[This review was posted 6/22/2006 at wotmania.com. Wotmania closed down at the end of August 2009, and most of the members have since migrated to RAFO. I’m moving the review here because, being normally narcissistic, I do not want to lose it. Also, I am currently somewhat sick, so this has not been edited. I’m sorry: it is informal, possibly ineloquent, and maybe even full of typos.]
I’m always slightly suspicious of novels that win awards that are later published again in “definitive” versions, with bits that had been left out before now added in because they were there in the original text but were edited out or bits that were added because the author wrote a few short stories along the way. (I read the two versions of American Gods side by side to figure out which one was better. When I said “slightly”, I meant “extremely”.) Anyway, the version I have is the Gollancz SF Masterworks one, and it’s, as Haldeman explains, “definitive”. It contains a section formerly too “downbeat” for Analogs audience. I’m not sure what it does to the novel as a whole.
It doesn’t really matter, since the novel is really good anyway. Very basically: Humanity is at war. In space. Highly scientific methods of space travel and colonization are involved. The enemy race are the “Taurans”. We’re not sure why, they attacked us first. The latest army strategy is to recruit highly intelligent, trained specialists (somebody remind me, which was the Alfred Bester short story that had similar ideas?) straight out of university to be a part of United Nations Exploratory Force, ‘emphasis on the “force”.’ Biologists, linguists, physicists… which brings us to Private William Mandella, 22, trained as a physicist.
The novel follows Mandella’s progress through the war, his times in between engagements as a civilian, his relationships with his rapidly changing peers.
The basic problem is thus: travel in space occurs at near light speeds. A year for Mandella means centuries back home on Earth. Obviously there’s room for a great deal of future shock between assignments. Sexual mores, trends, politics, all of society in general, is changed radically when Mandella goes back to visit, and even when he doesn’t. Survival rate between assignments seems to be low, so as the novel goes on more and more of Mandella’s original peers drop away and he’s surrounded by people younger than him, with different mores – he thinks their society is odd, they think he’s a pervert. Makes for a fun situation.
There are quite a few holes here and there, like what the hell are you doing with someone who is incapable of xenophobia in your army, when half your battle tactics depend on that wonderful trait, and what happened to all the telepaths? And the close of war was… I don’t know. I felt a bit letdown. That’s it?
Overall, though, the plot is good, fast-paced. Scenarios shift from planet to planet, and the people change accordingly. I found the socio-political changes fascinating, almost acceptable as a “This-might’ve happened”. Mandella’s final closing is surprising, but neat. In fact, I liked the closing so completely that I’m not quite sure what to do about the other novels – Forever Free and Forever Peace. I’ll wait a while for the curiosity to build before I look for them.
What else? Characterisation is sparse but adequate. Mandella is the only person whom we get to know in any sort of detail, and he’s a perfect war-narrator: laid-back, lucky, sarcastic and sardonic. He tends to form relationships with interesting people, and has what I see as a mildly quirky way of looking at women (what he characterizes as butch is laughable, really)…
The aliens themselves are interesting, I wish we saw more of them. I like the hints Haldeman drops here and there about their nature, and then when you reach the end of the novel there’s this satisfaction of “Ok, that’s what that was about”…
…all in all, a very satisfactory read. Pick it up, you. You (most probably) won’t regret it.