Sunday, November 27, 2011

2005 Nebula – CAMOUFLAGE by Joe Haldeman

An extremely resilient, shapeshifting, immortal alien evolves in a harsh interstellar environment then travels to Earth.  30,000 years ago, it landed and began to observe local life, living for thousands of years as a shark.  Finally, in 1931 it comes ashore and takes human form.  We follow this “changeling” over the following decades, as it takes many different human forms and comes to understand human emotions.  The great cornball sci-fi question, “what is love?” is actually uttered several times in the novel, though at least Haldeman has the good sense to couch it in literary allusions.  While we follow the changeling's history through the years, we also see the excavation of its ship in 2020, led by Russell Sutton, the man who raised the Titanic.

I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy this book.  Maybe it’s my love of history, but I’m a sucker for the “immortal experiences key events beyond a single lifespan” gimmick.  Haldeman is as good as anyone at depicting war from the soldier’s point of view, and there’s a very effective section on the Bataan Death March in the Phillippines during WWII.  That said, we’ve seen this before.  In fact, in this age of vampire dominance, we’ve seen it a lot.  I’m also a sucker for the “team of scientists try to understand unfathomable alien artifact” gimmick, which takes up most of the rest of the novel.  Again, we’ve seen it before, and we’ve seen it done better, but combining two basic plots I enjoy is probably not the recipe for a novel I’m going to hate.

It’s not necessarily the recipe for a novel that I’m going to love though.  The novel starts by combing some tried-and-true formulas, but it does go off on some tangents towards the end.  There’s an odd, and rather forced, love story.  Haldeman introduces another, unrelated, alien called the “Chameleon,” and I know he’s trying to draw a contrast between different views of humanity, but it really just feels like the Chameleon is just there so that there can be a fight at the novel’s climax.  There are extended descriptions of the elaborate lengths the Changeling has to go through to establish identities in the modern world. And, there’s a big twist that is so obvious that I was sure Haldeman was going for a fake out.

It’s a mildly entertaining, but flawed, novel.  It certainly doesn’t feel like an award-winner.  I think it’s fair to hold all of these award-winners up to a high standard, and to expect them to have high quality writing and bring new ideas or themes to the table; this one does not measure up.  This is Haldeman’s third Nebula.  Forever War is a classic in the core sf canon.  Forever Peace has some major issues, but it’s asking big questions and has some new ideas.  Camouflage is a workmanlike, derivative sf thriller.  Once again, I have no idea where the SFWA is coming from.

Grade: C+

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