Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Review - Camouflage

by Joe Haldeman
2005 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

And so I have caught up with myself.

When I started my project of reading the award winning SF novels Camouflage was the most recent Nebula winner. A few weeks later another was announced and now we have yet another. This is the home stretch for the Nebula winners.

In the not too distant future an object made of something far denser than any element is found sitting beneath a million years of silt at the ocean floor. A research company brings it up and finds as they prod the thing that it is likely to be of alien origin.

When the object arrived on Earth two alien beings left it both of which are shapeshifters. One adapted to the land while mankind was still in the paleolithic era and walked the earth while the other played around as a fish for millenia before emerging from the ocean in the early twentieth century. The one that emerges late kills a boy, takes his place to learn about people, then rapes a woman. That is the "good guy". The other apparently just decides that if other shape shifters exist they must die and automatically joins the "evil" side in any conflict. This is how you know he is the "bad guy". They both converge on the object where our "good guy" alien attempts to infiltrate the research project and immediately has sex with the lead scientist. Wackiness ensues as the government realizes something is going on and interferes.

While the book didn't repulse me like so many other recent Nebula winners have I can't really say that I enjoyed it. The book alternates between present day poking at the artifact and what the aliens were doing in the past and neither of the stories were satisfying for very different reasons.

Nothing happens with the research. Each time they devise some ludicrous plan to get it to do something then they do it and nothing happens. It quickly becomes apparent that nothing really important is going to happen with the artifact until the aliens get to it and that is pretty much the case. It drains the tension and interest out of those scenes.

The aliens themselves are incredibly dull to read about. After the "good alien" gets the raping women thing out of his system he wanders around getting smart and helping people. The "bad alien" decides to join the Nazis because it likes death camps and kicks puppies. These characters are so bland that when the chapter switch occurs it usually took me a bit to work out which alien it was about. They're referred to as "camouflage" and "chameleon" but I couldn't tell you which is which.

The story has a central mystery to it where the research project may have been infiltrated by one of the shapeshifters but it is immediately obvious that it has been infiltrated and who that infiltrator is. Of course Haldeman "hides" this until the last few pages for a "dramatic" reveal that left me more annoyed than surprised. This is followed by the most bland showdown between two shapeshifting beings you could imagine; there's hundreds of ways this idea has been handled in the past and this one falls squarely in the pointless category.

I've got to mention this because it bothered me so much. It's a plot point that the alien doohicky is perfectly reflective on all frequencies. It's mentioned as part of the reason why it is so strange. And then they decide to shoot a high powered laser at it and Haldeman hadn't even forgotten the reasons why this was a bad idea since people watch through a material that is perfectly invisible to that laser's wavelength. For some reason the perfectly reflective object absorbs the laser rather than, say, reflecting it which is a good thing too since the test fire of the laser blew up a quarry. Of course I wouldn't want to find out that something perfectly reflective wasn't perfectly reflective by trying to burn a hole through the landscape around me but it's a bit of a lucky break for them. I swear if I had a nickle for every science fiction writer who didn't grasp the concept that a laser is light I'd be a very rich man.

That doesn't even get into the plan to launch an orbital rocket sideways and turn it off just at the right moment to not cause any damage to buildings a short distance away.

Haldeman is a decent writer when it comes to his prose and I wanted to enjoy this book. The characters are so uninteresting that they cannot save the bland plot and I was left disappointed. It isn't as annoying in that regard as Forever Peace but I cannot recommend this Camouflage.