In a genre packed with trilogies and extended series, Joe Haldeman dares to write stand-alone novels. Refreshing in their ability to neatly wrap up a plot, such books almost are a lost art. Haldeman’s newest, Camouflage, spans eons and tells of a quite unusual alien invasion.
From time’s beginning, there were two life-forms: the changeling and the chameleon. The changeling survived by adapting to its environment and learning from it. After thousands of years in the sea, it came ashore and learned from the strange bipedal creatures it found there.
The chameleon, however, took the opposite route and lived by killing and dominating all in its path. It discovered humans early and took sadistic pleasure in exploiting them.
In our near future, an amazing artifact is discovered in a deep-sea trench. The artifact is made from an unfamiliar material, and scientists’ best efforts can’t make a dent in it. Convinced that wonderful revelations lie inside, the government asks marine biologist Russell Sutton to lend his expertise. Unfortunately, Sutton doesn’t know that aliens have a vested interest in the artifact, and both are making their way to the island where it lies waiting…
The aliens’ shape-changing abilities are a fascinating element of this book. Haldeman is up-front with the changeling’s identity, and readers follow it as this creature learns about being human. The author isn’t as forthcoming about the chameleon, which leads readers to guess where he’ll show up … and who he’ll be.
The narrative allows Haldeman to put his characters amid some interesting historical circumstances. The changeling goes through a World War II death-march in the Philippines, while the chameleon does a few stints as a despotic ruler. The contrast of the two aliens–as well as reader curiosity about their experiences–carries a great deal of the story’s weight.
The human characters aren’t dull, either. Russell, the most prominent, is a fairly understated presence; however, by keeping him low-key, readers more clearly see his evolution from a social loner to someone with something to live for.
Camouflage is a quick read; I finished it in a single day. It’s a lively and unique novel of aliens among us.