Geek Couples: William Mandella & Marygay Potter (The Forever War) - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Geek Couples: William Mandella & Marygay Potter (The Forever War)

Alexander Wallace finds an eternal love in a time of eternal war.
(A warning: this article will discuss the entire plot of The Forever War extensively)

For most of human history, it was rare for two soldiers in the same army to fall in love. Women weren’t allowed in armies regularly until recently, and the population of gay people has always been relatively small. The only example that I can recall is the Sacred Band of Thebes, a formation of pairs of male lovers who served its namesake city as an elite force before being annihilated by Philip of Macedon.

But science fiction is not constrained to human notions of probabilities; all narrative is contrivance, and authors regularly contrive implausible scenarios to create something interesting to read. Such is Joe Haldeman’s daringly antiwar masterwork The Forever War, the ruthless deconstruction of Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (although praised by Heinlein himself) that won the Hugo, the Nebula and the Locus. It is an impressive book by any standard. It also has the only romantic subplot that has ever truly affected me in a science fiction novel.

Here, then, is our romance between soldiers. They are William Mandella, the main character, and Marygay Potter, the woman he falls in love with. The interactions between the two form a potent illustration of the emotional core of the novel; Haldeman deserves credit for making their interpersonal travails a direct result of the science fictional conceit, rather than tacking it on out of a sense of obligation.
That science fictional conceit ended up creating one of the most hauntingly evocative depictions of futuristic warfare ever written (even if it was set in the then-future of the 1990s). This is not the reskinned World War II that permeates so much space opera; no, this is a Vietnam in the cosmos, a miserable neverending war begun on flimsy pretenses and permeated with overwhelming savagery by everyone involved. This is not a coincidence; Joe Haldeman fought in Vietnam and came back a changed man. The Forever War is in part a reckoning with the nightmare of napalm and herbicide that that war invariably was.

Both William and Marygay are sent to fight on distant planets against the Taurans, an alien species and the first that humanity has contacted. This Earth has faster-than-light travel, and it is in hewing closely to known physics that makes this work so heart-rending: as these soldiers come back from every new battle, centuries have passed on their homeworld. Their homecoming always leaves them strangers in a strange land, where they have to serve as each other’s confidants.

Imagine loving another person.

Imagine fighting for your lives together millions of miles away from home on behalf of people who hold you in contempt.

Imagine landing in a foreign country every time you return ‘home.’

Imagine hearing that you and your lover will be sent to different foreign fronts in this war, meaning that you’ll never see each other again. Time dilation will never allow it.
It is in spite of all this madness that William and Marygay continue to hold each other as their dearests. A love that can withstand the cruel vagaries of the laws of physics themselves is a love that can withstand anything.

It is at the end of the novel, when William returns from his deployment to an Earth more alien than the Taurans where the war has been over for so very long, he finds a note from Marygay that she left for him. That note contains one of the impactful lines of literature I have ever read:
“I never found anybody else and I don't want anybody else. I don't care whether you're ninety years old or thirty. If I can't be your lover, I'll be your nurse.”
That is a love of which most of us can only dream.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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