Time Dilation in The Forever War

Author Joe Haldeman, a Vietnam vet, uses the effects of space-time dilation as an allegory for the experience of soldiers returning from the Vietnam war and their struggle to fall back in line with the Western world. When privates William Mandella and Marygay Potter return to Earth after fighting in an interstellar war, they find themselves hugely out of kilter with society. Everyone has a bodyguard (if they can afford it), a third of the population is homosexual (which is encouraged to reduce population growth) and food is now currency (in the form of ‘kilocalories’).

Time dilation repeatedly augments their alienation from the world until they are the only surviving soldiers from the first squad sent into space in 1975. When Mandella and Marygay part ways thanks to different postings at opposite ends of the galaxy, it means they will never see each other again, making their time together all the more precious and their farewell devastating.

Haldeman does well to root what could easily become a hopelessly existential story by resolving Mandella and Marygay’s love story despite time dilation. When Mandella survives the final act of the book, he receives a letter from the long-gone (or so he assumes) Marygay. ‘Obviously, I live,’ she says in her letter, which is 250 years old. ‘Maybe you will too […] we bought a cruiser from UNEF. And we’re using it as a time machine. So I’m on a relativistic shuttle, waiting for you. All it does is go out five light-years and come back to [the planet], very fast. Every ten years I age about a month. So if you’re on schedule and still alive, I’ll only be twenty-eight when you get here. Hurry!’ (page 237). The ending is beautiful and sees their love transcend time and space.

Haldeman makes a sharp commentary about the Vietnam War in many ways throughout The Forever War, but his treatment of time dilation is both elegant and elaborate.

Read the rest of our time-bending second issue – Consuming Time and catch up before issue three arrives.