The Forever War by Joe Haldeman has been hailed as one of the greatest military science fiction novels of all time. Written in the 1970s partly as a reaction to Haldeman’s own service with the US Army during the Vietnam War, it received the Nebula Award in 1975, and the Hugo Award and the Locus Award in 1976.
The Forever War follows serviceman William Mandela and his conscription into the United Nations Exploratory Force, which is effectively the global military force at the time. The UNEF has encountered a hostile alien race known as the Taurans, and Mandela joins them on their quest for revenge and self-preservation. These elements of the plot are almost inconsequential, though, as the novel is really about the displacement and alienation that military service veterans experience upon returning to the homes they were fighting for.
This is made extraordinarily effective by the method of travel the UNEF is forced to use, which sends its members at near-light speeds between the stars. The nature of relativity means that while only 2 years have passed for Mandela by the time he returns to Earth, many more years have passed on the ground and the society he returns to is virtually nothing like the one that he left behind. Verging on the dystopian at times, Mandela struggles to accommodate the social changes that have occurred in his absence, but fails fairly spectacularly and in the end decides that all he can do is rejoin his old unit and continue to fight, hence the title, ‘The Forever War’.
Sometimes seeming to be a cautionary tale about the hidden dangers of military service and sometimes just downright depressing, The Forever War is nevertheless an excellent read, one that unfortunately still resonates with the veterans of today’s wars echoing the struggles they face after their service is over.