Bewildering Stories

Joe Haldeman, The Coming

reviewed by Don Webb


Author: Joe Haldeman
Publisher: Penguin Ace, 2000
Paperback: $9.99 CDN
Length: 278 pp.
ISBN: 0-441-00876-3

Joe Haldeman’s novel The Coming begins almost at the end: the tension in the story is provided by the approach of an “alien” space ship due to arrive in Florida three months after the story opens.

Once astronomers have discovered the space ship, it is almost forgotten. The focus shifts to the astronomers themselves and those about them, and the novel becomes one of social satire. The Florida wetlands have been paved over. Ozone depletion forces people to slather themselves with heavy-duty sunblock and has made tattoos the fashion for covering skin-cancer scars. The sweltering heat of global warming drives everyone into the shade... in late autumn. Sexual nonconformists are outlaws and live in fear of their lives. Narcotics are legal, the city is ruled by organized crime, the state is governed by a religious fanatic, and the country is threatened with extinction at the hands of presidents who are inarticulate morons.

In the end, the space ship is not alien but human. It comes not from outer space but from 500 years in Earth’s future, bringing a self-fulfilling prophecy of peace, progress and harmony with nature. Or does the ship and its two emissaries come from the future at all? The protagonist — or main observer — Marya Washington suspects it is a hoax perpetrated by the chair of the “Coming Committee,” the mysterious Pepe Parker. In the end it appears that she may be at least partly right: while Parker is revealed as a time traveler from the future, we can’t be sure about the space ship and its crew.

Ambiguous though the ending is, the center of the novel remains Haldeman’s “if this goes on” portrayal of social and political tendencies present in the U.S. in the year 2001. Devout right-wingers would see The Coming — and the rest of Haldeman’s novels, if they read them — as pleasant though occasionally annoying stories with incomprehensible protagonists and quaint, utopian endings. Others will read them as bitter satires where mankind can be saved not by itself but only by miraculous outside intervention and, usually, a profound change in human nature.

A certain emotional arc can be seen in Haldeman’s work. In The Forever War, the protagonist William Mandella shows a stoicism mixed with a refreshing naïveté that carries him through experiences that might have embittered someone more idealistic. And, at the end, he and his friends can look forward with some hope to a life where they are left alone.

In Mindbridge, Jacque Lefavre starts as an angry misfit but ends as humanity’s healer and unifier. Otto McGavin, the super-spy of All My Sins Remembered, has the best of intentions but in the end wastes his life in a career of government-sponsored crime. The Worlds series is the history of an apocalypse on Earth and the flight of refugees to a new home on O’Hara’s World. The ending of Forever Peace returns to the Forever War’s ideals of the 1960’s and 70’s but in a semi-fantastical mode. Forever Free ends in bitterness at God’s callous trickery and finally does away with the deity altogether.

The Coming is a plausible parody of our present time, but there seems to be no hope for it. The deus ex machina device, so masterfully employed in Mindbridge and bitterly mocked in Forever Free, is reduced to ambiguity: is it a joke or not? Even if the space travelers’ message is true, how can anyone be sure, let alone believe it? At the end, Haldeman leaves only the very faintest flicker of hope for humanity, as though he is holding up a faint image of what it might have been against a repellent image of what it is becoming.

Haldeman’s novels go from hope to anger to flight to desperation. In The Coming, his controlled anger is still there, but one has to wonder: having summoned so many aliens and invoked so many miracles, what more rabbits can Mr. Haldeman pull out of the hat to save humanity from itself?

Copyright © 2002 by Don Webb

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