The Forever War

Thirty years ago, during the winter quarter of 1979, I took one of the best classes I ever took at Ohio State, which introduced me to my all-time favorite book. The class was called Science Fiction as Literature (or something with a similar, college curriculum-sounding name) and the book was The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman. The book was part of a great reading list that included A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Behold The Man, by Michael Moorcock, and works by Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, and others. Never was it so easy to finish the required reading for a course!

The Forever War is the first-person story of William Mandella, who somehow manages to retain his humanity and the love of his life, Marygay, while fighting in a war that lasts for thousands of years due to the time dilation predicted by the theory of relativity. As the broad wheel of history turns about him, Mandella finds himself increasingly out of place as culture, social mores, and even language change in ways he can barely comprehend. Yet the book’s voice is bright and accessible and filled with humor. The book features my all-time favorite line from a book, spoken by Mandella after returning from years in a spacecraft and self-contained fighting suit: “There are no words to describe a cold beer and a chicken sandwich after two years of recycled shit.”

I’m not sure why I have found the book so enormously appealing, even after 30 years. I just know that I have read and re-read it more than I have read and re-read any other book, and at some point I am confident that I will read it again. It is like a comfortable visit from an old friend, where the stories are all known but there is great pleasure in the re-telling.

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