Mmm… Pop! The Forever War


Technobabble–what is it? A genre of music? A video game? A retelling of a biblical classic set in the future? (Trick question–that is Techno Babel, something I just made up).

The answer is  none of the above. According to Merriam Webster, and not Wikipedia, (I had to scroll down the first page of google search results almost to the bottom to get this for you, friendies,) technobabble is simply “jargon.” More specifically, it is a portmanteau–a word blending the sounds/meanings of two other words–of techno (technical/technological) and babble (meaningless vocal sounds). Technobabble “suggests language which sounds highly technical and is incomprehensible to the listener.” Hard sci-fi, or the “inaccessible stuff,” often contains what is largely construed as technobabble. Soft sci-fi does not. Soft sci-fi, which technically focuses on soft sciences (social sciences, human effects, etc.), is also considered “everything else.” Fun science fiction. You know, Stargate, Planet of the Apes, Terminator, Transformers, etc.

Hard sci-fi can be… intimidating. It is for me. Because of technobabble. The thing is, hard sci-fi strives for scientific accuracy. The results of which usher in the possibility for a greater sense of realism, and consequently immersion. However, knowing this doesn’t make up for the dread of possibly slogging through something like: “the thrusters operated at 90 percent capacity depending on the velocity of the spacecraft, and though the carbon-steel construction buffered incoming turbulence, 90 percent capacity consumed valuable fuel, which burned at 12 liters every 12.5 seconds…”

Thankfully, The Forever War doesn’t contain anything like that migraine of a sentence. But the first few pages still worried me, especially as Haldeman explained the intricacies of the soldiers’ flight/combat suits; how they worked, why they worked, jargon and all. But damn, was it interesting how those suits functioned. And all the groundwork Haldeman lays down–all the detail for sake of hypothetical accuracy–makes for awesome tension when one of the suits eventually malfunctions. Because I knew exactly what was wrong with the suit, and exactly what needed to be done to fix it. And how close to impossible that fix would be. Meaning, the person in that suit was in all likelihood going to die, unless someone outsmarted the suit itself.

So, the hard sci-fi elements enhance this particular tale and the way it’s told. But hard sci-fi alone can’t make or break a story, and most of us will still find ourselves asking: Is it worth it?


The Difference

Forever War sold me after I read the back cover: one man ships out again and again, without aging, to fight an eternal war in space. Haldeman published this puppy in 1974, close to the end of the Vietnam War. Forever War is largely an allegory for the Vietnam War (Haldeman is indeed a veteran), and that makes for some thought-provoking and brutal moments about the nature of combat and the effects of such on the soldiers.

Battle circumstances are almost randomly generated for Mandella and crew. There is no ebb, flow, or progression to the war with the Taurans (the alien species opposing humanity). Battles are determined by the necessity of defending arbitrary points in space. Humans and Taurans both must travel light years toward these predetermined territories, and the combination of when they receive intel and how long it takes each side to arrive plays a monumental part in determining the battle’s outcome. Haldeman utilizes a concept called time dilation, an especially intriguing hard sci-fi element of the story. Essentially, because of the difference in travel speeds through such impossible distances, Taurans or humans may arrive at battle points within massive ranges of technological advantage. Sometimes the Taurans are advanced and annihilate the humans, sometimes the switch is flipped–without any method of prediction.

Combat is mostly swift and confusing. More time is spent on preparation for battle, and even more on the downtime afterward. The Taurans are a faceless enemy, humanoid in nature, yet mostly left to mystery. No more or less intimidating than humanity, which is the point. They are a threat, but only in an obscure way. In fact, most battle casualties for Mandella and company rise from malfunctioning equipment or technological failure than directly from the Taurans themselves. Basically, Haldeman places less emphasis on fighting, more on preparation for battles, with the crux of focus being the aftereffects. Not PTSD, but reassimilation.

See, the other effect of time dilation is that earth time is moving at a different speed than time for soldiers shipped to fight the Taurans. A campaign might last three years for Mandella and crew, but when they return to earth, eighty years have come and gone. Social norms have changed. Technology has changed. Currency, values, countries. The war is far away, and no one quite knows what to do or how to treat these soldiers upon return. They are forever apart, marked by what they have done.

In the future version of earth, homosexuality is first viewed with an ambivalence and acceptance reflected in some modern schools of thought, and later encouraged as mainstream to curb overpopulation. This non-discriminate attitude was, I imagine, progressive of its time. Remember, this book came out in ‘74. Like a lot of old sci-fi, the future presented is best viewed as an alternate timeline rather than the fictional future, as we have seen a lot  of ideas, theories, and concepts fall in and out of vogue–with the gift of hindsight, we know the future. However, the reader playing inside baseball with Haldeman’s future takes nothing away from observing the soldiers’ futility in adjusting to increasingly foreign versions of their home.

Without many options, prospects, or living friends or family, many of the combatants re-enlist. The war is all they know. And each time Mandella returns to earth, from progressively longer campaigns, the more unrecognizable “home” becomes, until it isn’t home at all. His closest family, the only people he relates to, are his fellow soldiers. They are his home now.

Sound familiar?

Even Mandella’s romantic interest is part of his company. Granted, this book is less successful when it’s trying to be a love story, though even that minimal investment pays dividends of a sort. Mandella has gone through so damn much by the end of his story that he deserves peace, no matter how contrived.

The Player(s)

This is Mandella’s story and no one else’s. He’s straightforward, serviceable. No surprises. But his role is reader surrogate. He’s an everyman, and we watch as he progresses from rookie recruit to hardened veteran. He’s not necessarily smarter or stronger than anyone else, (though he is smart) but he is lucky, and he is a survivor. His comrades, commanding officers, and his support come and go, but Mandella alone remains. He is an “effective” soldier toward the end only because he is experienced. He observes, and he lives long enough to teach new recruits, while never edging into psychological territory too uncomfortable for the reader. A trusty surrogate to the end, he is never too complicated to distract from the plot.

And boy is there plot. While the details aren’t necessarily complex, a lot of stuff happens in Forever War. Characters take a backseat, but the ride is beautiful, and it’s enough just to hear them react to the changing scenery, because they react accordingly.

Marygay Potter is Mandella’s love interest. She’s a solid enough sketch, but she remains a sketch. She is Mandella’s heaviest anchor, and her relationships with Mandella elicits an emotional reaction not necessarily from an intricate bond, but because she remains one of the only comrades to remain with Mandella since the very beginning, as all the rest become lost to time.

The Taurans remain a mysterious “other.” They are humanity’s enemy, but the motivation for war is obscured to the characters themselves. The point is that they are not so different from us.


Hi-Lite Reel

The combat suits play a pivotal role in a tense first act showdown with the Taurans. While Mandella and company are readying bases, waiting for an imminent Tauran attack, a malfunction in the some of the soldiers’ delicate suits provides a gritty introduction into the real dangers of the war.

Watching Mandella and a select few of his fellows try adapting to a changed earth upon their first return, and the increasingly alien humanity on subsequent returns makes for intriguing food for thought. Haldeman lays excellent groundwork for these changes, even if they are dated, by rationalizing earth’s projected problems, government solutions, emergence of new problems, and the cycle of change. Upon the close of Mandella’s last campaign, humanity is no longer recognizable.

Mandella as veteran is satisfying, only because he’s so vulnerable for most of the book. He’s not much less vulnerable as a seasoned officer, but seeing him exert at least some element of control, while teaching rookies what he knows even as he grows jaded with the military bureaucracy. It’s his own little expression of screw-you to the forces that have been screwing him for most of his career.

The ending. By far the most sentimental act of the entire story. In fact, it almost seems out of place, or undeserved. But if you’re a sap like me, you won’t even care. Mandella, and therefore the reader, have been through ages of hell. Peace is well deserved, even if it isn’t likely.


Is it Worth It?

I’m going with yes, but this does depend on what you’re looking for in science fiction, or fiction in general. I’m usually a character man myself. Strong characters help me forgive a lax plot. The opposite doesn’t ring true (again, for me). But in this case, the characters are solid enough I was happy to strap in, close the bar, and just throw up my hands. You’ll go places you never expected. Don’t be scared of the hard sci-fi, because once digested, it’s purely an enhancement that allows detailed focus on the intricate scenery whirling by.

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