Monday, March 27, 2017

First Contact

The second book I read after finishing my judging responsibilities for the Cybils YA speculative fiction category was...YA science fiction. Can you believe it?

Dark Energy by Robison Wells is one of those terrific reads you look forward to getting back to. Then you finish and start thinking of all kinds of little problems. But none of it really bothers you, because you had a great time.

So Dark Energy begins just after an alien space ship--a big one--crash lands in  Minnesota. How big is the ship? It's so big that it hits in Iowa and skids into Minnesota. Yeah, that does some damage. And kills a few people. Our protagonist, Alice, whose Navajo mother is conveniently dead, heads right to the crash scene with her really neat NASA dad who has kind of been living his whole life waiting for a spaceship to drop out of the sky. Alice and NASA dad have a really great relationship. I mean it. They're clever and witty together. NASA dad has enrolled Alice in a nearby Minnesota smart-kid boarding school. This doesn't turn into one of those predictable and, let's be honest, boring new-kid-in-boarding-school problem books because there's a giant alien spaceship just miles away from the place. Who's in that thing? What are they doing here? What's going to happen? Teenagers are supposed to be carrying on about who's top girl in the dorm when that's going on? Even when the government sends a couple of alien kids  to the school, you don't get any "who do they think they are?" stuff. These characters recognize, as they should, that first contact with an alien race has the potential to change their world, culture, lives, everything. Assuming they still have a world, culture or life in a couple of weeks. Or tomorrow.

Alice and a couple of her genius new friends from genius school get onto the space ship because cool NASA dad asks them to come in to help survey the inside. This is borderline unbelievable, but not actually unbelievable. We're talking about something incredibly huge that the government doesn't have enough people to map out in the time it has to do it. It's probably the equivalent of asking unqualified volunteers to sandbag a river engineers expect to flood too soon to get qualified people to do it. Or the equivalent of those college kids who came out to my uncle's farm decades ago to help take apart his barn after a hurricane brought it down on top of animals who were believed to still be alive. There's precedent for this kind of thing.

Plus getting Alice into that space ship means another question arises: What the heck were those beings doing in there? And are they going to want to do it here? (Actually, that was probably just me asking that question.)

I have to admit, I thought the ending was a little bit magical old people (and a little bit magical something else, not to give anything away), though also a little bit War of the Worlds, which is always neat. Also, while the romance in this story  is nicely done, in my humble opinion it's very unnecessary. This was a great adventure story without it. I wondered if an agent or editor insisted that a YA novel had to have romance. Give us some smoochy! But, as I said earlier, these are the kinds of issues you come up with when you keep thinking about a book you like after you've finished reading it. I just finished watching the last season of Outlander yesterday. I've got an issue about the last few minutes of that, too.

And here's something I thought was done very well in this book--crying. Alice doesn't cry because of boyfriend problems, or problems with her girlfriends, or problems with dad, the way a lot of girls cry in a lot of YA books. She cries from shock. Her crying seems to be a physical response to seeing things that suggest something horrific has happened, even though at the point when she cries she doesn't know what that horrific thing is. This seems like a minor point, but I thought it carried some wow factor.

So, Dark Energy. Definitely a good read.

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