Camouflage, Joe Haldeman

Ace, 2004, 296 pages, C$36.00 hc, ISBN 0-441-01161-6

That the 2006 “Best Novel” Nebula Award went to a relatively unknown novel rather than any of the deserving ones isn’t really a surprise. The SFWA’s Nebulas, after all, have long ceased to have any relationship to actual literary worth, instead boldly embracing a growing reputation as the leading industry back-scratching contest. Any relationship to what readers love to read, or what informed critics think is among the best SF/fantasy of the year, is purely coincidental.

So if you haven’t read Joe Haldeman’s Camouflage, don’t feel as if you missed anything spectacular: At best, it’s a competent SF novel that doesn’t insult the intelligence of savvy readers. At worst, it’s just another brick in the Great Wall of the SF mid-list and perhaps a further proof of Haldeman’s hypnotizing powers over the rest of SFWA. It doesn’t really deserve any top award, but what are you going to do? The Nebulas, after all, can’t even be bothered to focus on any single calendar year, nor have a sensible nomination process.

But if you do find a copy of Camouflage, perhaps at a remainder sale, have a look. You can do worse.

It begins decently enough, with some guy telling another about a mysterious artifact buried underneath the Pacific Ocean. Raising it to the surface is no problem, but dealing with it once it’s over the ocean gets to be an issue since the object it many more time denser than even the outer reaches of the periodic table of elements. Various exotic engineering tricks are required to actually put it somewhere it can be studied, and once it’s in place, no one can figure out how to get any information about its composition. Diamond bits and industrial lasers don’t even leave a scratch, leaving the scientists curiously flustered even as media attention is focused on their efforts. Set in a relatively near future (2019), this section of Camouflage makes good use of Haldeman’s travels in Samoa and ends up being a very enjoyable hard-SF tale tending toward old-school hard engineering fiction. It’s told in a crisp no-nonsense fashion that side-steps the feeling of déjà-vu by not wasting our time.

But as it turns out, it’s not even half of the novel’s story. No, Camouflage is really about one alien shape-shifter who, after spending various umpteenth years swimming around, finally comes aground in the early twentieth century to study those human creatures. Somewhat ignorant of social graces, it makes a number of mistakes (some of them fairly serious) before learning to cope with the rest of humanity. Its apprenticeship is long, fascinating and takes us forward ninety years as we figure out how the alien and the ship are linked. This section of the novel distinguishes itself by the way it snakes through nearly a century of history, and by the various details of a shape-shifter’s methods. There is a limpid logic to Haldeman’s writing in Camouflage that makes a lot more interesting that it ought to be, even when it side-steps into irrelevancy.

Such as when it tips the scale even more by introducing a second shape-shifter, a creature of almost comical evil that has also managed to survive throughout all of human history. It, too, is very interested in the alien ship… and you can bet that it’s the sworn enemy of our first shape shifter. We follow this second shape-shifter’s progress through history is such condensed fashion that it’s easy to see Haldeman pull the wool over our eyes. Gee, do you possibly think that it could become someone who figures in the first plot thread of the novel?

All three subplots eventually merge in the last few chapters, with a sudden and improbable romance that leads straight to a final confrontation and a conclusion that seems to say “that’s it, show’s over!” more than anything attempting a satisfying conclusion. At least it’s a relatively short book.

Camouflage certainly doesn’t do anything to heighten my opinion of Haldeman’s recent production. It’s middle-list fodder, exactly the type of novel we think about when we gesture in the direction of “all of those SF books out there”. In some ways, its primary purpose in the field may be as a yardstick, to make the really good stuff look good and the really bad stuff look bad..

And yet it’s written with a sure-footed assurance, plenty of crunchy details and interesting twists on the old shape-shifting idea. Looking at more information about Camouflage, I found that it actually won another award, walking away with half of the 2005 Tiptree Award. Given the treatment of shape-shifting romance in the novel, I can actually understand that. So amend that whole “doesn’t deserve any top award” crack with “(except the Tiptree)” and give me some time as I reflect upon the fact that I read and generally enjoyed a Tiptree-winning novel. Now that wasn’t something I expected.

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