Ace, 2000, 218 pages, C$??.?? hc, ISBN 0-441-00769-4
(Read in French as Le Message, translated by Michel Pagel)
Is it just me, or have Joe Haldeman’s latest few books been uniformly disappointing? Forever Peace unexplainably won the Hugo award despite reading like a first novel from a none-too-gifted neophyte. Forever Free was one of the worst SF novels of the past few years. If you want to be generous, you can say that lately, Haldeman has been churning books whose first half may seem promising, but whose ultimate effect is disappointing.
He doesn’t break out of this rut with The Coming, a short novel that nominally deals with that most familiar SF situation; first contact.
Oh, it’s not your usual average SF novel; from the first few pages, it’s easy to be fascinated by the narration, which flows almost seamlessly from one character to another in a manner reminiscent of the first few minutes of Brian de Palma’s film SNAKE EYES. As characters intersect on the First of October 2054, our viewpoint shifts, efficiently establishing a series of back-stories in a small academic Florida town.
Haldeman’s usual brand of cynicism soon takes over, and we’re once more thrown in a mildly dystopian future: Corruption is everywhere, politicians are stupid (and dangerous), the environment is screwed, homosexuality has been outlawed (even though the market for VR pornography seems to be almost mainstream; hmmm?), Europe is on its way to another major war and, generally speaking, you wouldn’t want to live there.
In the middle of all that comes a message from a source obviously not of this Earth. The message? “WE’RE COMING”. Earth has until January first to get ready. So, what is it? Aliens, a hoax or something else?
The “something else” proves to be easily guessable and rather underwhelming. But that’s not the single biggest failing of The Coming, which is too often undistinguishable from the most ordinary crime thriller. Haldeman pads a novella with subplots that are scarcely relevant to the main theme or the Science-Fiction genre and the overall effect feels dull and disconnected.
As the first day ends and a short summary of the rest of October 2054 is fed to us, the cycle repeats itself for the second third of the book (November first) and then the third (December first, with some space left over for January first). Haldeman’s viewpoint-changing conceit, however, is less rigorous in the latter parts of the book, with a jarring effect on the unity of the book. The sense of rolling urgency created by the switching viewpoint is also lessened by the discontinuities. It’s so much fun to see an author try an original stylistic device that’s it’s a let-down to see him stop whenever he feels like it.
The other fascinating thing about the style of the book is how we eventually witness catastrophic events through media screens and the viewpoint of people scarcely connected to the action. Overall, I’m rather satisfied by Haldeman’s stylistic experiment in The Coming, if rather less impressed by what he does with it and how much potential he squanders on useless trivia, or completely gratuitous (and unpleasant) scenes. It doesn’t help that some plotlines are simply abandoned in the latter third of the book without much of an explanation. Coupled with the stupid rushed ending of Forever Free, it suggests that Haldeman’s writing is becoming seriously affected by his need to pay the mortgage.
On the other hand, well, it’s a quick read and a short book, most probably available from your local library. If ever you’re in need of something quick to read, it might just be what you’re looking for. Like many of Haldeman’s latest few books, it might not be good or satisfying or pleasant, but it’s certainly interesting and fascinating to dissect afterward.