After reading this remarkable book, I have to ask myself why I have never heard of Joe Haldeman before. This book won the Hugo and Nebula awards--and deservedly so--but I was not at all familiar with this author up to now. I have to say that this book is an incredible read. It's not exceedingly long, but it is packed full of all kinds of ideas and strikes me as quite visionary for the time in which it was written, which was the early 1970s. I am not as well-read in the sci-fi genre as I would like to be, but I must say that the future earth Haldeman describes is one quite unlike any I have read about or thought about myself. The very premise strikes me as singular if not unique, and the end result is a thoroughly enjoyable novel that far exceeds the fare of most science fiction offerings.
In the late twentieth century, Earth develops the ability to travel to distant parts of the galaxy through portals called collapsars; they soon come into contact with an alien race called the Taurans, and war breaks out between the two worlds. The protagonist, William Mandella, finds himself drafted into the intergalactic service under the provisions of the newly established Elite Conscription Act of 1996. Rather than retain the future scientists and leaders at home, this act works to form an intergalactic army of the world's best and brightest young men and women. The new recruits endure a grueling and sometimes fatal training regimen before shipping out to the planets of disputed galactic areas. The trip itself is dangerous, and the troops must secure themselves in protective chambers while they make the long journey to their destinations. Traveling at speeds close to that of light, a journey of several months equates to centuries back home on earth. The troops themselves are made up of both men and women, and a high degree of "confraternizing" goes on between the two sexes. Mandella bonds with one woman in particular, and a part of the story revolves around their attempts to stay together. Mandella is injured in combat, and he returns to an earth that has changed greatly: it is not safe to go anywhere without a bodyguard, homosexuality has become widespread in the culture of nine billion earthbound souls, jobs are incredibly complicated to secure, and Mandella cannot fit in. He reenlists in the service. After another injury and another disillusioning trip home, he goes back into the service as an instructor; almost immediately, though, he is given command of a new ship and sent to a star system 150,000 light years away. By this time, with hundreds more years having passed on earth, heterosexuality has essentially disappeared, and his young recruits are basically genetically engineered test-tube babies. The story of his final military action makes for a thrilling end of the story.
In the end, the author seems to express his own opinions about warfare, which it is certainly his prerogative to do, but the importance of the novel seems to lie mainly in the personality of Mandella and the author's portrayal of a drastically changed future earth society. This work was truly visionary. Hard science fiction elements include time travel (relative, of course) through collapsars (essentially black holes), a means by which humans can survive speeds close to the universal speed limit, and the military hardware of the future. The social context of the evolving story is the most striking part of the book to me, though. Malthusian population crises lead mankind to embrace (and at one point legislate) homosexuality. Mandella's heterosexuality is looked down upon and actually affects the morale of the troops under his command. The author also deals to some degree with cloning, which is certainly a timely topic, and delves into the political, economic, and social structures of his future earth. Mandella himself offers a case study in humanity. A reluctant warrior, he does what he has to do despite some ambivalence about the war itself, and he holds true to his personal beliefs and values in a world (several, actually) turned on its head. There is also a love story of sorts in the book, but it actually serves to heighten the importance of the protagonist's internal struggles with himself and with a world that becomes completely foreign to him. This is science fiction of the highest caliber and stands alongside the master works of authors more widely-recognized than Haldeman.