The premise of the story is
that an alien being came to Earth a million years ago. Its species
evolved on a planet that initially had a highly variable climate, requiring
life there to have extraordinary survival capabilities and adaptability.
It is a shape-shifter, although with some practical limitations (considerations
often ignored in other stories). Over the millennia on Earth, the
"Changeling" has spent most of its time as certain sea animals - and
has forgotten much about its past. Its spaceship at the bottom of the
Pacific Ocean is a dim memory at best.
The book alternates chapters
describing how humans discover the alien spaceship in 2019 and begin to
investigate it, and how the Changeling came ashore and began to take the place
of a human in 1931. While the description of the alien's attempts to
imitate humans and learn human ways has been simplified for literary reasons,
enough of the difficulties and time is conveyed. And it is done with some
bits of humor. The Changeling is fast at finding ways to copy the actions
of others without understanding them, but it takes months of careful
observation, analysis and effort for it to be able to understand the language
enough to have simple conversation. Even then, it doesn't understand
humans as well as it should. So, at times it finds it safer not to say
The Changeling learns from
observation, experimentation and mistakes. Eventually, it knows enough to
get by in the world. It tries a number of lifestyles and occupations, as
well as taking the form of different genders, ethnic groups, etc. It
learns much about humans through this life experience, as well as from academic
study. By the time humans discover the spaceship in 2019, it is very
capable of handling people and technology in order to get connected with the
project investigating the spaceship.
The book also introduces to a
more limited degree another shape-changing alien that is referred to as the
Chameleon. This other alien is much more inclined to the military,
competition and killing.
Through the course of the
book, the Changeling gradually integrates itself into human society and
association with humans. The Changeling behaves less as if humans were just
things to be used for its convenience. It is a process that the
Changeling doesn’t immediately aware of. And it plays a role in the
latter part of the book.
Although there are points in
the book that may not be quite plausible, the story was interesting.
Generally, I consider shape-shifters to be questionable. In this book,
Haldeman at least makes some serious efforts to mostly present shape-shifting
in a more credible way. He describes a rare and extreme case of
environment laying the foundation for an extraordinary kind of life. And
it is made clear that the Changeling finds shape changing to be a painful
process that takes enough time to carry out that it is vulnerable during that
time. There are also practical considerations limiting it if it divides
into multiple parts. This is at least better than most portrayals of