© 2000 Joe Haldeman
2054. Earth. The future isn’t what it used to be. The seas are rising — Florida cities are frantically trying to build seawalls for protection — and the outlook is deteriorating. The United States is led by a perky but depressingly imbecilic woman named Carlie (who may or may not be able to see Russia from her house), the eastern hemisphere is increasingly dominated by large, hostile alliances like “The Eastern Bloc”, and Germany and France are on the brink of war. And then down in Gainsville Florida, astronomer Aurora Bell picks up a signal. Confirming its existence with Japan’s station on the Moon, she realizes to her shock that it’s in English.
“We’re coming”. Repeated sixty times. Something from outside the solar system, using an unbelievable amount of energy, is coming — and Earth has three months to be prepared. What is it? Aliens? Jesus? The revolt of the urban proletariat? While the potential for contact with alien lifeforms would seem to take precedence, it recedes into the background after an initial surge of interest. While the clock ticks down, people live out their lives. In Gainsville, a man is being blackmailed by the Mafia, who threaten to make public his homosexuality — now a crime in the United States. His wife, meanwhile, tries to keep the president from leading the entire world into oblivion. No, Madame President, it may not be the best time to launch supernukes into orbit at a time when France and Germany are blowing up each other’s parliaments and playing chicken with their tanks on the border. As the date of the coming approaches, tension reaches crisis level, and then —
Have you ever witnessed a small child trying to blow bubbles? Clutching a slippery bottle filled with the soapy fluid in one hand, and grasping the plastic bubble-blower in another, she carefully fills a pocket of the solution with air. It grows bigger and bigger, and you know it’s going to be a beautiful, big bubble when it escapes, and then — it pops.
If you haven’t, then read this novel and maybe you’ll experience that feeling. While the premise fascinated me, my enthusiasm never caught. There was nothing for it to catch on. Haldeman employs an interesting style of writing here: the novel is presented in a relatively seamless succession of viewpoint characters. They’re a diverse lot, with varying roles to play in the story. Some don’t even play a role in the story, they just exist because, hey — wouldn’t you want to know how pornography is filmed in 2054? This viewpoint succession threw me off at first, until I realized that the new character was someone already in-scene, and all I had to do was make a slight jump — switch trains of thought, as it were. The problem, though, is that the trains of thought speed up and slow down at random, and often arrive at the station in rapid succession. At one point there were three jumps in two pages, and one character only had a paragraph, leaving me feeling very disoriented.
It doesn’t help that all this jumping has little bearing on the plot, if there is one. While this is advertised as a science fiction novel and bookended by the announcement and arrival of The Coming, what science there is in here is limited to technology — three-dimensional television, interactive pornography, and semen-based drugs. The plot consists of the announcement, people living their lives for three months, and the ending. It’s not coherent. It left me wondering, “This is it?” There are five-star reviews for this book on Amazon, and most of them focus on the characterization and presentation of how the world might look in fifty years. I found the people and predictions to be bleak, though there were a couple of characters who I hoped would make it out all right. While the off-beat ending was unexpected (and a little disappointing), and the writing took some getting used to, the book’s central weakness for me is that so much of it is utterly relevant to the presumed plot. This is not about The Coming. This is about people living in 2054. That may be of interest to you — it was in part to me — but don’t pick this book up expecting Contact.