Ossus Library Index
Science Fiction Index


A novel by Joe Haldeman
(1999, Open Road Media)

The Forever War, book 2

Restless on a planet segregated from the group mind of Man, survivors of the Forever War plot to steal a relativistic starship and return in thousands of years, but have to deal with several crises that hamper their mission.


+ -- First reading (ebook)
April 13th to 22nd, 2023


I felt that for most of the book the characters were just going through the motions. They claimed to have a cause, but didn’t show much passion for it. Still, it was a walk down memory lane, reliving the emotions of the Forever War, so it was satisfying in many ways. It also showed that humans were still predictable, as Man and Tauran knew what they were going to do (I still wish we’d seen some part of Tauran culture; or Man’s for that matter). There are advantages and disadvantages to being a clone-type of society with a group mind that still retains some individuality. But more than halfway through, the plot takes a strange twist. When they return to Earth, the author does a lot of hand-waving that leaves the reader completely frustrated. Like in his Earthbound book, the author seems to just give up on the plot and try to make a statement that some beings are so powerful that they are unknowable. That would be fine, except that once again he goes to no effort to show us any of this, even waving away examples of the alien’s influence. Having to recheck the laws of physics is one thing (and I guess it gives humans purpose again), but making billions of people and aliens disappear to teach one crew a lesson, if that’s what actually happened, is frustrating, especially when the alien takes all sacrifice out of those who died. A better alien-plays-with-the-universe reveal happens at the end of Stephen King’s Under The Dome (the book version, not the TV show).

Spoiler review:

This book can be divided into three parts. The first part shows us the restlessness of the humans who have been forced to settle down on the planet the call Middle Finger. If they hadn’t known their purpose, which is to keep the gene pool evolving in case something happened to the collective called Man, I think they would have remained content. The thinly veiled conspiracy to steal the near-lightspeed ship in orbit was a rebelliousness due to their perceived status as livestock.

William and Mary Gay have two children, both of whom are of the age of rebelliousness themselves. We don’t get to see enough of them to know their characters, except that the boy resents them, and the girl half-resents them but still wants to be part of their lives. William goes out every day, thaws the ice on the lake, and reels in the fishing lines. Does he hate his livelihood? It’s hard to say, as he goes through the motions while thinking about his soldier life, so I guess it’s more of a PTSD, left untreated. He goes through the motions, but little more.

After their latest meeting with a group of like-minded ex-soldiers, which they say they want to walk to so they can avoid detection, but are then dropped off by their son, they are arrested by the Man sheriff and a Tauran, which still brings out William’s fight-response. It’s a strange leap from one chapter to the next, especially as they drop an obscure name from somebody who might not have even been at the conspiracy meeting. I didn’t have enough interest to flip back and see who it was.

And so their conspiracy, which Man has known about for a while, is now out in the open. What was the point, really? Sheriff suggests they make an open appeal to the Tree of Man, which will take ten months to respond with an acknowledgement. They assume the answer will be yes, so that a small group of humans can leave on a twenty year journey and return ten thousand years later and see how evolution has progressed, so they start all the preparations.

They are surprised ten months later when the answer comes back no. So they implement their original plan, taking the Sheriff hostage and stealing the ship anyway. But it turns out that Man and Tauran were equally surprised by the answer, and thus predicted the theft of the ship, so help them. Both sheriff and the Tauran join them as planned on the ship.

The second part of the book takes place on the ship, and this is the part that I probably liked the most. The day-to-day activities brought out a lighter side of the characters, something more meaningful, even as they dealt with adversity and crew conflict, including an attempt to kill the Tauran. There are a lot of references to life on their short stops between tours of duty in the Forever War, including a touch on Mary Gay’s ex-lover in the time where it was taboo for men and women to get together for sex –and everyone was homosexual except her and William. So her ex-lover is nearby, and William wonders if Mary Gay still has feeling of attraction to the woman, which she does, of course. Unfortunately, it doesn’t amount to anything, just a footnote to the story. Their daughter had also decided to join them on the ship, but aside from the initial worry over her, she’s barely mentioned again, a character storyline that was almost completely dropped after they leave orbit. Like I said, at this point, they seemed to be just going through the motions.

The mystery element starts with a storeroom that empties of oxygen for no apparent reason, and eventually their antimatter supply starts shrinking, again for no apparent reason. So they decide to abandon ship, and return to Middle Finger on their lifeboats. Some people decide to stay, which seems like a death sentence, but they are also never mentioned again. The third part of the book started with this interesting mystery, which deepens when they arrive back several months later to find the planet abandoned, only clothing where people had once been.

They try to start a community over again, in a fight to survive while they hope for messages from Earth –or the Tauran homeworld. Eventually, they decide to go to Earth, just a small group of people through the collapsar jump point, a short journey of ten months, most of it spent in cryosleep. This is where the story turns strange and it felt like the author just wanted to get it over with.

As with his novel Earthbound, a mysterious and alien being shows up and shows them that the universe is so much more complex than humanity had ever thought possible. I think the intention is that some things are just unknowable, but it comes off as the author waving his hand and saying the story has to end. It’s as if he grew bored with it, or couldn’t think of an interesting way to solve the mystery. On Earth, they meet an ancient creature who professes to have lived on Earth for millennia. The alien pops out of nowhere, and has no meaning to the story except that it survived when it seems that not a single human has. Every one of the humans and Taurans in the galaxy has disappeared, as confirmed by Man and Tauran attempts to contact their respective Trees, or group minds.

The alien speculates that their attempt to leave known space pissed off god, who took it out on everybody else. Worse, it turns out that the alien was right! As people begin to explode around them (at Disney World, no less), the all-knowing god-alien shows up and tells them that humanity and the Taurans were an interesting experiment that has run its course. The alien created the laws of physics around here, and allowed the two species to evolve and fight a war that lasted more than a thousand years. When they decided to leave on a journey to the edge of the galaxy, it couldn’t allow that, so arranged another experiment, which led them all here.

The whole thing makes no story sense, and gives the alien too much human-like emotion and motivation, even though the alien shrugs and brings everybody back from their storehouses, naked and cold (especially those on Middle Finger). Then it disappears, warning them that it’s changed some laws of physics. Reminding us that there are things we don’t understand and can’t understand is one thing. But don’t then turn around and make the alien a spoiled human wannabe. When they wonder out loud why they were allowed to go to the Magellanic clouds, which are a lot farther away than their intended destination, it’s waved off again saying Collapsar jumps “don’t count”.

Unfortunately, at this point, the author seems to have given up on the reader, and my flagging interest completely collapsed.

They do return to Middle Finger to find their children alive, along with everybody else, but by this time, I didn’t care. To call the story dissatisfying is an understatement, which is too bad, because the rest of it wasn’t bad, and it was nice to catch up with William and Mary Gay again.

The book comes with a short story of Mary Gay going on her last mission after being hospitalized with William on the planet Heaven. It also just goes through the motions as William leaves and Mary Gay finds homosexual attachment (I wouldn’t call it love) with one of her officers. They are tricked into investigating an apparently abandoned Tauran ship, where they find Man and Tauran waiting for them, neutralizing their weapons and telling them the war is over. It was a good story, but didn’t affect me much either way. 


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