Friday, December 10, 2010

Book Review: Camouflage

Joe Haldeman
Awards: Nebula
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –


Camouflage is not a deep or complex book, but it is a real treat to read. It’s a fast-paced, excellently-written story with an interesting central character, and it’s funny.

The plot is this: millions of years ago, two aliens landed on earth. They don’t know about each other, having come from different planets and having landed at different times and different places. One came in a spaceship that crashed on the floor of the Pacific Ocean. We’re not sure where or how the other one arrived.

Both aliens are shape-shifters and can take the shape of any one or any thing they want. The body chemistry that allows them to do this also makes them invulnerable to any germ or weapon or predator so they could, theoretically, live forever.

The alien that arrived in the spaceship, “the changeling,” is primarily interested in gaining knowledge of the world around it. The other alien, “the chameleon,” is primarily interested in eliminating competition and staying at the top of the food chain.

The two aliens take the form of various animate or inanimate objects as necessary to best pursue their respective goals. Over the centuries, the memory of who they are and where they came from becomes hazier and hazier, but they both know they are not like the rest of life on earth and both are constantly searching for others like themselves (for different reasons, in keeping with their different aims).

Being drawn to intra-species violence, the chameleon makes the transition to human form quite early, several millennia B.C. The changeling, on the other hand, finds itself drawn to the Pacific Ocean so it spends a lot of time as sharks and whales and only takes human form for the first time in 1931.

Eventually, in 2020, the changeling’s crashed spaceship is discovered and hauled up on land to be analyzed. This gets a lot of press which immediately attracts the attention of both aliens, who wangle their respective ways into the closely-guarded project where they inevitably meet other.

Over the course of the book, the changeling gradually learns what it is to be human. At first it, like the chameleon, is only concerned with survival; it has no concept of human emotions and makes several terrible mistakes which hurt people around it. But little by little it gains understanding and sympathy. The chameleon gains no such understanding.

Both the changeling and the chameleon experience war but have opposite reactions to it. The chameleon feeds off of the violence and joins in as often as possible. The changeling, who in one incarnation does a stint as an American prisoner of war in the Bataan Death March, is confused by atrocities and our inconsistent behavior and eventually becomes repulsed by the killing.

The only real gripes I had with the book were that (a) the chameleon’s pre-Earth background was so undefined, (b) the suspense about the inevitable confrontation between the two aliens builds through the entire book and then at the end everything is wrapped up in a nice bow in just a couple pages, and (c) I didn't really like the human characters all that much.

But that’s okay. It is all made up for by Haldeman’s terrific writing, which, to me, is the best thing about the whole book. He is succinct, matter-of-fact, and funny. He writes the way I’d hope I could write if I wrote a novel.

I know that individual paragraphs will not do him justice, because, out of context, they lose much of the book’s overall flavor. Nevertheless, here are a couple examples from Camouflage.

Describing the changeling’s experiences as a Marine at boot camp in 1941:
“For the first week they did little other than run, march, and suffer through calisthenics, from five in the morning until chow call at night – and sometimes a few more miles’ run after dinner, just to settle their stomachs. The changeling found it all fairly restful, but observed other people’s responses to the stress and did an exactly average amount of sweating and groaning. At the rifle range, it aimed to miss the bull’s eye most of the time, without being conspicuously bad.”
On how the changeling spent much of the ‘80s and ‘90s:
“It was an exotic dancer and part-time prostitute in Baltimore for a while, then a short-order cook back in Iowa City. As an old lady, it read palms on the county-fair circuit in the Midwest, and returned to California in its old Jimmy body to be a surf bum for a couple of seasons.

Sacrificing half its mass, it became a juggling dwarf with the Barnum & Bailey Circus, making contacts in the freak world. It met some interesting people, but they all seemed to be from Earth, no matter what they claimed.

It married the Bearded Lady, an even-tempered and sardonic hermaphrodite, and they lived together until 1996. The changeling left behind a hundred ounces of gold and no explanation, and became a student again.”
When the scientists studying the alien spaceship realize that there is likely at least one alien on earth, and that the alien will likely have taken human form and could be anyone, and that the way to identify the alien is that it will not have human DNA:
“In fact, by the time Jack said this, every employee at the CIA had donated a few cheek cells to the agency, as had employees of NSA and Homeland Security. A ‘suggestion’ had come down from the White House that all of the country’s leaders be tested. …

The tests proved that every member of the American intelligence community was human, at least in a nominal sense, and so were all prominent politicians, including the president, which surprised a few people.”

No comments:

Post a Comment

HTML Tag Instructions

Bold: To make text bold, tag it as follows:

<b>text you want to appear in bold</b>

Italic: To italicize text, tag it as follows:

<i>text you want to appear in italic</i>

Links: To add clickable links, like say to a Wikipedia article on baseball, tag it as follows:

<a href="">text you want to link from</a>

Related Posts with Thumbnails