Camouflage

by Joe Haldeman

Cover image

Publisher: Ace
Copyright: August 2004
Printing: August 2005
ISBN: 0-441-01252-3
Format: Mass market
Pages: 289

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A million years ago, an alien shapechanger came to Earth. Long before humans evolved, it hid in the depths of the ocean, and then eventually left a portion of itself behind with its ship and send a portion out to explore. It learned the forms of various sea creatures, shifting from creature to creature, imitating them, staying near the top of the food chain, and forgetting its ship and origins. Eventually, it discovered humans. In 1931, it decided to try becoming one.

In 2019, an rich former military officer approaches a marine biology engineering company with the discovery of something unusual on the ocean floor. They form a joint venture, lease land in Independent Samoa, maintain their independence from the US government, and raise the mysterious object. It's heavier than the heaviest known element and completely impervious to physical harm. And apparently completely uninterested in anything they try to do to it.

Camouflage is a fast-paced combination of a hard-SF engineering problem and a course in applied anthropology. It's told in alternating sections from the viewpoing of the people raising and then trying to analyze the mysterious object and from the shapeshifting alien, the changeling, who learns just how complex and difficult to impersonate humans are. (There's also a third character, a similar being called the chameleon who, unlike the changeling, loves killing and competition rather than analysis and mimicry, but that character isn't fleshed out and seems present only to build tension.)

For the first part of the book, there isn't much tension. The changeling is nearly impossible to permanently harm, and the raising of the artifact goes about as one would expect. The story moves right along, helped by Haldeman's clear and concise prose, but I was only mildly interested in the changeling's initial slow experimentation with how humans functioned. (Haldeman does avoid dragging out embarassing scenes, which I appreciated.) It's only at the midway point when the changeling's understanding of people is sophisticated enough to start acquiring some human emotional reactions, and then when it discovers and joins the project to analyze its forgotten craft, that the book hit its stride for me.

The changeling's good-natured, persistent curiosity and willingness to accept problems and work through them is the best part of the book. For all its clear physiological differences, it's a very human character even before it understands humans. It has the sort of attitude towards life that I aspire to, treating everything as a learning opportunity, taking advantage of those opportunities whenever they arise, and accepting setbacks and problems as something to think through and deal with. In a sense, this is a story about human maturity as much as a story about an alien. The changeling has the key attribute of self-confidence, which lets it be exploratory and take pride in doing a good job emulating other species. It's a pleasure to just watch it creatively solve problems. Its "evil" counterpart, the chameleon, has a constant need to best others, to be on the top of the food chain, to kill and prove its superiority, and that lack of self-confidence gives it less patience and fewer resources.

Despite the puzzle-solving around the changeling's ship, this isn't much of a hard-SF novel. The physiology of the changeling and the properties of its lost ship are essentially magic, never explained in the story and in violation of all sorts of physical laws as we understand them. The focus is instead on human nature as viewed through an external and somewhat distorted lens. I wouldn't say it finds any deep insights into the human condition, but it does a good job of highlighting why humans may be interesting and satisfying for such a shapeshifter.

Camouflage received a Tiptree award, but I didn't find it that deep or original when it comes to gender. What gender exploration there is seems fairly traditional (such as the curious changeling saying it prefers female bodies towards the end of the book, despite spending much of the book in male form, and the vicious chameleon preferring male bodies), and the love story subplot felt poorly motivated to me. It's a well-written book, to be sure, and exploring gender is a large part of the changeling's journey through humanity, but give the award I was expecting something a bit more thought-provoking. There must be subtleties that the Tiptree panel found here but I missed.

Still, recommended, particularly as light, upbeat reading with a bit of suspense and a lot of characterization. Haldeman adds plenty of tension in the last half of the book, the changeling is fun to root for, and the ending fit the tone of the book.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2007-01-05

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21