This is a classic written in 1975 and I finally got around to reading it. The novel is about William Mandella, a young man drafted into the military when the first interstellar war starts. He is part of the very first group of recruits. The training, under Vietnam War veterans, occurs on a fictional planet so far out from the Sun that the environment is at almost absolute zero. Almost half the recruits die in training. Following that, the men and women are sent towards a distant planet for their first encounter with the Taurans. The important point here, and that which gives the story its name and main plot device, is that since the troops travel at appreciable fractions of the speed of light, much more time passes for those they left behind than for them. They are in transit a few months while decades and more pass on Earth. This is a consequence of general relativity. When Joe returns home, his mother has aged decades. The Earth is dystopian and unrecognizable. Despite his distaste for things military, he dislikes the current Earth more and decides to re-up together with Marygay Potter, the girlfriend whom he met in the service. Next time he returns, wounded, from a mission, centuries have passed, and society has changed even more. Since there are still several years left on his enlistment, he is sent out again, heartbreakingly on a separate assignment from Marygay, both in space and now in time. On this mission, seven hundred years will pass back home.
Mr. Haldeman is himself a Vietnam War veteran, and it shows in the novel. The draftees are disaffected and do not have a personal stake in the war. In fact, they do not understand it. They are just victims. As Mandella’s rank increases with time, he makes good military decisions, but this is not out of some desire to be a hero, or even because he seems particularly interested in the outcome of the war. As he repeatedly explains, he will be lucky to get out of the war alive. It is a matter of probabilities to him, not skill. In the wider perspective, the war itself seems to be an inevitable product of the society in which they live. As the centuries pass, the war gels to permanence, or as the title puts it “forever”. Society and the economy only exist to support the war and the survival of mankind. There are no lofty cultural or artistic goals involved. Mr. Haldeman’s descriptions of battle and military life cooped up in ships for months are gritty, realistic, dark. Death is commonplace both in battle and outside it. People are mourned but the characters are fatalistic about the whole thing. They know that they will die, probably soon and unexpectedly, and their lives are made up of trying to find pleasure and joy even with that knowledge. The military is a faceless machine that grinds on without much more purpose than to exist. The contrast with the caring Mandella and Potter is striking. Mr. Haldeman’s genius, however, is only partly in his setting. The other part, I feel, is that this novel is so readable, so full of (admittedly dark) humor, so “light”, if you will. Even while filled with senseless death, it still makes the reader smile. Perhaps it is because Mandella is so easy to identify with. Despite everything, he has a rather sunny outlook on life. He tries to do his best. He is a nice guy thrust into uncontrollable circumstances and he tries to make the best of things.
This is one of the finest novels that I have ever read.