“The most important things in the world are reflected in science fiction,” sci-fi icon Joe Haldeman tells Playboy. He’s taught creative writing at MIT and written dozens of books, but by far he’s best known as the author of 1974’s The Forever War, an intergalactic war epic about a seemingly endless conflict waged between humans and the alien race of Taurens.
Haldeman’s own experiences in Vietnam inspired the book. After graduating from the University of Maryland in 1967 with a degree in physics and astronomy, the United States Army drafted him. He served as a combat engineer and received the Purple Heart. After his debut novel War Year, a conventional story about the war in Vietnam, he decided to write something that drew on the comics and science fiction tales he loved to tell a bigger story.
The Forever War became an instant sensation, winning the Nebula Award for best novel in 1975 and the Hugo Award in 1976. It found new life in the late 1980s as a European comic after Haldeman met Belgian artist Mark van Oppen—better known as Marvano—at a science fiction convention in England. The comic was originally released in Dutch, but it was later translated into several languages. This year, Titan Comics reprinted Marvano’s comic adaptation in English. A trade paperback graphic novel from Titan Comics, six pages of which are previewed below, hit bookstores earlier this month.
The Forever War follows soldier William Mandella as he copes with the rigors of combat and his increasing alienation from the society he’s called to fight for. His first tour of duty lasts only two years from his point of view, but due to time dilation caused by intergalactic travel, he and his fellow soldiers return to earth decades later. This process repeats itself with each successive military expedition. Each time Mandella returns, his society becomes more foreign.
Haldeman used the device of time dilation not only to illustrate the alienation many Vietnam veterans felt upon their return home from Southeast Asia, but also the nature of generational change. For instance, Mandella and his fellow soldiers eventually return to a planet in which people are encouraged to be gay as a means of population control. Heterosexuals, then, are regarded as deviants. This aspect of the book has often been compared to Charles Beaumont’s The Crooked Man, which appeared in Playboy in 1955.
Haldeman’s themes of veterans feeling alienated from the society they protected resonate in a time when a small number of volunteers are responsible for America’s safety.
"The relationship between heterosexual and homosexual people was as if they were two different kinds of human beings,” Haldeman says. “That’s much less the case nowadays, although you can’t generalize. There are people I know on the street who think homosexual activity is bizarre and unwholesome and sinful, and that gay people just aren’t really part of the human race. It seems like a primitive attitude to educated people, but most of the people in the world are not. To most of the people in my parents’ generation, for example, homosexuals were just odd folks outside of reality. They acted as if nobody they knew was homosexual, and that it was something like a weird birth defect.”
The Forever War has been approached by many readers as a response to—and even a repudiation of—science fiction writer Robert Heinlein’s classic Starship Troopers. Heinlein, sometimes called the "dean of science fiction writers,” had served as a naval officer in the 1930s and tried unsuccessfully to rejoin after Pearl Harbor. It was a formative experience that left an enormous impact on his writing and worldview, and some critics have gone so far as to call Heinlein’s work militaristic. In the genre of science ficiton, that’s fueled speculation about a rift between Haldeman and Heinlein.
But Haldeman tells Playboy that’s nothing more than a myth. “Heinlein wrote to me after The Forever War came out and said, ‘You know, people are going to say that we’re on opposite sides of this, but it’s not at all true.’ Starship Troopers is a wonderful book. It just isn’t the same book I wrote.”
Haldeman isn’t shy in observing stark generational differences between himself and Heinlein and how differing military experiences have shaped their writing. “I was there because I was drafted, and he tried to rejoin,” Haldeman points out. “Myself, I would have been so glad that I didn’t get drafted into World War II. He really wanted to go and maybe I would have, too, if I were his age, but I was born at a time when my generation was against the wars his generation started.”
Decades later, in an entirely different climate, The Forever War developed a new following with veterans, especially post-9/11. Many veterans have come to call the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere their own “forever war.” Haldeman’s themes of veterans feeling alienated from the society they protected resonate in a time when a small number of volunteers are responsible for America’s safety. The civil-military divide feels like a chasm, with increasingly few Americans having any genuine experience—or interest—in serving.
“The war we’re in now seems rather remote to me,” Haldeman says. “Maybe it depends on what part of America you live in—not just geographically, but socially. None of my friends—which is to say retirement-age Americans—is immediately affected by what’s going on there. I mean, we see it on the news all the time, but none of us is going to be drafted. Our children are not going to be drafted.”
He also observes that in many ways, while it’s fashionable for America to acknowledge that it’s still haunted by the ghosts of Vietnam and his generation, it also remains haunted by the ghosts “the greatest generation” as well. “It’s a funny thing,” Haldeman says. “World War II was the last good war where a perfectly normal, good person could be a soldier, kill all kinds of enemy soldiers and then put up his weapons and get into a real life without any problems.”
Haldeman says this idealized narrative of World War II and “the greatest generation” distorted America’s ideas about war and its consequences, such as PTSD, which we are only contending with now. “Most people don’t think about it that much. Most of their parents who were actually in combat came back badly dented, but that was not part of Americans’ kind of picture of the World War II veterans. You can’t kill people for a living and just go back to being a clerk.”
As younger generations discover The Forever War, it will continue to inspire adaptations. In 1983, Stuart Gordon adapted the novel for Chicago’s Organic Theater Company, spurred in part as a reaction to what Gordon called the “ultra-sanitized video game” style Star Wars had brought to science fiction.
There have also been multiple attempts to bring it to the big screen, none yet successfully. In October 2008, Ridley Scott announced that after a 25-year wait for the rights to become available, he would return to science fiction by bringing The Forever War to the big screen. The following year, shortly after the release of James Cameron’s Avatar, Scott stated that the film would be in 3D. The screenplay went through many iterations and rewrites based on original script by screenwriter David Webb Peoples, who wrote Blade Runner, Unforgiven and 12 Monkeys. In May 2015, news emerged that Scott’s adaptation had been abandoned, but a new adaptation by Warner Brothers was in development with Jon Spaihts (Doctor Strange, Prometheus) writing the screenplay and Channing Tatum attached to star.
“People make offers,” Haldeman says. “Sometimes they’re real, and sometimes they’re just thin air.” Haldeman isn’t sure what to expect next. His only work that’s ever made it to the big screen was a screenplay that became the 1990 low-budget film Robot Jox. At the time of its release, Haldeman told MIT’s student paper, "to me it’s as if I’d had a child who started out well and then sustained brain damage.”
“I’ve seen some artwork that is related to The Forever War that seems to come from someplace really different from my own experience, and why shouldn’t it? I mean, to most people alive today, my experience, both in being a soldier and being a writer, is pretty distant from their life, so yeah, of course if there’s an aspect of historical removed, an aspect of metaphoric reality as opposed to observed reality, but that’s what art’s about. It’s not about just recording what goes on.”
For Haldeman, science fiction is about telling the big stories and trying to imagine something new. “Is science fiction important? Well, it’s important to me, but a lot of the things that fill newspapers are not important to me, even earthshaking, headline-making stuff. Papers today are full of North Korea, and saber-rattling, and the idea that the world might end because some lunatic decides to make his perverse dreams real,” Haldeman says. “That describes the world to me from about 1950 to now and beyond. It’s more interesting this morning than it was the day before yesterday, because the nightmares have a more real form, but that’s something that comes and goes. I mean, since we haven’t yet ended the world, we get another chance tomorrow—and the next day.”
Joe Haldeman’s and Marvano’s 'The Forever War’ paperwork graphic novel is available in book retailers now.