Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War is one of those timeless sci-fi novels that doesn’t seem to age. Published in 1974, its influence echoes through the decades, inspiring movies from Starship Troopers to Interstellar. Blending the horror and futility of war with a fascinating treatise on space travel, the novel is as relevant and poignant now as it was when it was written.
This comic adaptation was scripted by Haldeman himself, and illustrated by Belgian artist Marvano. Originally released in 1988, Titan Comics has brought it back into print. The art was painted at the time, so still looks great. The light palette looks subtle compared to the bold, bright colours of modern digital colouring, but Marvano’s vision of the future hasn’t lost any edge because of its age.
The story, heavily influenced by Haldeman’s experiences in the Vietnam War, revolves around a young recruit called Mandella. Conscripted for his physics degree but then immediately switched to a combat role, Mandella spends a few months in boot camp, then is whisked away to the far corners of the universe to battle against the Taurans, an alien species the humans barely understand but perceive as a deadly threat.
The twist is that while each tour of duty only takes a few years of the soldiers’ lives, travelling the epic distances involved takes decades of Earth time (one of Einstein’s theories, called ‘time dilation’), so hundreds of Earth years pass in the relatively short time the soldiers are away. As a result, each time they make it home, the world has turned and left them behind. For the soldiers there seems little other option than to go out and start another tour, rather than struggle to fit in with a world that’s so radically different from the one they thought they were fighting for.
Marvano captures these changes in human society perfectly. There’s a seventies futurism to the design that, like the best sci-fi of the period, flings us so far into the future that it doesn’t matter that we’ve moved on; it still feels exotic and necessarily beyond our reach. Meanwhile, the meat grinder that is modern warfare remains sickeningly real, as bodies and souls are thrown at the enemy with a minimum of training and a scarcity of orders, with the main objective of destroying anything that stands in their way.
The Forever War has always been an allegory for the futility of war but this graphic novel is something more. It’s also a testament to the longevity of classic science fiction; an exploration of how our culture’s best futurologists can put a microscope on the human condition and create a drama that’s as thrilling and entertaining to read as it is enlightening and packed with a soldier’s honesty.
[Edit – thanks to Peter Knobloch for pointing out my original time dilation error]