Joe Haldeman,
(Ace, 2004)

With the novel Camouflage, Joe Haldeman is true to his title. Disguising the book as a new piece of science fiction, Haldeman instead springs a horror tale on his audience. The book contains enough science-fiction trappings to lure unsuspecting readers deep into the plot; there's a distant planet and a doomed mission to Earth that traps an alien intelligence on our watery world. But this alien is built from elements drawn from our nightmares rather than from the elements that compose our physical world. It's a shapeshifter, a changeling, a being that cannot be destroyed, and it does not hesitate to kill in order to survive.

Haldeman is actually more honest with his readers than I've just implied. The first reference he makes to his alien, in the opening sentence of Camouflage, is with the word "monster." However, by then launching into a detailed description of the planet on which this creature evolved, he sets up certain expectations regarding the level of scientific credibility he intends to deliver. The alien, identified throughout the book as "the changeling," has no DNA, yet Haldeman provides no explanation as to how it manages to fuel itself, to feed, on creatures composed of DNA. The changeling is able to transform itself, or parts of itself, into such things as clothes, a television or a sheet of linoleum, yet it seems to require organic sustenance. At one point the alien dives into the sea and devours a tuna in order to regain the mass it lost when its arm is blown off by a shotgun blast.

The expectations the science-fiction facade imposes on this horror story meant that it took quite a while for my suspension of disbelief to take proper hold. Haldeman's skills as a storyteller did eventually win through and by the mid-point in the book it had captured my full attention. The key was Haldeman's clever transformation of his monster into a being that doesn't simply mimic human physical features, it becomes more ideally human than many of the people with whom it comes in contact.

Sure the changeling may maim and murder to achieve its goals but the greater horrors in Camouflage are perpetrated by the humans the alien encounters in its World War II experiences. The terrible indignities it witnesses as an American prisoner of war on the Bataan Death March, cruelties that Haldeman, a Vietnam veteran, manages to convey with a razor sharpness, reveal that no horror in this fiction can surpass what we humans are capable of inflicting upon other members of our own species.

From this point on Camouflage percolates along quite nicely on the strength of some solid character construction. Russell Sutton, co-leader of the scientific team investigating the alien artifact he and his partner Jack Halliburton have excavated from the bottom of the ocean, anchors the human side of the novel. And Sutton's interactions with the members of his team, with the changeling and with the mysterious artifact itself, are key to the success of this book. Sutton is a pleasantly flawed character whose imperfections allow Haldeman to explore the changeling's growing humanity.

Unfortunately, Haldeman felt compelled to add a second shapeshifting alien entity to the story. To my mind, "the chameleon" is a completely unnecessary distraction from the central thrust of the novel, one that further stretches the believability of the storyline. Every chapter cataloguing the mayhem wrought by the chameleon only served to pull me out of the main storyline's flow. Luckily the chameleon is held to a relatively minor role until the end of the book.

Which brings me to the novel's other significant weakness: the rushed climax. It's almost as though there were an externally imposed page limit for this book with Haldeman realizing suddenly that he had only a few pages left to wrap the whole thing up. So, watch for an explosive confrontation scene with plenty of noisy special effects. A quick, quiet scene of the truth revealed resulting in a moment of soul-searching. The End.

Camouflage is a book I enjoyed, though not as much as I would have liked. It had the makings of a terrific science fiction/horror hybrid, but didn't take the time to realize its full potential. It won't be seen as one of Haldeman's best books, but it's unlikely to be dismissed as a failure either. It's a quick, light read with some poignant moments, some insightful glimpses into what it means to be human and some clever plotting. Joe Haldeman, however, has occasionally produced books that accomplish much more than Camouflage manages to deliver.

by Gregg Thurlbeck
24 December 2005

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