Nebula Project: Forever War, part 2

What follows is a spoiler laden discussion of the book Forever War by Joe Haldeman. Beware if you’re worried about such things.

This is part two of our discussion on the Nebula Award winner Forever War, by Joe Haldeman. In the first part, we took a look at the version of the book which was published in the 70s and went on to win the Nebula Award. In this part, we’ll look at a revised version published more recently, as well as the short story/novella “A Separate War” which tells the last portion of the book from the perspective of a different character.

K: So let’s go back to Forever War. As we mentioned in our first discussion, there are several versions of this book around, and initially we sought out the version which had actually been presented to the Nebula voters. More recent editions have included a significantly different ‘middle’ section, which was apparently the original (or a revision of the original) intention, but were altered before it was first published as a novel.

K: The ‘middle’ section in question is the portion of the novel taking place just after the first battle with the Taurans, up to and including the time when our main character, William Mandella, returns to Earth after being released from the military.

J: At first I noticed just little changes. Like suddenly he wasn’t getting ‘soya’ from the machine, but ‘coffee’. And I also thought his birthdate had changed, but no, it was always March 1975. Which was not the year I was born, like I said in our last discussion. I think I must’ve done the math from another date in the book and come up with 1974. But once they get to the orientation before going back to Earth, and then Earth, it’s all a lot different.

K: Yes, it is. Since it’s a bit confusing which was ‘original’, I’m going to refer to the first version we read as the Nebula version and the other one as the modern version. The Nebula version was more vague, definitely. William and Marygay arrive back on Earth, William meets his mom and his brother, he and Marygay go on a vacation, and then — spoilers — William’s mom randomly dies because she was not considered important enough to be guaranteed healthcare past the age of 70. Somehow all of this is so awful they leave the planet in disgust and re-enlist. Compared to the modern version, which I’ll let you describe, I have to say I liked this dystopic Earth better. It was more reasonable. The lack of detail and the seeming smallness of the changes made it far more believable to me. If I squint hard enough I could maybe see how we could end up like that. The modern version, on the other hand, had too many details; too many huge changes. It was over the top and didn’t work for me. But it was certainly worse which made their decision to quit Earth a lot less confusing.

J: I agree on the details front. I don’t know if I’d say it was too many, but it was definitely better thought-out. There is, for instance, a thriving black market, which you in particular bemoaned the lack of in the Nebula version. So in this modern version, they go back to Earth and it really sucks. Everyone goes outside armed or with a bodyguard. Money is in kilocalories, which are kinda sorta confusingly tied with food rationing. Marygay’s parents fled prison to work on a farm commune. His mother has a subcontracted black market job. He visits her, then he and Marygay go on a tour of the world, starting with London, via dirigible. They have a violent encounter when he breaks up a gangrape and they cut the trip short. He goes home, his Mom is apparently a lesbian now. Which freaks him out enough to go live with Marygay’s family on the commune. Which goes well for a few days, until they’re killed in a big gunfight or something. Then back to his Mom dying because she’s sick and old and so they re-enlist.

K: So which version did you like better? Since you say it’s ‘better thought-out’, I’m going to guess the modern? As I said, for me, it was just too much. There were lots of details, but since we didn’t really get to see much more than this bullet list of facts (oh hai we changed all world currency to one currency and named it kilocalories because that wasn’t at all confusing and I don’t quite understand it myself but yeah.) I think I needed either more background on the Earth changes, or less revolution to try and get my head around. And– yes, I was very pleased to see some sort of black market. But it still didn’t go far enough. It seems strictly confined to jobs? I was pretty confused about that. There was no medical black market mentioned, was there? We did see a grey-ish market for food.

J: There was blackmarket antibiotics mentioned. But that was actually in both versions, now that I look. I think I prefer the Nebula version, for two reasons. One, I think the modern version felt grafted in. We were rather abruptly jolted back to the part that was identical in the Nebula version. That he has a brother shows up out of nowhere. His mother was mentioned as being 60 (Rhonda said so) and then is 84 the next time he’s home. And they did not go farm for 20 years. And currency is suddenly in dollars again. And my second reason is the modern version has more drugs, more violence, more sex, and more rape! It was just too much. I can see how an editor told him it was all a downer. It definitely was that. Oh, and I guess I had a third reason. All 3 parents dying in the short span of time the two of them are home? When they managed to survive quite fine for 20+ years before that? Fft.

K: The timeline issues were something I caught, too. Perhaps you knew I would, because those are one of my pet peeves. (Not to venture off too far, but later in the book someone mentions the last time he was on earth was ‘2007’ and he agrees! Except it totally was not 2007. I could almost buy it as him just brushing off an error in his records if Marygay hadn’t said exactly the same thing in the short story that was written from her perspective.) But I think you’ve put your finger on something else that was bugging me, even though I couldn’t quite figure it out — the parents all dying in such short succession was silly. Especially since we spent so much relative time building up to and foreshadowing the death of the Potters, Ma Mandella’s death was way too abrupt.

J: The short story is “A Separate War”. I caught it too! It’s like he looked back at the novel, saw the date on the section, and.. forgot he should’ve been looking at the second date. I didn’t catch it in the book itself. Oh, and where did Rhonda go?! Her roommate and sometime lover is dying, and then is dead, and she’s not in that chapter at all. She disappeared, the brother showed up. Very bad graft, I have to say.

K: Yes, it could have used some better editing. Rhonda is mentioned as being visiting her kids, but surely someone ought to have called her! Instead all they call is his brother, which is exactly the same as the Nebula version, except that in the modern version his brother has not been mentioned at all prior to his abrupt appearance on the phone.

J: Actually, I think the reference is that Rhonda is the disease vector, having picked up the bug from a previous visit to her kids and passed it to Mandella’s mom. *checks* Yea, no mention of where she actually is now. And yes, exactly. So all in all, I have to say I’m glad we read the Nebula version. This one would’ve confused me too much! And also annoyed the heck out of me with all the violence and random deaths. Oh, yea, one thing I noted down. Well, two things. This guy comes to brief them all on the changes before they go to Earth. He’s wearing makeup and fancy nails and everything, and he uses weird pronouns instead of ‘he’. I say weird, because they’re not third gender or gender neutral pronouns I’m used to — tha, ther, thim. Haldeman uses it exactly once. It never appears again. In fact there’s a glaring case in the phone call to the hospital where it would’ve been appropriate, but instead it’s ‘he’. And it’s a ‘he’ that stands out to modern readers because it should’ve been ‘they’ or ‘he or she’. “[…] how important a person is and what level of treatment he’s allowed”. And the other thing is the makeup. I didn’t see one other reference to anyone wearing makeup. It was supposed to be in fashion, so.. where did it go?

K: Very good points, all, and I have no answers for you. So not only was the flow interrupted by the herky jerky plot, there were a whole bunch of points raised and then randomly discarded (apparently) with no further exploration. I confess I’m pretty baffled as to why this section was (re)inserted with no better effort made to better integrate it and also make sure it was at least internally consistent to itself, let alone the rest of the story.

J: Beta readers! Beta readers! If we caught these things, a couple beta readers would’ve! I understand maybe the author and his editor(s) were too close to the story to look at it with fresh eyes (maybe?). But still.. So I had another question. Which is just to wonder how a third of the population is now gay after only 20-25 years. Because I believe this is before they had the technology to switch people’s orientations around. Just.. one generation? Most of the population that was straight when he left should’ve been just older and straight when he came back. Which means the younger people are like 3/4ths gay or something so the average of the entire population evens out to 1/3rd? (The book erases bisexuality by never mentioning it.) So did his Mom discover she was a lesbian? Take it up because that’s just what you do now? I just.. I don’t know.

K: Well… both this book and “A Separate War” treat women (assuming we can have Marygay and apparently Ma Mandella stand in for all women) as more open to experimentation and/or more fluid in who they’re sexually attracted to. This may be a stereotype, it may be a result of socialization, or it may be something inherent, but I’m sort of inclined to give the idea a pass. I do wonder at the idea that everyone becoming homosexual would solve the population problem, because clearly that is ridiculous, as we mentioned before. I guess I kind of feel like — if you were going to go all George Lucas on the book and restore your ‘original vision’, it might have been wise to also clean it up a bit. But maybe that would have been too hard, since the homosexual thing was such a big thread through the second half of the book.

J: He could’ve at least made part of it in 3D.

K: Hahahaha.

K: This new section did mention slightly more about the ‘Elite Conscription Act’ which is the draft law which basically requires all smart people to enter the service. I still don’t quite understand the logic of the law, especially since I felt like the modern version was hinting that it was a deliberate conspiracy to remove all these clever people from the world. To what end? To hold back the human race?

J: Yea, I don’t get it. First of all, all the smart people aren’t going to be physically and psychologically fit for the job of soldier. Was the military using them for desk jobs, R&D, stuff like that? And with the technological advances to fight the war, some of that is going to bleed into advances at home. Like how NASA has helped everyone in all sorts of ways, not the least of which is a pen that writes upside down. And if you can breed for gay-ness, you can breed for smartness. They should have all the brains they want.

K: I certainly don’t think Forever War is alone in that it starts to look like a flimsy premise if you pick at it enough. Lord knows almost every book has that sort of flaw(s). But I do think the modern version almost… highlights them, by drawing our attention too sharply by half to the mess on Earth.

J: I agree. It drew attention away from the main point of the story, which is that things changed while the war was going on. Say that, show that, and get out. Before you start listing all these details that don’t hold up to scrutiny.

K: Exactly. I did, however, find it interesting that the revolution on Earth appears to have been fomented by a feeling of severe economic inequality. (In this case shown by people appearing well-fed versus not.) Look out, one-percenters!

J: Heh. I read it as look out, fat people. But fair enough!

K: Yeah, it could definitely be read that way too.

J: So the short story takes place after this section, and after they’ve had limbs severed and regrown, etc. It’s from Marygay’s POV and she tells what happened to her while her and Mandella were separated. And, to me, if I were reading that by itself, I’d be like.. why does she love this guy, because he doesn’t even get a line, I don’t think. He’s very much at a distance and just a prop. But probably the reader is supposed to have read FW and already know him as a character. Anyway, she gets into one of those acceleration shell things again, and I find it odd that there was no mention at all of her previous experience in one. You ask me she should’ve had some PTSD or at least been a little squeamish about getting into this thing that very nearly killed her once.

K: I was about to say he’s not even in the story as a character, but it does briefly cover their R&R time on Heaven so that’s not true. So yeah — this story is definitely not meant to stand on its own in the least, but it does make an interesting counterpoint.

K: I’d assume she had some kind of therapy, though we’re never told about it. But maybe she doesn’t have PTSD because you can’t remember really being in the shell? At least, she can’t remember being injured in it beyond having been told that it happened?

J: I dunno.. she was conscious while they were working on her. Kept asking for water. But even if it didn’t bother her, I think it still deserved a mention. If for no other reason than why it didn’t bother her. The other thing about the short story was, it named the uh.. prototype for Man, all those cloned gestalt whatever. Was he named before? Because the name really struck me this time! Khan! Or rather, Khaaaaaaan!

K: Yeah, he was named before. Because he specifically mentions he had a relative in Mandella’s strike force and I had to go back and look at the list and make sure he really was there. (He was.)

J: Well, I have to say after reading this revised, or unrevised, section that I feel less good about this book as a whole. And not looking forward to reading any more Forever X by Haldeman. But the short story made me feel a little better about it. So I’ll probably be ready for Forever Peace when we get to it.

K: It clearly demonstrates how valuable a practiced editorial eye can be to a story! The Nebula version is much more coherent in spite of the possible weaknesses of the toned-down Earth section.

J: So, yay, done with this book finally! Next up is Man Plus by Frederik Pohl, I believe. A book which I know nothing about.