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Book Review (Yeah, Book Review Bitch)

 The Forever War

Joe Haldeman

Before I begin a review on this book, I want to explain why, in heavens name, I feel compelled to write a book review on ANY book.

I am a book addict. If I am not absorbed in a book, I feel unfulfilled, dissatisfied, vaguely unhappy. Books somehow plug that emotional cavity that is empty and aching without a story to fill it up. This function is served for some (my kids for example) by television or movies or even gossip. For me, it always has been books. When I am reading a good book, I am content. When I put down my book, I can’t wait to get back to it. I get through my dreary activities of daily living just to make it back to THE BOOK. When I finish a book, I begin my quest to find another.

Usually fiction. I can get into a good biography, but it has to be a damn good biography. It has to be as good as – well – fiction. History can be very diverting, too. Also stuff like travel books. These work because they TAKE you someplace. Sort of like, well, you know, ‐ fiction. You’ve got the idea.

Where does one find suitable books to salve the soul? Oh, my! This should be easy. Well, it is not. A few sources of book recommendations include: A friend can tell you about one they loved (usually unbearably trite!). A bookstore can display the best sellers (this just means a bunch of good folks have been hoodwinked into buying stupid books !) My ipad can tell me about the same shit the bookstore is peddling. Websites like Good Reads can narrow it down for you (are publishing companies paying these people?) You can find literary lists like “100 best books of all time.” Man, that is a crap shoot let me tell you.

Okay, before you think I am an egomaniac with the fixed notion that I am the only arbiter of good literary taste in the universe, I must humble the tone here. I am sure that these books appeal to a great many people and these great people of whom there are many are not wrong. They are just not ME. Or YOU. So, they pick the books that rang their chimes – maybe 100 years ago by the way – and it just doesn’t set the bells off for me reliably. Of course, some of the novels from lofty lists of all time literary achievements, DID strike a cord and even construct a sonnet in my brain or the strains of a symphony. So, I am only saying that these types of lists are well intended and researched and the recommendations have stood the test of time, but still offer a roll of the dice. If there is any good news from the “100 Best Lists”, the books recommended are typically cheap these days or gathering dust at your local library.

Oh, yeah, libraries. I forgot that one. I seriously did. Unless you live in Oregon you probably have never had your libraries shut down. We had ours shut down for the better part of a year due to lack of funds. That was a year where many peopleincluding me – broke their library habit. This is a shame and I will get back to it, I promise. Hey, I am retired now. Maybe I will volunteer.

Okay, I know I was reviewing a book and got sidelined, but I MUST say a few words about libraries. They are my lifelong friends. When I was a young girl, I could walk to our town library. (a small rural town in Idaho). I thanked God everyday that we did not live in the countryside because if we did I could NOT walk to the library (and I might have to feed pigs or something, too, but that is a whole different topic). From about the age of 8, just walking INTO a library produced rapture. My heart rate speeded up, seriously. Sometimes my hands and feet perspired. I probably had the same reaction a junkie has just before they plunge the injection needle or a sex addict walking into an Adult Video store. The sight of all of those books with stories in them – stories of people I would never meet or understand otherwise, of lands and cultures I would probably never see – times that I would never live in – ideas from outside my claustrophobic community. The library was my window to the world and being raised in a very restrictive religion among folks who prided themselves on uninformed faith based opinions, it represented the intellectual’s equivalent of holy sanctuary. I spent hours there just selecting the books I would read and invariably checked out as many as they allowed – and once as many as I could carry because I couldn’t make it home with the whole stack and my sister had to help me back to the library to return a few thick ones so I didn’t strain my back.

And, now to the book review. “The Forever War.” How did I find this book? Most book stores have a Staff Picks shelf. I actually find these fairly reliable. I have good luck with the recommendations and many of them I see on the shelf are ones that I have already read and enjoyed very much so the credibility is again bolstered. I hadn’t read The Forever War because it is science fiction and I don’t get around to reading many of these. Also the title is somewhat dated now. Forever War made me remember the great science fiction that I HAVE read and prompted me to start adding some of these titles back into my reading time.

Joe Haldeman wrote this book in 1974. He is a Vietnam War veteran and recipient of the Purple Heart. He also has a huge knowledge of physics and currently is a tenured professor at MIT, but teaches writing, not science. He has written many books since this one and all have critical acclaim. People who read science fiction are probably rolling their eyes right now and pronouncing me the village idiot because I only just now discovered him But, hey, I did. And, there may be other wandering idiots who could use a tip.

The book is said to be an allegory of the Vietnam War. Okay, if they say so. Honestly, I didn’t get that. It is just a great book about lots of things, human nature being central. Human sexuality also goes center stage and Haldeman’s beliefs about sexual orientation are surprisingly forward thinking for a book this old. And, the nature of war, of course, and the soldier’s place as pawn in a game plan written almost entirely without his welfare in mind.

The book is written in the first person,  the narrator’s inner dialogue supplying all we know about the complicated world (even to him) we are traversing.   You like him immensely and  want to jump into the book and make sure he gets out okay. But, the militarized world described in the novel is so treacherous, so high‐wire and rigged, that the reader is just forced to hold her breath and watch Private Mandella give it his best shot. Because of the nature of space travel, Mandella’s life spans centuries although he ages naturally. We meet him at 20 and say goodbye at 40 something , but hundreds (thousands?) of years pass while he is in the military service. The world changes and changes again and then becomes unrecognizable and Haldeman makes it all sound not only plausible, but almost inevitable. The book was frightening in that respect. I suppose much of science fiction answers the question: What will become of us?

Forever War finds a commonality today, I think, with us oldies. I am 61 and trying to decipher technology that changes every week. I no sooner feel competent than the game changes and young people lead the way in an incomprehensible labyrinth of electronic gibberish. The only thing stable is the inherent instability of trusting anything to remain the same. Private Mandella would arrive back on earth hoping to find a job only to learn that people no longer worked. Everybody not fighting a war was just pensioned out. He would arrive again to find that nobody lived on earth at all, the atmosphere too compromised. He would join a new regiment in space and learn that – since he had traveled 600 years from his last assignment – everyone was now either a well adjusted homosexual or a pervert. Mandella also falls victim to the same trick most of us have suffered during our lives. We get promoted based solely on survival. We can never quite figure out how we end up in charge and the yoke of power is not what we expected. We regret every evil wish we have ever cast upon former bosses. We see things from new eyes. At the end of the book (spoiler) Mandella broadcasts to his troops “This is Major Mandella” and then asks himself why that always sounds to him like a bad joke. I am new at this reviewing business and don’t want to ruin it for anybody. Just saying that the book cost me next to nothing on my ipad. It was a surprise to me that I liked it so much. It got me back into science fiction as a genre. It represents excellence. The author is a brilliant, sardonic, scientific minded man who can also spin a good yarn. I will read more from him. 

I read TONS these days.  More later on other titles I loved.   Maybe a mention of books I just finished without loving so much and even others I bought and then couldn’t get through it.

On My Tombstone, please carve  TELL ME A STORY

Kaye Debra Proctor,

 

 

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