Monday, April 04, 2011
Review: Camouflage, by Joe Haldeman
If you've been reading this blog for a while, you know that I don't finish a lot of novels. I follow Bookgasm's Hundred-Page-Rule that states, "If a book's not good by page one-hundred, stop reading it." In fact, I've modified it into my own, even more hardcore version: "If by page one-hundred you can stop reading; do." That keeps me from debating whether or not a book is "good." The standard isn't technical quality; it's whether or not I can put it down. So on the rare occasions that I do finish a book, it's because it's really damn compelling. Camouflage is that kind of book.
I picked it up because there's an undersea angle. In prehistoric times, a spacecraft crashes into what will eventually become the Pacific Ocean and settles on the seabed. A lifeform leaves the craft and we're told that it's from a planet so volatile and forever quick-changing that the inhabitants have learned to evolve just as quickly. In effect, they've become immortal, because they can transform themselves into whatever it takes to survive whatever they encounter. This particular specimen spends its first million or so years on Earth as an undefined sea monster, eventually transforming itself into a shark and then a killer whale (basically whatever's at the top of the local ecosystem's food chain) as it discovers those species. When it encounters humans, it decides to become one of those.
Alongside this plotline is a separate one that begins in the year 2019 when scientists discover the craft and attempt to raise it and then study it. The leader of the project is a grizzled, former Navy admiral named Jack Halliburton, but the main character in these sections is Russell Sutton, the marine engineer whom Halliburton hires to oversee the project. Other characters come along as the project develops, including a NASA scientist named Jan whom I couldn't help but imagine as Helen Mirren. These sections - with their enjoyable banter and hints at a romantic triangle between the three main characters - ground the novel and gave me some likable people to relate to. Which was very important early on as the alien - Haldeman calls it "the changeling" - learns to become human in its own story.
As enjoyable as the science project plot is, the changeling's story is the fascinating one. It comes ashore in 1931, more or less human in form, but with all the moral development of a great white shark. It's tragic then, but not shocking when the changeling's first action on land is to kill a young man and take his identity. Nor is that the last heinous act the changeling will commit as it learns to assimilate into human culture.
What's utterly captivating is the skill with which Haldeman gradually endeared me to this character. He doesn't pull any of the usual, manipulative tricks. In fact, he makes his job harder for himself by refusing to give the changeling a name, consistently referring to it as "it," and continuously putting it into situations that show how inhuman it is. It endures rape dispassionately, for instance. Why wouldn't it? It can feel pain (though it's tolerance for pain is much greater than ours), but doesn't understand emotions like anger or humiliation. Not at first anyway.
Well, not ever, really. But as it continues life amongst humans, switching from one identity to another (some kept for years or decades; others for very short periods of time), it does begin to pick up concepts like compassion and wonders if it will ever understand love. But even then, Haldeman never anthropomorphizes the creature. It's not "becoming human," it's very much alien, but is simply trying to understand the culture in which it's found itself. I sort of fell in love with it, and with Haldeman's unbelievable ability to set up impossible writing challenges and then meet them with such apparent ease.
I've always enjoyed it when authors run parallel, independent stories that are going to meet up eventually. It's a lot of fun to try to anticipate how the pieces fit together and Camouflage is no exception. There's a second immortal character that I haven't mentioned yet - Haldeman calls him the chameleon - who's much more violent and bloodthirsty than the changeling and wants to find others like him only to destroy them. Unfortunately, I figured out how this character fit into the 2019 story fairly easily (although Haldeman did make me question my theory at least once), but that was only a small bit of enjoyment stolen. The final confrontation between changeling and chameleon is exciting and satisfying.
As remarkable as any other part of the book is the end. I wouldn't dream of spoiling it, because you absolutely need to read it, but Haldeman finishes the story exactly where he needs to and not one second later. It's abrupt, but as I thought about possible ways to make it less so, I realized that it's also perfect. Like the rest of the novel.