The next weekend, I came down with full knowledge of what I was getting myself into, and we went to the beach and went paddle boating and played Cards Against Humanity with our cousins in Mississippi! Um, not all at the same time.
The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman, is an indisputable sci-fi classic, praised to the heavens as one of the greatest sci-fi war novels—nay, greatest war novels, period—ever. It's brilliant, it's amazing, it's fantastic, it redefines reality.
But I didn't love it.
Unlike its predecessor, Starship Troopers, which glorified war, it takes inspiration from the Vietnam War, which Joe Haldeman actually fought in. Vietnam was the "forever war" of its time (and our time), a conflict many people didn't believe in that went on for what seemed like forever (almost 20 years!). The way Haldeman maps that experience into a sci-fi realm is pretty brilliant: he uses the principles of relativistic time dilation to make the war last for centuries. Even though the main character, William Mandella, only experiences a couple years from his own perspective, traveling at relativistic speeds means that the rest of the universe passes him by much more quickly. The world changes in significant ways every time he pops out.
There's quite a bit of hard sci-fi in the book, and I did love the way that time dilation affected everything. It would take so long in real-time to reach battles so many light-years away that by the time they got there, the situation could have changed, for all they knew. New recruits would be essentially from Mandella's future, making him an archaic relic at the age of twenty-two. In addition, as centuries pass, Haldeman posits great sweeping changes in human society and economy dealing with overpopulation, food rationing, and homosexuality.
For all that is clearly good and interesting about the book, however, I could never quite get into it. I found the battle scenes hard to follow, but the battle scenes weren't really the point. And yet they took up a lot of space, sitting there and confusing me. The apparent free-love attitude toward sex in the military disoriented me (Cory Doctorow called Old Man's War "The Forever War with better sex," and I'd agree, because the sex in this book is...weird). The whole book is kind of disorienting because it jumps around a lot, both in time—because of the relativistic speeds—and focus. It was hard to grab on to a strong plot thread that tied everything together besides "Yep, that war sure is still going on." In a sense, I understand this was probably intentional to, again, replicate the Vietnam War experience. It's not like it was a coherent time in a soldier's life. And this solder is kind of a jerk, and, while I sympathized with his general plight, I never really cared about him as a character.
Overall, The Forever War has some great ideas and gives you a lot to think about. It's one of those books that is more intellectually stimulating than it is enjoyable to read.
Armor, by John Steakley, is part of the Holy Trinity of powered armor books, a realistic medium between the utopian view of Starship Troopers and dystopian view of The Forever War. I have liked and disliked each of these books for very different reasons (and some of the same reasons), but I have failed to love any of them.
Our Hero is Felix, a scout who dons powered armor on the toxic planet Banshee to fight alien ants or something. He's a fascinating character because he seems like a regular guy, not a military type, not a killer. And, in fact, he's not...so he allows the Engine to do the work, compartmentalizing a part of himself to deal with the horror of war. It's a very cool idea I wish Steakley had done more with. Felix endures, constantly endures, unbelievably endures. The action scenes are pretty frenetic and exciting, and characters die without warning and with little fanfare. It's brutal.
You think this book is about Felix...and then the perspective abruptly shifts from third-person Felix to first-person Jack Crow, an asshole space pirate or something. It takes fucking forever for the story to have even the loosest connection to Felix—appropriately enough, he finds his titular armor, which allows him to observe Felix. And make observations. Really, you need a whole new character and hundreds more pages to do this? You couldn't just have characters in Felix's own story make these observations? Furthermore, Jack Crow is one of those misogynistic male characters that seem to be typical in classic sci-fi, thinking of women as sex objects and not much else. I could not understand why John Steakley was making me suffer through this character; why not tell this story from the perspective of Holly Ware, the genius scientist? That would be much more tolerable, although I admit that Jack Crow does have a decent character arc. Jack Crow actually takes up more of the book than Felix himself.
Halfway through the book, I wanted to toss it across the room because I couldn't stand Jack Crow and felt I'd been tricked. I wanted to rip out all of his sections because they were so pointless and the few good bits in them could have been delivered in some other way that didn't waste all my time. Then we learned a little more about Felix, but the damage had already been done, I felt; I just wanted the book to be over.
And then the ending suddenly redeemed the entire Jack Crow storyline and forced me to upgrade my rating from "fuck this book" to "okay." I finally understood its purpose, and while I still have major issues with the execution, I have to respect Steakley's intentions. Mostly well played, dude.
I think it helps to go into Armor with the right expectations (for instance, I had no idea there was a dual narrative, so it annoyed the shit out of me). Steakley does have interesting things to say about killing and what it does to a person, but I think he could have said them in half as many pages.