There is a sub-genre of science fiction that I like to think of as the alien-encounter procedural. Among its most famous of members is Arthur C. Clarke's "Rendezvous with Rama". Humans meet a new species of alien and must figure out what procedures to follow to make some kind of contact. Emphasis is on the technology of contact, with suspense created by the unknown nature of the aliens. Often there is no emphasis on character development or illuminating human society by the strange circumstances. To maintain my interest the twists of the encounter or the solutions required must really be clever.
All this is by way of saying that when I encountered "Camouflage", I expected just such a story and had set my techno-bableometer to dampen. Boy, was I surprised!
Instead the story is told from the point of view of the alien and explores one of the most basic of literary questions, "What does it mean to be human?"
Joe Haldeman's writing is simple and direct and he does not search for colorful language. Instead, he weaves together three separate story lines, each with its own time scale, that come together in the finale. Occasionally you might think the author was moving into irrelevant areas but ultimately he brings the unities home. Moreover, at the same time as the main character is developing, Haldeman uses the device of the doppelganger, that is, a parallel personality, to contrast with the character of the hero. Moreover, he sets the story against an historical perspective of the last two thirds of the twentieth century, with a major portion of the story set against the fall of the Philippines and the horror of the Bataan death march at the beginning of World War II. The purpose of this lengthy excursion into history is to fine tune our sense of the development of the hero.
There are a few things that stretched my belief, particularly the behavior of one of the main human characters when he learns a secret of the alien, but I allowed myself to step back from my incredulity and to see it as a further device to explore the main question.
The story moves along quickly, or at least as quickly as I could turn the pages. This may not be amongst the greatest of science fiction novels, but it certainly illustrates how a good premise and construction of a novel can not only sweep us along, but even provide food for thought.