How did Joe Haldeman’s Camouflage beat Susanna Clarke’s monumental work Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell for the Nebula Award in 2005? Granted, I haven’t read that book, but I have read many glowing reviews from my fellow FanLit reviewers and Goodreads friends. It was also made into a major BBC miniseries and received many accolades. Clarke’s book is incredibly long and filled with dense footnotes that show the depth of research and creative energy, perhaps too much for some readers but showing great effort on the author’s part. It is a major literary work of speculative fiction, and won the Hugo, World Fantasy, Locus, and Mythopoeic awards, and was even nominated for the Man Booker Prize and Guardian Award.
In contrast, who remembers Camouflage now? How many people recommend it to friends as a great science-fiction book? I breezed through the audiobook of Camouflage in just 8 hours, and while it was fast-paced and action-packed, it left almost no impression at all. It is the story of two shapeshifting aliens who have lived on the Earth for millennia: one interested in studying humanity, the other a vicious hunter that thrives on human misery and killing. We have two alternating timelines, showing how these shapeshifters have moved throughout human history, often causing legends of resurrection like Jesus Christ to arise, but always adopting new bodies to remain camouflaged, simply mimicking human behaviors to preserve anonymity.
In the future period set in 2019, Dr. Russell Sutton runs a small engineering firm that handles deep undersea projects. One day Admiral Jack Halliburton walks in with an intriguing proposal — recover a military sub that has gone down in the Tonga trench near Samoa, a project that is code-named Poseidon. But Jack’s real aim is a mysterious ultra-dense metal capsule buried even deeper that he has discovered. And before you can say “deadly shapeshifting aliens” and “deep underseas alien artifacts,” we have a typical techno-thriller, exactly what you can pick up at the racks of your nearest airport bookstore.
It’s not that I don’t like fast-paced entertainment — if this was a book by an unknown author that I picked up in the $1 bargain bin and read on vacation near the ocean sipping a cocktail and enjoying the tropical breezes, I wouldn’t have any complaints. It has lots of interesting details about how the two shapeshifters take different approaches to interacting with humanity. The Changeling is the “good” one that is fascinated by human psychology and academic study, and acquires more scientific degrees than Donald Trump has failed real estate ventures. Meanwhile, the Chameleon can’t get enough of human misery, and gravitates to monsters like Nazi scientist Joseph Mengele. We are never really told why the Chameleon is such a one-dimensional sadist — I guess some shapeshifting aliens just are that way.
As the Changeling moves closer to the present timeline it starts to wonder about its own alien origins and SETI projects, etc., so the Poseidon project has an irresistible allure. Meanwhile, the Chameleon cares little for humanity other than to thrive on killing, death, and misery. Probably the most visceral and emotionally intense part of Camouflage relives the Bataan Death March from the eyes of the Changeling. We see the depravity and inhumanity of man against man. We also get plenty of thriller action as the story converges in American Samoa, where scientists have raised the alien artifact and are trying their damnedest to break through the impossibly hard exterior. Why is it that humans just want to break into things they should probably leave alone? Haven’t they seen all those science-fiction movies about messing with alien artifacts?
But I’ve almost forgotten to mention the gender-bending love story, which I must conclude is the only possible reason that Camouflage also won the James Tiptree Jr. Award, which is dedicated to science-fiction works that explore gender, and that year‘s jurors included Ursula K. LeGuin and Cecilia Tan, whose Circlet Press is devoted to erotic science-fiction and fantasy. I would hate to question their judgement, but I thought the treatment of gender in Camouflage was fairly superficial and mainly an excuse for explicit sexual encounters between the Changeling and regular humans.
I guess it’s notable that while the vicious Chameleon remains exclusively male throughout its many incarnations, frequently as a soldier, the Changeling starts as a male but as it learns more of humanity elects to become female. So is Haldeman suggesting that of the two genders women are less aggressive and more thoughtful? If so, he didn’t really go beyond the surface, though he did seem to relish the Changeling taking on different female personae to seduce Dr. Sutton, who we are told is well known to be a pushover for attractive women.
In the end, if Camouflage were a first novel written by an unknown author and not by Joe Haldeman, renowned SFWA Grand Master, Science Fiction Hall of Fame member, and multiple Hugo and Nebula Award winner, not only would it not have won the Nebula Award, it may well have made the rounds of publisher rejections as so many books do. There are far better books in the science-fiction genre more deserving of the Nebula Award than this.