: it had been rigged with a time-delay. Haldeman’s engineering squad, ordered to stand watch, was decimated. Haldeman later described the moment on his website: “It's hard to remember, let alone describe, what that explosion felt like. In one instant I sustained a couple of hundred small puncture wounds, a couple of dozen serious bullet and shrapnel wounds, and one killer—a .51 caliber machine gun bullet to the thigh.”
He was rushed via helicopter to a MASH unit and later to a regular hospital while they treated his wounds, and soon, he was sent home from the war, deeply affected by his experiences.
While adjusting to life back in the United States, Haldeman pulled out the two short stories he wrote in college and retyped them. The first, “Out of Phase,” sold quickly to Galaxy Magazine and was published in their September 1969 issue. His next, “I of Newton,” was published in the June issue of Fantastic the following year. Now out of the Army, he set about going to graduate school, returning to the University of Maryland to study computer science. Shortly before he began, he was invited to the Milford Writer's Workshop, where he met Ben Bova. Over drinks, he noted that he wanted to write a book about his experiences in Vietnam, and Bova offered up a contact at a publishing house, Holt. Haldeman dropped out of school: The instructor he'd hoped to study under had left, and he thought back to Bova's offer. He wrote up several chapters and passed them along to Bova, who passed them along. Soon thereafter, he had an offer to write up his novel. After two months of writing, he turned the book in. War Year was soon published in 1972, although it attracted little attention.
The Haldemans moved to Florida, where Joe began to write more. "I sat down at the dining room table and typed out 'Tonight we're going to show you eight silent ways to kill a man.' Then I kept typing, not knowing at first whether it was going to be a story or a novel." It soon became clear that this was a longer work: The story was called “Hero” and was set far out into space, heavily influenced by Haldeman’s experiences in Vietnam. Haldeman noted that the story would have never occurred to him had he not served. Years after his combat experiences, the war lingered on for him: “For a couple of years, I treated the real world as if it were a suburb of the war; landmines between sidewalk cracks, ambush lurking behind McDonald’s. It was absurd, but that’s not an argument you can use with your subconscious. What it takes is years of the sidewalk not blowing up and Ronald McDonald not opening fire.”
Haldeman returned to Ben Bova, now editor of Analog Science Fiction and Fact (the new name for Astounding Science Fiction). Bova purchased and published “Hero” in the June issue of the magazine that year. Mike Ashley described the acquisition as "arguably one of the most important stories published during Bova's editorship and of great significance in Bova's first year as it allowed him to stamp his individuality on the magazine," in his book Gateways to Forever: The Story of the Science-Fiction Magazines from 1970 to 1980. “Hero” was graced with an elegant cover of a spaceship in the midst of a star field, and with a spectacular double page illustration. It was a story that wouldn’t have appeared in Campbell’s magazine, and for this reason, it’s notable for demonstrating the shift that was taking place in the genre, from one more concerned with technology to one more interested in society.
By 1973, Haldeman and Gay grew tired of Florida—they weren't earning much, and they needed new scenery. Haldeman applied to the University of Iowa's Writer's Workshop, sending them a copy of his debut novel, War Year, and was soon accepted. The couple moved the Midwest, where he began his studies. There, he was tutored by author Vance Bourjaily, who recognized the talent his student displayed: "He had read War Year. When I showed up at his office and asked what I should be doing, he looked over his glasses and said, 'You're working on another novel, aren't you?' I said yes. 'Then go home and write.' " Haldeman obliged. The program's requirements were minimal: attend a couple of courses, and produce a long work. Haldeman went back to work on the larger work that started with “Hero.” Despite elements of the program that were vehemently anti–science fiction, Haldeman continued to write the work which would define his career.
“Hero” was soon expanded into a full novel called The Forever War, and Haldeman began to look for a place to publish it. The novel followed conscripted soldier William Mandella as humanity goes to war with an alien race known as the Taurans. He's sent off to a difficult training course on Earth, then on a planet far out in Earth's solar system, Charon (this was before Pluto's moon Charon was discovered; the name is a coincidence). From training, Mandella is sent off to the front lines via collapsars which transport them thousands of light years away. Due to relativistic effects, Mandella grows further and further from home, literally and figuratively, as society changes behind him. The story mirrored the feelings of many soldiers who fought in Vietnam, who often returned home to a country they hardly recognized. Haldeman first sold the book to Terry Carr at Ace Books, who was fired from the publisher shortly thereafter, leaving Haldeman without a buyer. He continued to try and sell the novel, going through 17 publishers, each who rejected it, often on the basis that there was no market for a Vietnam War novel, especially as the war was still several years away from ending. In the meantime, Haldeman continued to publish the story through Bova at Analog: the next installment following “Hero” was “We Are Very Happy Here,” which appeared in the magazine's November 1973 issue, and was followed in November 1974 by “The Best of All Possible Worlds” and concluded in January 1975 with “End Game.” A final piece, “You Can Never Go Back,” which Bova had rejected, was published in November 1975 by Amazing Stories.
Haldeman finally sold The Forever War to Tom Dunne of St. Martin's Press. Dunne liked the book and it was finally published in January 1975, minus the story which would appear in Amazing Stories later that year. The book earned a short review in the New York Times: "The technology involved in this interplanetary campaign is so sophisticated that the book might well have been accompanied by an operator's manual. But then, all the futuristic mayhem is plugged into human situations that help keep the extraterrestrial activity on a warm and even witty plane....Mr. Haldeman compresses atavism and irony into a vasty entertaining trip." Kirkus Reviews gave the novel a starred review, noting that "[t]his war is the opposite of the one Heinlein glorified in Starship Troopers (1959)—bloody, cruel and meaningless. This is a splendid, thoughtful adventure."
In 1975, shortly after the novel was published, Haldeman graduated from the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop, receiving his MFA in Creative Writing. His thesis novel was proving to be popular. Fellow science fiction authors weighed in as well. William Gibson would later praise the novel: “To say that The Forever War is the best science fiction war novel ever written is to damn it with faint praise. It is, for all its techno-extrapolative brilliance, as fine and woundingly genuine a war story as any I've read,” while Iain M. Banks described the book as “not just a great Science Fiction novel, it's a great Vietnam war novel—and a great war novel, without qualification—that is also Science Fiction. A classic to grace either genre.” In 1976, the year after the Vietnam War ended, The Forever War won the Hugo, Nebula and Locus Awards for Best Novel—the first, Haldeman joked, MFA thesis from the University of Iowa to do so.
The Forever War is transparently an autobiographical retelling of Haldeman's wartime experiences. Mandella's conscription and reluctance mirrors that of Haldeman's own life and attitude, with scenes drawn closely to his own time in the service. Additionally, Mandella's partner takes on the name of Haldeman's own wife, Marygay Potter. Haldeman's attitudes toward warfare ran counter to that of most of the other novelists in the genre writing similar fare, notably that of Robert Heinlein, known for his own wartime SF novel, Starship Troopers. Heinlein's own hawkish views came out of the beginnings of the Cold War in the 1950s and Heinlein, a staunch advocate for a strong military, promotes the conduct of war as a patriotic duty. Haldeman, nearly two decades later, came to the opposite conclusion after living through and almost being killed by the Cold War Heinlein trumpeted. Yet, Haldeman doesn't hold up The Forever War as a counter to Starship Troopers: "it wasn't an "answer" to Starship Troopers, as some people claimed. Novels aren't conversations."
Despite the tone of Haldeman’s novel, Heinlein himself enjoyed reading The Forever War, according to his biographer, William H. Patterson Jr. When Heinlein was named a Science Fiction Grandmaster in 1975, the pair met in person for the first time: "It is an honor to meet you,, sir. That may be the best future war story I've ever read!" Heinlein said. Patterson noted that "Heinlein always valued direct experience and what Haldeman had to say was in no way inconsistent with Heinlein's opinions as to what impact undeclared wars might have on the people who served."
The Forever War was a major departure in the vein of science fiction it occupied, future war stories. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, military fiction grew in popularity with the success of Starship Troopers, itself influenced by the highly technical and systematic Cold War. Like the rest of the hard SF genre at the time, there was a pushback against the rigid technological nature of the genre by the late 1960s, especially as science fiction’s New Wave arrived. Haldeman’s novel, however, fits into both worlds: His scientific background plays a key role in The Forever War, with his characters under relativistic effects being a key plot point. However, Haldeman also experiments with the changing nature of social behavior and society, something he would have seen returning from Vietnam. In many ways, while Starship Troopers captured the potential of the Cold War at its onset, The Forever War captured the reality faced by soldiers. Damien Walter notes that the “story features armored space marines, a war of genocide against alien life and details of a militaristic culture. To that extent, it is a controversial work of military SF. But it subverts the pro-military attitudes that had characterized previous works of the same kind and instead reflects and endorses the pacifism of the 1960s counterculture.”
With The Forever War under his belt, Haldeman's career was off to a great start. His next novel, Mindbridge, was published in 1976, and over the coming years, he would publish a dozen more books and numerous short stories. In that time, he would win numerous additional Hugo, Nebula, Heinlein, Tiptree and Skylark awards for his stories. In 1991, Avon Books won the rights to publish The Forever War, allowing Haldeman to add the long-missing Amazing Stories piece “You Can Never Go Home Again.” However, it wasn’t until 1997 that Avon published a definitive edition of the novel. The same year, Haldeman published a sequel, Forever Peace, which earned the Best Novel Hugo and John W. Campbell Jr. Award in 1998 and the Best Novel Nebula in 1999. In 1999, The Forever War was published as a SF Masterwork, while Haldeman published a third and final book in the sequence, Forever Free.
In 2008, Variety announced that filmmaker Ridley Scott had acquired the film rights for the novel, a project long desired by Scott: “I first pursued ‘Forever War’ 25 years ago, and the book has only grown more timely and relevant since”. The highest honor for Haldeman arrived in 2010, when he was named the 27th Science Fiction Grandmaster by the Science Fiction Writers of America. Most recently, his latest novel, Work Done For Hire, was published in early 2014. As of now, a film is still in the works for The Forever War, with its screenplay currently in the hands of Edge of Tomorrow scribe Dante Harper.