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The Coming
Joe Haldeman
Ace Books, 217 pages

Danilo Ducak
The Coming
Joe Haldeman
Joe Haldeman's awards include the Hugo, the Nebula, and the World Fantasy Award. His SF classic, The Forever War, along with The Hemingway Hoax, and the Worlds trilogy are just a few of the titles that have made him a household name in the realm of SF. A Vietnam veteran, he is currently an adjunct professor teaching writing at MIT.

Joe Haldeman Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Forever Free
SF Site Review: Forever Peace
SF Site Review: Forever Peace
SF Site Review: Saul's Death & other poems

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Rich Horton

Joe Haldeman is an engagingly consistent writer with a good deal of range. He has written a lot of SF novels on a wide variety of topics, and with great success. He has twice won the Hugo and Nebula for the same book, and he's won awards for his short fiction as well. His newest novel, The Coming, treats of the reactions of humans, particularly the residents of Gainesville, Florida, to the receipt of a message from an alien starship, saying, simply, "We're Coming."

Haldeman explicitly credits James Gunn's fine novel about receiving messages from aliens, The Listeners, as an influence, but The Coming reminded me much more of a brilliant and underrated novel by John Kessel, Good News From Outer Space. Both the Haldeman novel and the Kessel novel use the idea of aliens coming to Earth as a fulcrum for an exploration of US society.

The Coming opens with an astronomer at the University of Florida, Aurora Bell, recognizing an anomalous signal from a gamma ray telescope. It turns out to be a short message saying, in English, "We're Coming." And she is able to confirm that it comes from a source about a tenth of a light year from Earth, blue-shifted so that it must be travelling at 99 percent of the speed of light. Soon the message's authenticity is independently confirmed, and Doctor Bell and her colleagues prepare for the media and political onslaught.

The novel is neatly structured so that the point of view smoothly shifts from scene to scene, such that each new scene begins from the POV of a character encountered just previously. This gives the whole book a certain fluidity and a certain sense of movement, and it also allows the author to gracefully explore events through the eyes of a variegated array of individuals. What we see is a portrait of the city of Gainesville, Florida, in the year 2054. The characters include Dr. Bell and her husband, a composer and also a professor; several colleagues of Dr. Bell, significantly including her assistant, a mysterious immigrant from Cuba named Pepe Parker; a restaurant owner in the University neighbourhood; a Mafia bag man; a policeman; a couple of reporters; a homeless lady; a university student making extra money by "acting" in "virtual reality" pornographic episodes; and more. Haldeman uses this tapestry of viewpoints to portray the reaction of the wider populace to the Coming of the aliens; but more importantly, he uses it to portray the social and political and technological landscape of this particular future.

This future is interesting and well-imagined. The future tech includes highly computerized homes and holographic conference calls and the above-mentioned virtual porn. Environmentally, the world is facing advanced global warming, with much flooding, unusual winters and summers, sunblock essential at all times lest you get skin cancer, etc. Haldeman's political depiction of the US is a bit disappointing: his view is a cynical redaction of contemporary politics, with all but unchanged Democratic and Republican parties, and an image-besotten Republican idiot as President. There are snippets of world politics that present some interesting changes: an important subplot concerns a looming war between France and Germany. The major social change in the USA that affects the book is that much stricter laws about sexual activity have been implemented: homosexuality is completely criminalized, while even some consensual married activities are apparently against the law. I confess I find these last changes implausible and counter to real social trends in the US today: perhaps I am simply an optimist. His overall future is somewhat depressing but not without hope, and it is intriguing to visit. The characters are well-portrayed and involving, and they have personal stories that hold the reader's interest as well.

The plot is also worth attention, if, in the main, it's a skeleton to hang the depicted future on, as opposed to being the mainspring of the book. It turns on political manoeuvring about the proper response to the arrival of the aliens, as well as the calamitous revealing of a dark secret in the Bells' past. There is a certain amount of action and intrigue, resolved nicely enough. And Haldeman's climax, involving the promised arrival of the aliens, is well-handled, and the reader isn't cheated. Overall the book feels just a bit slight, but it's a fine effort, and a good solid read. The feel of the book is oddly comfortable: perhaps because the major characters are likeable if imperfect, and perhaps because the message is optimistic despite some dark aspects of the depicted future.

Copyright © 2001 Rich Horton

Rich Horton is an eclectic reader in and out of the SF and fantasy genres. He's been reading SF since before the Golden Age (that is, since before he was 13). Born in Naperville, IL, he lives and works (as a Software Engineer for the proverbial Major Aerospace Company) in St. Louis area and is a regular contributor to Tangent. Stop by his website at

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