Sci-fi classic has roots in Baltimore, Vietnam

Early version of 1975's 'The Forever War' got rocky reception in Guilford


December 21, 2003|By John Coffren | John Coffren,Sun Staff

The Guilford was a Baltimore-based literary group in the early 1970s dedicated to serious debates and serious partying, all in the name of producing the best science fiction ever. How odd, then, that, due not to too much debate or too much drink but to simple intellectual snobbery, one of the top works of the sci-fi canon might never have made it out of draft form.

It was for one of the final meetings of the group, named for the location of weeklong get-togethers, that Vietnam veteran Joe Haldeman brought a half-finished novel he called Hero to his brother Jack "Jay" Haldeman's house at 405 Southway in Guilford. The story that would become The Forever War spoke universal truths about the nature of combat, featuring Earthlings and Taurans fighting what in Haldeman's hands somehow became the war to comprehend all wars.

"I just wrote it as a war novel and Vietnam was the war that I was in," said Joe Haldeman, 60, a former Montgomery County resident and graduate of the University of Maryland at College Park. "But, it was really curious because there are political parallels that I put in without even thinking about it."

The Forever War, which in 1975 won both the Hugo and Nebula awards (the equivalent of an Academy Award for science fiction), has spawned two sequels, Forever Peace (1997) and Forever Free (1999), has been re-released in the author's preferred edition this fall by HarperCollins imprint EOS, and continues to reach new audiences as new wars are fought, new heroes are made and new traumas are absorbed.

Still, not everybody in the Guilford -- or the publishing world -- immediately embraced it.

Publishers shown the work could make the comparisons between a fictitious future war and the real one raging in Southeast Asia. The first 18 cited the public's perceived resistance to fiction about Vietnam as a reason to pass before St. Martin's Press bought the manuscript.

They weren't the only dissenting voices.

"It was received pretty well on the whole, but there was a sort of left wing to [the Guilford] who used to criticize Joe for writing about spaceships and war instead of more intellectual pursuits," said fellow Guilford member Gardner Dozois, who went on to become an award-winning science fiction editor.

Yet Haldeman's adventures in the farthest galaxies hit closer to home than even he imagined.

Haldeman served in Vietnam as a combat engineer in the Central Highlands. And in Ban Me Thuot in 1968, "Lucky," as his fellow troops called him, lived up to his nickname when a booby-trapped pile of Viet Cong ordnance exploded and killed everyone else in his unit. He suffered severe shrapnel wounds that earned him a Purple Heart and a trip to the hospital at Tuy Hoa.

Moving from real to imaginary

After being discharged from the army, Haldeman began writing and selling short stories. He later found the war years could be transformed "one to one" to a more fantastic setting for his novel.

"As a matter of fact, the training exercises that they go through are largely taken from [U.S. Army] basic [training]. But after that, when they left Earth, had the advance training on the moon and farther out on Charon [Pluto's moon], it becomes more imaginary, except for people's reactions to trauma."

Even through the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, those stories of trauma and triumph have continued to ring true -- so much so that Haldeman's publisher decided that it was time to let the author revisit and refine his work.

The short story "You Can Never Go Back," left on the cutting-room floor in the original editing, has been reincorporated, helping flesh out the story of The Forever War protagonist and interstellar grunt Private William Mandella, who crosses space and time to battle the Taurans. For every few months Mandella spends away, centuries pass on Earth. Home has thus become more alien than any faraway battlefield.

The Forever War tells the story of a man unable to fit in at home, comfortable only on the field of battle. This literary device -- time dilation as a simile for post-traumatic stress disorder -- stands out as the most easily recognizable political parallel.

"Vietnam was still going on and people were trying to deal directly and they weren't doing that good of a job. It was still too close," Dozois said. "What Joe was doing was assimilating the experience of Vietnam. He wasn't just rechanneling the experience, he extrapolated upon it, which is what good science fiction does."

'Pretty well lubricated'

In the Guilford's heyday, Haldeman was living in Brooksville, Fla., and would take the train to Baltimore to stay at his brother's home for the twice-yearly get-together.

Haldeman and Dozois recalled Roger Zelazny, whose Damnation Alley (1969) was made into a 1977 movie starring Jan-Michael Vincent, dropping in on a session that resulted in an "awful" collaboration.

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