The Coming by Joe Haldeman
Paperback. Conditon: Good+. 2001. Ace Science Fiction.
Joe Haldeman's latest novel, a tightly constructed near future thriller called The Coming, begins by recapitulating a classic science fictional motif: the moment of first contact with an alien intelligence.
The story begins on October 1, 2054. Aurora (Rory) Bell, a professor of astrophysics at the University of Florida, has just made the discovery of the century. A sophisticated sensing device called a gamma ray burst detector has picked up a message from somewhere beyond the solar system. The easily decrypted message contains two unambiguous words: We're coming. Subsequent analysis reveals that the source of the message is heading directly toward Earth and is scheduled to arrive on the first day of January 2055. A media circus inevitably ensues, as the citizens of Earth attempt to prepare for a wholly unprecedented event.
From this point forward, Haldeman focuses not on the alien spaceship but on the social, political, and environmental conditions of a rapidly deteriorating planet. He envisions a 21st century marked by unpredictable weather patterns and geopolitical chaos, a world in which corruption is an endemic element both of private enterprises and governmental institutions. Controversial -- i.e., gay -- sexual practices have been outlawed. The electoral process has become a joke, ushering in a new generation of leaders who are incompetent and uninformed but intensely photogenic. Most significantly, the nations of Europe are flexing their muscles once again, marshaling their forces for an inevitable -- and catastrophic -- global conflict.
Haldeman's portrait of the century to come is at once familiar and strange, enlivened by a steady flow of imaginative details: automated traffic control systems, virtual reality pornography, designer drugs tailored to the individual DNA. Haldeman shows us this world from the constantly shifting perspective of a variety of characters. Included among them are Rory Bell, whose initial discovery jump-starts the narrative; Norman Bell, a middle-aged composer with a history of "illegal" sexual behavior; Willie Joe Capra, a sadistic bagman with delusions of grandeur; and a nameless "historian," whose ruminations illuminate the cyclical patterns of violence present throughout recorded history.
As always, Haldeman writes with clarity, economy, and wit, skillfully moving his extensive cast toward a climactic moment of revelation in which "hope and caution" predominate. The Coming is both a provocative, cleverly conceived entertainment and a compelling meditation on the eternal human propensity for violent solutions. It is speculative fiction of the highest order and reaffirms its author's position as a modern master of the form.