Thursday, January 28, 2021


Joe Haldeman
Completed 1/28/2021, Reviewed 1/28/2021
3 stars

This is my third novel by Haldeman.  The first two were The Forever War and Forever Peace.  I loved the former and was mixed on the later.  This book is very different in tone and style.  I liked it, but thought it rambled in the middle.  I think it might have worked better as a novella.  It’s about two aliens on Earth for millions of years that are suddenly drawn to an artifact found by the Americans in an ocean trench in the Pacific.  The two didn’t know the other existed.  One’s a changeling, being able to change into anything, organic or inorganic.  The other is a chameleon who is only able to take on the appearance of a man.  They don’t know what the artifact is, but the chameleon decides it’s a ship back home and he’s determined that he will be the sole occupant.  This book won the Nebula for 2005 and the Otherwise Award for 2004 for its dealing with gender issues.

The book primarily follows the changeling as it changes to a human after centuries existing in the ocean, mostly as a shark.  It doesn’t remember much before that.  It comes to shore in the ‘30s, taking on the form of a teenager on the beach after killing him.  He’s uncommunicative, only slowly learning the English language.  It learns by mimicking.  Its family put him under doctor’s care because of its change in behavior, but is eventually put in an asylum.  Through all this, it picks up human behaviors and a sense of what is and isn’t acceptable.  The book continues his experiences as a human as the years go by, as a Marine who is captured by the Japanese in WWII, as a college student, and as people of different races, genders, and sexualities. 

These chapters are interspersed with the discovery of the alien artifact, a long heavy cylinder of unknown material.  The research team is primarily led by Russ, an engineer, although the project to raise it and get it to Samoa is led by Jack, a wealthy former military man.  Russ is the central character here but is surrounded by some smart men and women.  The chameleon only appears briefly, to give us a sense of his baser disposition.  Unlike the changeling, the chameleon does not learn and embrace a sense of morality as it lives among humans.  Eventually, all three meet up for the final scene in the book.

I was rather disappointed in the character development.  Despite the amount of time we spend with Russ, we only get a two-dimensional character.  He’s likeable and sensitive, but we don’t really get to know him all that well.  Most of the other characters are rather one-dimensional.  The only really development we get is with the changeling as it develops from a robotic teenage boy to an emotionally and morally developed woman.  The journey to humanness that the changeling takes is interesting in the beginning and the end, but the middle is tedious at parts.  There were times when I wished the story would just move on.  It does add to the understanding of its development and it was written well, but it became a little boring. 

I was also disappointed in the ending.  After the chameleon is introduced, I was waiting for the climactic confrontation with the changeling, but it only lasted ten pages.  I thought it would have lasted longer.  And the last paragraph had the punch of a short story ending, not that of a full novel. 

What I did enjoy was how the changeling finagled itself onto Samoa and into the research facility.  Haldeman did this by incorporating a love story.  I thought it worked well.  I can’t go into too much detail because it would include spoilers, but I thought it was well done.

I was impressed that Haldeman let the changeling take on different races, genders, and sexualities.  He did it in a very positive way, illustrating, but not beating you over the head with xenophobia issues.  Particularly, I was impressed that he let the changeling be a gay man.  He tackled that in The Forever War, but this approach was much more organic, not as shocking. 

I give this book three stars out of five.  It was well written and the plot was inventive, but the dragging of the middle part and the quick ending left me a little bothered.  I liked the book, but didn’t love it.  Of the three books, I’d rank this one between his other two.  With regards to the Nebula, I wonder if this was a career award, since Haldeman hadn’t won one yet, despite The Forever War being considered a classic of science fiction.  However, it beat out Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which I thought was a much better written book.  Well, awards are fickle, and don’t always pick the best book.

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