This classic military scifi combines the action and excitement of Starship Troopers with the gritty reality of war on the front line portrayed in the WWII novel All Quiet on the Western Front. William Mandella, a young physics student, is recruited to an elite group of soldiers sent to train on a planetoid beyond Pluto, in order to fight the recently discovered alien species known as the Taurans.
After an extreme training regimen (during which several fellows soldiers are killed), Mandella and his crew travel space through collapsars, allowing for near light-speed travel. The highly anticipated battle is dissatisfying because the soldiers have little control over themselves due to a mandatory hypnotic state, and the enemy is provides no resistance. The elaborate training and subsequent let-down during the real battle is a great subversion of classical space opera cliches. This portrayal of military service is widely perceived to be based on the authors’ service in the Vietnam War.
But the real heart of the story begins upon Mandella return to Earth. He voluntarily leaves the service after only two years perceived time, but due to time dilation during his near-light speed travel, he encounters an Earth decades older. Not only does Haldeman illustrate the difficulties of returning to civilian life, but he brilliantly uses the scifi genre to amplify the isolation and culture shock with time dilation. Decades of unemployment and widespread advanced weaponry have created an Earth which is violent and dangerous; Overpopulation has created inequitable rationing of food, a heath care system that doesn’t allow treatment for “less important” individuals, and a government that encourages homosexuality.
Needless to say, Mandella and the other veterans eventually re-enlist, as they realize Earth is no longer a home for them. I won’t spoil the rest of the novel, but it continues on to surprise and challenge your expectations of a space opera. It’s a dystopic anti-war military scifi with a debatably happy ending. Recommended for fans of military scifi, scifi in general, war novels in general, space operas, and fans of time travel. I really liked it!
“Relativity propped it up, at least gave it the illusion of being there…the way all reality becomes illusory and observer-oriented when you study general relativity. Or Buddhism. Or get drafted.”