Okay – no word of a lie. This has to be among the best novels I have ever had the pleasure to read.
This novel is the first book in the SF Masterworks imprint series (in publication order). This is the novel, along with Heinlein’s classic Starship Troopers, that invented the space marine. If you look around you can see its influence in so many works of sci-fi that it’s become a trope: Halo, Warhammer 40000, Old Man’s War by John Scalzi. It’s also hard sci-fi that deals with time dilation effects from sublight interstellar travel and wormholes as a way to somewhat address the sublight limitation.
More than that, this is a war novel. It’s a damn good war novel, written by a Vietnam war veteran, that ultimately speaks about his war experience.
I’m sure he must have been writing it as a form of therapy. It deals with war in a way only a soldier and a veteran can truly know. It covers the injustice of the draft, the horror of killing, the impersonal compassionateless nature of the military, dehumanization, PTSD, loneliness and isolation, the terror of being caught up in an experience so much bigger and more terrible than you, the danger and invasiveness of war technology, survivor’s guilt, and alienation from the culture a soldier leaves behind. The space marine trope character is often tough as nails and devoid of human weakness. Haldeman’s space marines are anything but.
It was powerful, gripping, horrible, funny, disturbing, sad and poignant.
The edition I read contains an introduction from John Scalzi and an intro by the author, who said this was the definitive edition. Haldeman wrote that he had difficulty getting the book published because no one wanted to read a war novel in the immediate wake of Vietnam; a non sci-fi publisher expanded into sci-fi and that’s how it got done. And it won the Hugo and the Nebula. I see why.
He said that even so, he had to cut a novella portion from the middle because “it was too depressing,” according to his publisher. That portion was restored for this book. Normally I’m not a fan of restoring cut bits to award-winning novels; I can’t imagine this one without it. I think the book would have really missed something if he hadn’t included it, so hopefully you can find that edition.
I borrowed a copy from my public library to read as part of the Science Fiction Masterworks book club (which you can find as a group on Goodreads, a Facebook group, and a reading challenge on Worlds Without End; join us!) I finished it yesterday, and by that time I’d already ordered a copy from Amazon, knowing I would read it again and again; which arrived today.
Go out and get a copy. Read it. You’ll thank me for it.