Sunday, 31 May 2015

The Forever War (by Joe Haldeman) re-read

(Originally posted on Tuesday, 22 November 2016)

My rating: 10/10

Have you ever bought the same book more than once? I did. I bought several books twice, but there is one book that I bought THREE times – The Forever War by Joe Haldeman. I had borrowed the first book to my aunt and I forgot about it. After several years I bought it the second time because the urge to read it again was unstoppable. Recently bought it for the third time to read it in English.

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman is by far the best novel I have ever read that makes extensive use of real physics. Most science-fiction books are mostly fiction, but The Forever War is in many places REAL science!!! Real science used in an awesome, thought-provoking way.

The Forever War is remarkably visionary (in many different ways) even today. When I was reading it for the first time I couldn't believe that it was written in 1970s! The only thing that is a little awkward is the fact that the plot starts in 1990s and by now we know that there has been no such rapid space-travel improvement as described in the novel.

The Forever War is still up-to-day, mostly because nobody proved that Albert Einstein’s special theory of relativity is wrong. Here's my post about this theory:
The Forever War (by Joe Haldeman) and Einstein’s special theory of relativity

The Forever War is still a science-fiction book, not all-science book. The most important aspect of fiction are very good sources of energy (especially for the spaceships and for the combat suites) and the collapsars (space objects that allow a kind of instant teleportation/travel to another collapsar). These science-fiction assumptions combined with the real physics made a thrilling combination!

Some reviewers claim that in this novel Haldeman made a lecture on physics, but such claims are simply ridiculous. First of all, there are no mathematical formulas in the novel! A lecture on physics without formulas? Oh, come on! Second of all, the numbers given in the novel are of the same kind as in any decent novel (not only a science-fiction novel, but any KIND of novel): speeds, distances and times of travel. Such info gives an idea about the passing of time and about a described world in general. Without such info a book (ANY book) would be shallow, to say the least.

To me the biggest positive aspect of the novel was that Haldeman added the info about accelerations! In normal novels such info is not important because you usually reach a maximum available speed in a very short time. Not so in space. Have you ever wondered how much time would be needed to reach a particular fraction of the speed of light when travelling with the acceleration of 1G (the acceleration on Earth caused by gravity)? Or what would happen to people if the acceleration was higher than that (without any fictional “stabilisers”)? Such trivia can be found all over the book. AWESOME!!! And true.

During one re-reading of this book (probably the second time I’ve read it) I was using a calculator and basic physical formulas WHILE reading the book. I checked every value that was connected with acceleration, speed, distance and time of travel. Everything was correct! But you don’t have to use a calculator to enjoy the novel – all the results are simply given by Haldeman in such a way that without paying attention you will miss half of them. In other words: the physical info is given in a by-the-way kind of way that don’t distract the reader from the main plot of the novel.

The ultimate praise for this book is the fact that people who don’t care about real physics will be interested by the plot of the novel anyway because it’s very gripping and fast. On the other hand people who care about real physics (like me) will be utterly fascinated by all the info thrown in by the way. I simply can’t describe how much I enjoyed this book!

There is only one aspect of the book that was really troubling me – the sexual side of the novel. The “rules of engagements” in the first part of the novel are especially questionable. Over time they change, but they change together with a transformation of the whole society (into a society of homosexuals). Thankfully the main character doesn't change and the army decides not to interfere (with any “treatment course” for his “deviation”).

The ending of the novel is simply awesome! In TWO different ways! Overall there are many cool things happening in the Forever War, but describing them would be like giving spoilers. Believe me, this novel is one of the best novels (of any kind) ever written.

    (…) The floor team was waiting at the foot of the bridge, each one holding a piece of the light, stressed permaplast over his head like an umbrella. They were dry and clean. I wondered aloud what they had done to deserve it, and Rogers suggested a couple of colorful, but unlikely, possibilities.

    There really wasn't any sense in having us train in the cold. Typical army halflogic. Sure, it was going to be cold where we were going, but not ice-cold or snow-cold. Almost by definition, a portal planet remained within a degree or two of absolute zero all the time – since collapsars don't shine – and the first chill you felt would mean that you were a dead man.

    They had spent all that money on us just to kill us in training?

    We stopped for the "night" – actually, the sun wouldn't set for another seventy hours – atop a slight rise some ten klicks from where we had killed the aliens. But they weren't aliens, I had to remind myself – we were.

    “Most of you are too young to remember the term future shock. Back in the seventies, some people felt that technological progress was so rapid that people, normal people, couldn't cope with it; that they wouldn't have time to get used to the present before the future was upon them. A man named Toffler coined the term future shock to describe this situation.” The commodore could get pretty academic.
    “We're caught up in a physical situation that resembles this scholarly concept. The result has been disaster. Tragedy. And, as we discussed in our last meeting, there is no way to counter it. Relativity traps us in the enemy's past; relativity brings them from our future. We can only hope that next time, the situation will be reversed. (…)”

    At her apartment on the ninety-second floor, she apologized for the smallness of the place. It didn't seem so little to me, but then she'd never lived on a spaceship.

    One thing we didn't have to worry about in this war was enemy agents. With a good coat of paint, a Tauran might be able to disguise himself as an ambulatory mushroom. Bound to raise suspicions.

    Most of them either had English as their native tongue or as a second language, but it had changed so drastically over 450 years that I could barely understand it, not at all if it was spoken rapidly. Fortunately, they had all been taught early twenty-first century English during their basic training; that language, or dialect, served as a temporal lingua franca through which a twenty-fifth century soldier could communicate with someone who had been a contemporary of his nineteen-times-great-grandparents. lf there had still been such a thing as grandparents.

    I did have a new friend who sat in my lap all the time. It was the cat, who had the usual talent for hiding from people who like cats and cleaving unto those who have sinus trouble or just don't like sneaky little animals. We did have something in common, though, since to my knowledge he was the only other heterosexual male mammal within any reasonable distance. He'd been castrated, of course, but that didn't make much difference under the circumstances.

    It improved the troops' morale to get out and chew up the landscape with their new toys. But the landscape wasn't fighting back. No matter how physically impressive the weapons were, their effectiveness would depend on what the Taurans could throw back. A Greek phalanx must have looked pretty impressive, but it wouldn't do too well against a single man with a flamethrower.
    And as with any engagement, because of time dilation, there was no way to tell what sort of weaponry they would have. They might have never heard of the stasis field. Or they might be able to say a magic word and make us disappear.

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