by Joe Haldeman
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
What most non-SF fans don't realize is that the majority of the genre's best stories are basically metaphors and allegories which disect the human condition from an alternate perspective. Robots, androids, and aliens are used to hold a mirror up to different aspects of our nature. This has been true from the very beginning; Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Stevenson's Jekyll & Hyde, the Eloi and Morlocks from Wells' Time Machine. Each deal with man's hubris in attempting to control and reshape humanity, and/or illuminate the dichotomy of good vs. evil. Continuing that grand tradition is Joe Haldeman's Nebula and Tiptree winner Camouflage from 2004.
The story tracks three different timelines. The first begins millions of years ago on another world, describing a species that has ascended to immortality, forgoing the need for reproduction. Another track is near-future Earth, beginning in 2019 and continuing a couple of years, detailing a scientific investigation of a mysterious artifact found buried in a deep trench in the Pacific Ocean. The short chapters alternate between the two scenarios, then about a fourth of the way into the book a third is introduced. The original alien creature is identified as a changeling, able to transform itself, mimicking other living organisms, or even changing into an inanimate object. It lives in the ocean for millennia, always taking a form that is best for its survival. It can grow larger by consuming other things, or get smaller by tearing away portions of its body. Sometimes it's a shark, sometimes a whale, always aiming to be at the top of the food chain wherever it finds itself. Later, when it encounters humans in their sailing ships, it becomes a dolphin to get closer to observe them. Is it connected to the mysterious artifact? Maybe, maybe not, it has no memory of it, but has always felt an affinity for that area of the ocean.
The third timeline begins in prehistoric Central Asia. That entity is described as a chameleon, able to change its appearance at will, but limited to human form. That creature also appears to be immortal, since it has died many times but always comes back to life. Is there any connection between the two non-human creatures? Neither are aware of each other, but both are on the lookout for others like themselves. The first alien can be considered a model for the evolution of man, beginning in the ocean, changing form multiple times, later transferring to dry land and taking human form. It first comes ashore on the California coast in 1931. It takes the form of the first human it encounters. It's main goal is self-preservation. It does kill several times, to protect itself, to keep its non-human nature from being discovered, but it can be considered a model for the "good" portion of human nature. Through many other experiences, including as a soldier in World War 2, it does learn empathy, becoming more attuned to the wants and needs of others. The other creature never exhibits empathy, never changes beyond its base self. It doesn't care about anyone else, only its own needs, knowing it will always live no matter what happens, knowing it will kill any others like itself if it ever discovers them. The story elements that likely got the attention of the Tiptree judges are that the "good" alien can transform into male or female, whereas the "evil" entity can change its size and shape, its skin color, and other ethnic identifiers, but it is always male.
It didn't take me long to speculate that one or more of the scientists in the future were in fact the aliens in their latest form. A sly bit of misdirection toward the end made me doubt my guess for the bad guy, and I was wrong about the identity of the good alien. The human characters, even those who are actually alien, are well defined, with recognizable motivations. The emotions expressed are sometimes subtle, sometimes overtly bombastic, but always authentic, believable, relatable. The only thing I could criticize is the too-rushed conclusion, and it really cries out for a sequel, but Haldeman once again proved he can produce a satisfying book in a minimum number of pages. Recommended.
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