As my professor would say, all great science fiction is a thought experiment. Joe Haldeman once said, “Science fiction as a genre has the benefit of being able to act as parable, to set up a story at a remove so you can make a real-world point without people throwing up a wall in front of it.” How would something play out? How will this affect our lives, if this were to happen? It’s a question of world view, and sometimes the best science fiction novels contradict one another on the same key issues.
Everyone and their uncle has heard of Starship Troopers, by Robert A. Heinlein. It’s rumored to be on a few of the U.S. military branch’s reading lists, had a crappy movie made about it that turned into a cult classic, and is generally regarded as one of the great pillars of American science fiction. Alternatively, The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman, is viewed by some as Vietnam-era anti-war propaganda, is of equal status to Starship Troopers as a “classic” science fiction novel, and is thought to be both visionary and very problematic.
Both of won Hugo Awards, both are about soldiers who do war with aliens in space, and are only actually thirteen years apart in publication. Both novels are considered great science fiction. However, that is where the similarities end.
Starship Troopers has always been viewed as a staunchly “conservative” book. The Forever War has always been viewed as “liberal.” Starship Troopers views war and the act of conquering as an inevitable fact of existing in the universe, that this is where man can become great and find glory for himself and his homeland. The Forever War maintains that the inevitable march of war is where men go to get eaten up and turned into soldier-mulch.
One of these books was written by a Naval officer who took his two-years and left the Navy with obviously fond memories. The other was written by a recipient of a Purple Heart. One of these books was written before Vietnam, one written after.
The duality of these two novels exemplifies a tonal shift in American science fiction. The 1960s gave rise to books like Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Babel-17 by Samuel Delany, and of course Frank Herbert’s Dune. Science fiction had always been a political genre. Even Frankenstein’s Monster, the first proper science fiction novel (written by a woman, I might add) has strong didactic undercurrents. However, this decade gave rise to a level of overt politicization and existential storytelling never explored. If Theodore Sturgeon made science fiction literary with More Than Human, the Korea and Vietnam made science fiction complicated.
This also came after the commercial shift in the 1960s. The 1950s might have been considered a Golden Age for shoot-em-up laser-fights, but over the next fifteen years the newsstand-rags that were the bread and butter for selling these stories quickly disappeared. Perhaps it was the quick succession of wars, perhaps it was a trend that simply went out of fashion, but ultimately it was at this time that the purely-commercial stuff disappeared.
A bottle-neck effect occurred, and science fiction became very academic very quickly.
One of my favorite parts of science fiction is how each book is a product of its generation. Each story talks about the fears, the dreams, the ideals of its society. Starship Troopers portrays intergalactic conflict as an inevitable march of progress. We have to break a few eggs to make an omelet. After Vietnam, after the economic and tonal shift, Haldeman’s book was published. The Forever War’s stance on war is probably best summed up by this quote:
“The 1143-year-long war had begun on false pretenses and only because the two races were unable to communicate.
Once they could talk, the first question was ‘Why did you start this thing?’ and the answer was ‘Me?”