Vintage SF Month is hosted by the Little Red Reviewer.
The year is 1997. Otherwise known as the “far future” for people living in 1974. William Mandella is a bright, young physics student. Or he was, before he got drafted into the United Nations Exploratory Force (emphasis on force) under the Elite Conscription Act of 1996 (because wars aren’t really an outrage until the elite get forced to do their part). Humans in 1997 haven’t just colonized the solar system. With the discovery of “collapsars” in 1985, you can now “send a shipload of colonists to Fomalhaut for less than it had once cost to put a brace of men on the moon.” That’s because you can travel between two collapsars with a travel time of exactly zero. The galaxy just got a lot smaller. Small enough for humanity to bump up against the alien Taurans (our word, there being no way to talk to them). As you can guess, first contact doesn’t go well. We are now in our first interspecies, interstellar war.
By chapter 3 Mandella is training on Charon. Between the cold (cold) and the lack of atmosphere, they won’t be fighting in their skivvies. We get treated to several chapters on power armor training. They haven’t even started fighting yet, and this is really cool stuff, mainly because Haldeman is serious about keeping his science hard. Between the cold and lack of atmosphere, if you suit fails, you die. At temperatures approaching absolute zero, it’s easy to fall down. You fall on your exhaust fins—heck, you just lean on them—you die. And people do, long before we ever see an enemy.
We’re 50 pages in before we get a look at a Tauran.
He had two arms and two legs, but his waist was so small you could encompass it with both hands. Under the tiny waist was a large horseshoe-shaped pelvic structure nearly a meter wide, from which dangled two long skinny legs with no apparent knee joint. Above that waist his body swelled out again, to a chest no smaller than the huge pelvis. His arms looked surprisingly human, except they were too long and undermuscled. There were too many fingers on his hands. Shoulderless, neckless. His head was a nightmarish growth that swelled like a goiter from his massive chest. Two eyes that looked like clusters of fish eggs, a bundle of tassels instead of a nose, and a rigidly open hole that might have been a mouth sitting low down where his adam’s apple should have been.
Like the aliens in The High Crusade, the Taurans don’t know much about fighting humans. But they will.
From there we get a damn near perfect speculative fiction tale. The science is hard and there is a lot of it. As military SF, it is heavy on a mix of Kafka-esque bureaucracy and gallows humor, paired with some really good battles. The futurology is always thought-provoking, if not particularly accurate (it never is). It’s not just a military SF novel, it’s a war novel, and the characterization as Mandella grapples with war is terrific. There is even a good love story stuck in there. And the entire thing works on a figurative level (it was certainly a reaction to both Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and to Vietnam). If this is message fiction, it’s message fiction as it should be done: smart, open to multiple interpretations, thought-provoking, subversive (to any orthodoxy), woven into the fabric of the story, and always, always entertaining.