In The Armchair


Posted in Books and Literature by Armchair Guy on December 19, 2008

camouflage-haldeman1A few days ago, I finished reading the very interesting Camouflage by Joe Haldeman.  Haldeman is perhaps best known for his war book The Forever War, which I haven’t read yet, though I’ve read books it’s been compared to, like Starship Troopers by Heinlein and Old Man’s War by Joe Scalzi.  I enjoyed both those books in a simple-reading, uncerebral way.  These authors come up with very smart ideas, but the narration is decidedly uncerebral: the author simply explains all of what’s going on; the reader isn’t expected to think about things for himself.  Even the surprises and plot twists have this author-explains-everything-nicely-for-reader quality.  Isaac Asimov’s style, on the other hand, engages the reader’s thought centres more.  This is not to say Asimov wrote hard science fiction — far from it — but, given the specific parameters and axioms (however far-fetched) on which his universe rests, he tends to be a lot more analytical while using them to draw his conclusions.

Camouflage is firmly in the Heinlein-Scalzi mould, by which I mean the author spoonfeeds or handholds the reader to a great extent and doesn’t indulge in cerebral exchanges or polemics within the book.  Haldeman goes farther along that path than Heinlein or Scalzi.  There are some nice ideas in the book, but they’re described in an emotional monotone, devoid of the sense of wonder or excitement or inquiry that I usually expect from a sci-fi book.  The events have interesting implications, but the author (and the characters) don’t get sufficiently pumped up about them.  The result, for me, was a sense of dissatisfaction with the level of thought and emotion exhibited.  The events in the book are sci-fi, but have the narrative quality of magic spells: it’s hard to guess what the limits of the aliens’ capabilities are.  I certainly enjoyed the book, but I’d call it nice, not clever.

So what’s the book about?  Briefly, the story flows around the exploits of an alien shapeshifter through several decades (it lives practically indefinitely), up until the point where its ship is discovered by humans.  Along the way, it mentions how the alien comes to understand what it means to be human.  The book is suffused with interesting scenarios related to the alien’s alienness as well as its humanness, and also some technological marvels.  A quick, easy read.


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