Rating - 3: worth reading once (borrow it from a library)
The Forever War really is as good as you have heard, a classic in both war stories and science fiction. I still rate it a 3 on our scale because I cannot see its impact working nearly as well a second time, once you know the whole story. Or maybe it should get a 4 for that reason, that it will have a different impact on later read-throughs; I retain the right to up-rate it later. This is the downside of the ratings scale here.
The war with the Taurans began in 1997, a galaxy-spanning war where the battles can be decades apart as ships travel at relativistic speeds. William Mandella is a conscript in the first ground engagement, starting us off on a war that will last more than a millennium.
If anyone is unfamiliar with what is meant by the idea that some books are in dialogue with each other, read this, Starship Troopers, and Old Man's War. You have some similar base stories that go in very different directions.
In this case, I was born too late to catch some bits as I went along. I was born after the Vietnam War. Once someone mentions it, however, everything falls into place. If anything, putting the story on this scale mutes the emotional trauma because it is just too big to assimilate, and because the scale is small relative to what one might expect over centuries.
A recurring theme, played surprisingly softly, is how the world changes while you are away. Hippies were not around when the Vietnam War started. When you fly away for a century, everything changes, and you arrive after entire social movements have passed. You leave for the war, and your little brother is a man by the time you get back, only here you are just a few years older due to traveling at relativistic speeds. The effort of getting your brain around the change across decades mutes the loss of the little things, at least at this remove. "I missed my brother's high school graduation, not to mention all of his high school years" is one thing; "my brother is now older than me, and he lives on the moon" is another.
I say this is played softly because the characters do not dwell on it much. The society you leave to defend will not exist by the time you get back. This is not just a change in national politics and the president; your birth country is unlikely to exist when you get back more than 100 years later. They mention surprisingly rarely that everyone they know will be dead. As above, you assimilate this (or not) and move on.
It is not as though they have a choice in the matter. They are conscripts. They are at war. Even if there were no enemy soldiers, the environment is enough to kill you. Dwelling on the unfortunate circumstances when you get back will not help with all the unfortunate circumstances you must survive first.
That leads to another recurring bit: live it up while you can. With survival rates being low, there is no point to worrying about the future. You can throw away all your money every shore leave, because it will probably be your last. You probably have no long-term future (don't dwell on that), so making plans for it is pointless, and there are no long-term consequences for anything.
The more I write here, the more surprised I am that veterans come back in as good of mental shape as they do.
If this is your first time seeing real events through a sci fi/fantasy prism, note that the distance helps you reflect on things without that knee-jerk reaction to cheer/condemn Team Red/Blue. This works better at an even further remove, when you cannot see through the allegory immediately.
If you have not picked it up already, this is not going to be an uplifting story. War sucks. The characters are subject to forces (natural, enemy, and allied) that kill almost entirely at random; very few times can you even approach the thought, "s/he deserved that." It is a mass of pointless, random bloodshed. Which seems a fair representation of what a soldier faces.
Since we are seeing the war from the level of the individual soldier, it is living with those random details, and the book does thrive on details. You get to know many of the casualties. When you don't, you still get to count them off one-by-one or see them fall in little packs. It is a tremendous success to be able to simultaneous make it numbing while still making you feel each pinprick.
It is somewhat less successful as a sci fi story because of failures in scaling across hundreds of years. Some large changes come exceedingly quickly, while other bits remain remarkably unchanged a millennium later. Technology advances, and there is an early discussion of being out-teched in the time it takes to travel from your base to the fight, but not as much as you might expect given existing growth rates. This is kept in the background, as it is inessential to the story and the context would become incomprehensible, but it is playing the premise of a millennium-plus war short to have it be even that comprehensible at the end. Even without a Singularity, one expects a bit more over time.
And then there are the common amusements with the science fiction of the era. Everyone smokes. Advances in computers were vastly under-estimated and in the wrong directions. We accept "intergalactic travel in the 1990s" as a basic premise, rather than wondering where our flying cars are. So basically this paragraph is just being a sneering jerk, laughing at the past's vision of the future, and we'll all get together and we are all scheduled to do this repeatedly as the dates of various films and stories arrive. Good times. Hey, look at the size of that computer in the Asimov story, tee hee.
In closing: great book, great story, great details. Read it. I have even left the interesting and/or traumatic details unspoiled for your reading pleasure. Go to, then.