The Coming, by Joe Haldeman

the-coming-by-joe-haldeman coverGenre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Ace
Published: 2000
Reviewer Rating: three and a half stars
Book Review by Bluejack

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Joe Haldeman has always been preoccupied with sex, the complications of sexual relationships, the ways in which traditional ideals break down in confrontation with real life. With a title as provocative as The Coming you might expect sexuality to play a central role in this one.

True, one of the main characters has his career and freedom put at risk because of relationship he had thought long forgotten; true, a more minor character is a porn star. But most sexual of all is the very structure of this novel. The question: is it good sex?

Several decades into the future — enough for the European Alliance to totally go to hell, and for an absurdly extreme American puritanism to establish a choke hold on the US — an astronomer receives a message from space: “We’re Coming.”

In fact, they are decelerating from nearly the speed of light, and will arrive on New Year’s Day, 2055. And they have nothing more to say (although by way of proving they’re serious, the blow up a Martian moon, in passing.

Haldeman weaves his story through the lives of the various residents of Gainesville Florida: from Aurora Bell, the astronomer who first discovers the message to the above-mentioned actress, a cafe owner with a difficult past, a mysterious bag lady, various people at the university, and even the local mafia. He takes a device from the film Slackers by switching characters at the chapter breaks, the ‘camera’ shifting from one to another as paths cross.

This device could get old fast, but Haldeman uses it with a very light touch, and the mechanism enables him to view both his imagined future, and the reactions to the message from a great number of angles.

With such a large host of characters, it is no surprise that there are a number of interweaving stories, large and small, and all interesting. In fact, it is occasionally complained that this isn’t so much a novel as a couple of short stories strung through each other.

For my money, the most interesting is the story of the astronomer’s husband: a war veteran turned composer. As a consequence of some rather implausible University politics (there are forces trying to gain influence over Aurora Bell), the local mafia finds itself with an opportunity to try to gain influence over Norman Bell. But Norman, whose career and personal freedom are in jeopardy, uses his military skills and a sort of Lethal Weapon wildman mentality to turn the tables on the mafia. We can imagine Haldeman, a veteran of Vietnam himself, indulging in a little escapist fantasy here, but it is totally absorbing. The disappointing thing is that it comes to a resolution, by a deus ex machina event, only two thirds of the way through the story. This leaves a trace of mystery for the final third, but after that thread ends, the energy of the novel begins to flag.

In a story that is all about the build up to an explosive climax, one doesn’t want the reader’s interest to wane too early. A better plot structure would have been to weave this thread through the whole novel, and then shown the resolution as a sort of punchline to the arrival of the visitors.

On theme, Haldeman imagines the texture of everyday life in extraordinary richness and vivid detail: he concentrates purely on the sensual details of the moment. This ends up being the most enjoyable aspect of the story: dead-on dialogue, and utterly winning descriptions make the reader feel at home and comfortable even among some very unusual individuals. Given the global nature of the event. however, this leaves the world outside Florida as murky and abstract at best, like the shadows of candle-lit room.

The Coming is a very readable novel: a real page-turner with involving characters, a fascinating (if not very optimistic) view of future politics, and a gripping mystery at its heart. However, the ending does not satisfully deliver on the mystery, and ultimately this feels like a lesser work. An excellent choice for a plane trip or an afternoon at the beach, but be warned: the climax to The Coming feels a bit faked.

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