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Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation has acquired the rights to The Forever War, an award-winning 1974 novel by science fiction author and MIT writing professor Joe Haldeman. The film will be directed by Ridley Scott, whose last science fiction films were Alien and Blade Runner. The producers are now searching for a writer.

In Haldeman’s novel, a physicist is drafted into a long-fought war against an alien race, where distant battlegrounds are reached by faster-than-light travel. The battles are short, bleak affairs against an uncommunicative enemy, with frequent casualties. When he returns, the protagonist finds that the world has changed in his absence.

Basically, The Forever War is “all about Vietnam,” said Haldeman, a draftee who served in Vietnam’s Central Highlands in 1968. “I didn’t sit down and make a chart or anything,” he said, “but the [Vietnam] war was my model. The book won a Nebula Award and a Hugo Award, two of science fiction’s most coveted honors.

Film to draw analogies to War on Terror

Today, the book is still relevant as a sharp rebuke of the Iraq war.

When Ridley Scott wrote about obtaining the movie rights, he said the book was especially relevant now in view of the present War on Terror, Haldeman said. Although today’s army is comprised of volunteers, not the conscripts of Vietnam (and those in The Forever War), involuntary contract extensions are common. “These poor guys wind up going four times overseas,” Haldeman said.

In the book, the protagonist is in combat for less than a decade, but the Earth ages thousands of years in his absence due to relativistic effects. Every time he comes back from combat, the protagonist finds an entirely new human civilization.

Haldeman calls this “the dislocating effect of warfare,” which he experienced firsthand. Like the soldiers in Haldeman’s book, Vietnam veterans came home to a society that had changed rapidly in their absence. “Soldiers find out they’re not fighting for their own culture,” he said.

In The Forever War, about as many casualties come during training exercises or because of accidents as come from contact with the alien enemy. “In Vietnam, it didn’t take you long to see that the actual enemy was the people on your side” — the draft boards and the Army itself, Haldeman said. “You had no personal problem with the Vietnamese.”

The film, like the book, will probably have an “obvious antiwar message,” Haldeman said. “I want people to understand what a dislocating experience it is, which the Army certainly isn’t telling anybody. People don’t understand that when you sign up you lose your civil rights. The Bill of Rights no longer applies to you. Once you’re inside, in a sense you have less citizenship than someone who’s in prison.”

Novel repudiates Starship

In some ways The Forever War reads as a post-Vietnam response to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, the hawkish 1959 novel that tracks the career of a soldier fighting against an uncommunicative alien race; the novel follows him from enlistment, throughout an exciting series of combat actions, to a climactic final battle.

In the Starship Troopers version of Earth, service guarantees citizenship: only veterans can vote. The protagonist and his friends are enthusiastic volunteers.

Heinlein’s soldiers are volunteers, and their death is rare (and, Haldeman says, heroic). In The Forever War, like in Vietnam, some soldiers are drafted.

Conscription “was a really bad idea for Vietnam,” Haldeman said, although it “was socially necessary for World War II.” We’re too far into the Iraq war to need a draft now, he said, but “when they start fighting in Iran, they’re going to need a draft.”

Haldeman says he teaches Starship Troopers as a “didactic novel. … [It’s] a very effective propaganda tool for getting 16 or 17 year olds enthusiastic about becoming soldiers.” Haldeman, a self-described pacifist, condemns that message. But, he said, “Heinlein and I were friends at the end of his life … we just forgave each other our politics.”

Two jobs: MIT professor, writer

What exactly is Haldeman doing at MIT? Before he was hired in the late 1980s, “kids were all writing science fiction, and nobody in the program wrote science fiction, so they searched for a recognizable name with a degree and who had college teaching experience,” Haldeman said. MIT didn’t have a lot of options.

Haldeman now teaches two writing subjects, workshops in science fiction and longer fiction. Do MIT students actually write publishable stories? “Well, some of them,” Haldeman said.

“I love teaching here for many reasons,” he said. “I could go to any liberal arts college and find people full of a burning desire to write,” he said. But he refused an offer from Harvard University. “There’s no place elsewhere I could really fit in very well,” he said, because MIT appreciates science fiction more many other universities might. “The faculty is much more receptive,” he said.

Having written and taught science fiction for so long makes him an “extremely unfriendly reader,” Haldeman said. “I’ve written so many books that I can see the bones, I just see the tools working away,” he said. “Teaching it makes it even worse,” he said. “You get to read amateur fiction for three-and-a-half months out of the year.” A good book needs to stay interesting and not make mistakes, so that it makes him curious about the story, Haldeman said. So he mostly reads nonfiction: “I’ve got to get outside of science fiction to really be captivated.”

Fans still write, at the rate of about ten e-mails a day, which Haldeman answers with at least a sentence or two, he said. “I got an actual letter last week and it was the first one I’d had in months,” he said.

Haldeman says he makes a comfortable upper middle-class living from his works, which generally pay better than being an MIT professor. His current project, the novel Starbound, will be the second in a trilogy that began with Marsbound and will end with a novel to be called Earthbound.

Film will be Haldeman’s second

Haldeman has written a story and screenplay before, for the film Robot Jox; he largely disavows that story now. “Some people enjoy [Robot Jox], but to me it’s as if I’d had a child who started out well and then sustained brain damage,” Haldeman wrote on his website.

One other novel, Haldeman’s 1987 “Tool of the Trade,” almost became a TV series, but the group in Hollywood interested in the story disappeared. The book follows an MIT psychology professor, secretly a Russian intelligence agent, who is unsure of his loyalties and has invented a device that will make almost anyone do whatever he asks. The book, which Haldeman calls his “most cinematic novel,” was finished during his first year teaching at the Institute.

Haldeman says that The Forever War’s plot will translate well into film, at least in broad outlines. “From what I’ve seen of Ridley’s public statements, the first movie, The Forever War, won’t cover all of the novel,” more likely about half of it, Haldeman said. “The first time I optioned the novel, it was for a 4-part miniseries on television. I wouldn’t expect what I had proposed as a 8-hour movie to show up on a movie,” he said.

What about artistic integrity? Is he deeply worried about the way Scott will portray his work? “No,” Haldeman said. “It’s not my work any more. I’ll spend the check and they can have my book.”

Haldeman said he doesn’t need a strong say in the film, and that his conversations with Scott have so far been through their respective agents.

“The only time I ever met Ridley Scott,” Haldeman said, “was when he got the Hugo award for best movie” for Blade Runner, the film based on Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? that excited science fiction readers but drew poor attendance in theaters. “And he said, ‘Oh, you were the people who saw it.’”

Novel reflects military experience

Haldeman was drafted in 1968 and spent a year in the service. “I got there February 29, 1968, and everyone was afraid the computer would make us wait four years,” he said. He spent the year as a demolitions engineer on search and destroy missions in groups of about fifty, traveling around the jungle trying to draw Vietcong fire.

“When they started shooting at us we’d bring in artillery and air support and try to draw them out,” he said. But “they’d disappear three minutes after fighting,” knowing that it took air support four minutes to arrive. Haldeman refused a commission and served as a private the whole time, eventually ranked Specialist-4.

His Army career ended when a booby-trapped pile of ordnance exploded in an abandoned enemy position while his demolitions team had been assigned to guard the pile. “Our sergeant protested, this could be a booby trap, it’s really a sitting duck” situation, but “the major in charge of the infantry wanted to wait and have his boys get some chow before they left.” The pile blew up a few minutes later, sending hundreds of bullets and pieces of shrapnel into his body. Of the wounded, “I was the only one who survived with all my limbs intact,” Haldeman said.

After spending time in several military hospitals, Haldeman was assigned to work as a postman and got out of the service three months early, considered “40 percent disabled” based on the location and number of his wounds. “In a very practical way, or perhaps a cynical way, it was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he said.

There are few prominent Army veterans in science fiction. The field has “two or three veterans of my generation,” and he’s “met one guy from the current conflict,” Haldeman said. Combat changes you, he said. “Sometimes [being a veteran is] very, very binding, and sometimes it’s the opposite,” Haldeman said.

In The Forever War, and in modern wars, machines and technology sometimes dominate the fighting. “The people are counters that give war the extra value,” Haldeman said. “We very rarely saw the enemy, we saw them after you killed them. I saw a total of two enemy soldiers whom we had wounded,” he said.

“There was no epic sense to anything that I experienced in combat,” he said. “It was really gang fighting with airplanes.”

The protagonist of The Forever War rarely does anything heroic, though he does make clever tactical decisions that save him and many of his comrades. He gains rank mostly by default: by constantly surviving missions, he keeps getting promoted.

The protagonist is “not a hero type, he’s not that good looking, he’s just an everyman with an education,” Haldeman said. Of course, in Hollywood, even the everyman has to look good. “Daniel Craig would be good,” he said.