Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Camouflage by Joe Haldeman

I've been here for too long.
Done things I shouldn't have done.
I picked this up, along with Russell Hoban and Robert Westall, in my favourite bookshop in Hay (being told at the time that my three modest purchases had tipped them over the £500 mark for the day - huzzah). At home, I rushed to my shelves to show my other Haldeman novels the new addition, only to realise in horror that I'd previously donated The Forever War trilogy to my local Oxfam back in 2012 and I sat down in disgust. But not for long. 

I've come to realise that I might have read quite a lot of what I read for the wrong reason - as far as books go I wanted only to have wallpaper in the rooms of my house that screamed intelligence, sophistication, a critical appreciation of what it is to be human and alive in these trying times, and I thought the only way to do that would be to have walls lined with classics, with oblique and post-modern fiction, with challenging and difficult works by challenging and difficult authors. But you can have all that and more, most importantly enjoyment, by purchasing and reading good science fiction, and not being ashamed by the assumed stigma of genre fiction. I love sci-fi. 

You heard me.

I do. Don't worry, this blog isn't morphing into some fawning genre fiction love-in, but I am not going to hold back on reading what I enjoy, hence my current glut of Neal Asher. But back to Haldeman, and this, winner of the Nebula Award in 2005 for best novel, in which two aeons-old extraterrestrials stalk the Earth, one seeking to understand and one looking to destroy. They can both change their appearance, mimicking other life forms, and with the advent of homo sapiens as the dominant animal on the planet, they leave their primordial states to walk upright among us. One is drawn to the horrors of war, the other, the study of life. As the two aliens spiral around each other across the centuries, they both find themselves drawn to Samoa as the discovery of an alien artefact proves the catalyst to their final reckoning and reveals the purpose of the Changeling's long sojourn on Earth.

Haldeman is a sparse, intelligent writer, quick to ramp up the action and never afraid to attack the status quo. Among his numerous targets is the US government, criticised here as a near totalitarian state, and marginalised by the human protagonists as far as is possible. Also under attack is his favourite subject, war, but this time, not the Vietnam 'police action', but rather the second World War, notably the death camps of the Nazis where the Chameleon finds work with Dr Mengele, and the Bataan Death March in the Phillippines. His elegant prose leaves much between the lines and he never fails to be thought-provoking.

If you're going to read one sci-fi novel in 2017, I would recommend something else, maybe a Robert Reed or Iain M Banks, just because they're great, but if winning awards does it for you, then you should try the book that beat Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell to the 2005 Nebula Award. You won't regret it.

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