Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Forever War: A Review

As I'm reading The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, I've noticed that sexuality appears to be an underlying theme. At first, I couldn't determine if the author was homophobic or if the protagonist was homophobic or if its a little bit of both.

For example, when Mandella discovers that about a third of the population back on earth are homosexual he says,

I never had much trouble accepting homosexuals myself, but then I'd never had to cope with such an abundance of them.

Which isn't actually acceptance at all -- because, in his view, they are not necessarily people, just things to be dealt with or tolerated to an extent. I still haven't determined if Haldeman challenges this view by his depiction of homosexuals in the text, or if he reinforces this idea as the text continues.

Mandella's reaction to the idea that his mother had a woman lover was also ultimately negative because he left the house much earlier than he had planned. He also felt "hollow and lost."

Later on, Mandella says,

I'd gotten used to open female homosex in the months since we'd left Earth. Even stopped resenting the loss of potential partners. The men together still gave me a chill, though.

I found this mildly offensive - sex is sex, one shouldn't be worse than the other. Also, potential partners? He's ultimately putting himself first and the women as secondary of concern -- which is basically objectification. In other words, women are meant to be potential partners for himself, instead of their own individual selves.

But then we have this little conversation with an officer who is supposed to help him deal with the time dilation (he's technically a couple centuries old, even though he's only "lived" much, much less than that):

"The main problem is with, uh, you're [Mandella] heterosexual."

"Oh, that's no problem. I'm tolerant."

"Yes, your profile shows that you . . . think you're tolerant, but that's not the problem, exactly." [. . .] Only emotionally stable people are drafted in UNEF. I know this is hard for you to accept, but heterosexuality is considered an emotional dysfunction. Relatively easy to cure."

"If they think they're going to cure me --"

"Relax, you're too old [. . .] William, everybody on Earth is homosexual. Except for a thousand or so; veterans and incurables."

[. . .]

O brave new world, I thought. "[. . .] A billion perfectly adjusted homosexuals."

"Perfectly adjusted by present-day Earth standards. You and I might find them a little odd."

"That's an understatement. [. . .] Yourself, you, uh, . . . are you homosexual?"

"Oh, no," he said. I relaxed. "Actually though, I'm not hetero anymore either. [. . .] Nothing but metal and plastic from the waist down. To use your word, I'm a cyborg."

[. . .]

Sitting here in a bar with an asexual cyborg who is probably the only other normal person on the whole god-damned planet.

1. The officer calls Mandella out -- he thinks he's tolerant, but he's really not. I appreciate that. I also don't think the officer is tolerant either as there is still a sense that homosexuals aren't people, but some kind of Other (because they're odd). Now, I can understand the new recruits being odd -- but not because of their sexuality but because of culture/future shock (they come from different centuries after all).

2. Haldeman essentially flips the table on sexuality: instead of homosexuality in need of being "cured" (as some circles seem to think even today), heterosexuality is the one in need of being cured (I argue, why does sexuality need to be cured in the first place?). Instead of homosexuals protesting that they don't or shouldn't be cured, heterosexual Mandella instantly rebels against the very notion of changing or being "cured" -- like most people would (I wonder how the heterosexuals in The Forever War universe felt about being cured to homosexuality and if there were any riots/protests, etc).

3. Mandella still considers homosexuality to be abnormal, as evidenced by his discomfort when he thought the officer was a homosexual and his observation that, because of the officer's non-homosexuality, he is the only other normal person. Personally, I find it sad that Mandella would consider something inherently unnatural as machinery instead of healthy human organic material to be more natural than naturally occurring homosexuality (before, in terms of the story, people were engineered/cured to be homosexual that is -- which I don't really consider natural).

I also find the depiction of homosexuality in the book to be somewhat stereotypical:

When Mandella first found out the prevalence of homosexuality back on earth, the man who briefed him on how times had changed is described like this:

It looked as if there was something wrong with his skin, his face; and then I realized he was wearing powder and lipstick. His nails were smooth white almonds.

He looks unnatural, but more than that, he is unnaturally effeminate.

Later on, Mandella and his female lover are treated by a doctor who

fluttered his hands. [. . .] Foster was all right. A flaming mariposa, but he had an amused tolerance for heterosexuality.

A mariposa is a flower, which is often associated with femininity. And the fluttering of the hands is also associated with weak femininity -- you know, the kind that swoon into a hero's arms.

I found this portrayal of homosexuality to be constant throughout the novel. Towards the end, people could switch whichever way they desired -- I suppose that would be nice since it would be individual choice. But homosexuality is still given the stint.

For example, when they all get back and realize that the war is /finally/ over, they find that there are a lot of clones of a perfect individual running around. The clone says that heterosexuality is in vogue again in order to keep a good supply of genes on hand in case the cloning doesn't work out but that a homosexual doesn't

have to go to these breeder planets. You can stay on one of my planets [the clone planets].
And then later on Charlie, a homosexual, says that he's going to be switched over to heterosexuality because the alternative of having sex with a Male clone is less attractive than having sex with women. But surely there are other homosexual men who wouldn't want to make the switch? Am I missing something?

So why am I harping on this? Science Fiction is about the future. It's about exploring our souls in terms in hypothetical scenarios with a science-ish slant. It's about experimenting with different way to view things. It is for this reason that I believe Science Fiction is so ideal in breaking people out of their boxes and their preconceptions. Yet both Stranger in a Strange Land and The Forever War put decidedly negative, bigoted, narrow minded views about homosexuality. Sexuality is an ideal which much of the modern science fiction fare today is content to leave at the status quo -- which really frustrates me. It's one of the reasons I adore Caprica because they have non-stereotypical homosexual characters who are real and married. One of the characters can say that his brother would get the girls and he'd try to catch the eye of some guy -- it's portrayed as so normal and natural that there's not even a word for homosexuality in Caprican culture (or so I understand). This is what I'm talking about -- I adore it when science fiction uses it's hypothetical scenarios to just turn around and challenge the way people view the world.

I still appreciate the way Haldeman flips the tables -- this was written in 1975 and I think the scenarios Haldeman proposes questions what many people would have considered "natural" or "normal" in that time era -- and even today, really. Even as the prevalence of homosexuality is ultimately a social construction, I think the implication that Haldeman should be making is that the assumed normalcy and naturalness of heterosexuality is also a social construction, a revision or challenge of the socially constructed assumptions regarding the inherent normalcy (or naturalness, rightness) of heterosexuality.

However, as much as I hoped that the story would go in this direction, it ultimately did not: the prevalence of homosexuality in The Forever War universe is unnatural because people are engineered or cured to be homosexual -- in other words, aspects of their identity are being suppressed. I find this inherently problematic -- as if Haldeman is trying to say that heterosexuality really is the normative standard because people have to be forced/fitted to be homosexual. In other words, homosexuality is still portrayed as an unnatural occurrence in The Forever War universe, instead of being as natural as heterosexuality.

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