Review of the Day: Last Day on Mars by Kevin Emerson
I’ll often get what I’d call reference interview questions from the internet as a whole. They come in via Twitter, Goodreads, personal emails, my website, my blog, you name it. In one recent case a parent told me that her 10-year-old son had recently devoured the rather adult The Martian by Andy Weir. She wondered if I had any recommendations for him (not on the adult side of things – just in general). So let’s break that request down. You have a kid that’s a good, advanced reader, capable of complex storytelling, nuanced prose, and exciting science fiction elements. Oh. And you have Mars. If you wanted to go entirely on the speculative rather than the scientific side of things you could pull out Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles but somehow I was pretty sure that wasn’t what the kid was looking for. Enter Last Day on Mars by Kevin Emerson. I don’t like to say of any book that “it’s got everything” but it’s certainly jam-packed, that’s for certain. Saboteurs, exploding stars, theft, explosions, near escapes, and the constant knowledge that you are just one insignificant tiny life in the great blueberry pie of the cosmos. So to that young man I say welcome to the wide and wonderful world of middle grade science fiction, kid. You’re in for a heckuva ride.
As every good schoolchild knows, in the far and distant future the sun is slated to burn itself out. Certainly we’ll all be long dead by the time that happens though, right? Unfortunately by year 2179, it becomes pretty clear that the sun has, for some mysterious reason, fast-forwarded the timeline. Earth is burning to a crisp and the only option is to find a new planet on a new star as fast as possible. Liam and his best friends have lived all their lives on Mars, knowing full well that the planet was just considered a pit stop before humanity hops on the big big ships and goes to places unknown. His best friend Phoebe, like him, is one of the last kids to leave since their parents are scientists responsible for terraforming the new planet. But when Liam finds the body of a dead alien, and a sudden explosion puts his parents in danger, it soon becomes clear that there’s something working hard to defeat humanity, and that this is bigger than anyone ever suspected.
If Mars looms large in the public imagination, it looms a bit smaller in the imagination of children’s books. That said, in recent years I’ve seen an interesting uptick in books willing to take a trip to the red planet. The most notable of these was the British import Mars Evacuees by Sophia McDougall. Like this book, McDougall’s wasn’t afraid to go big with his premise. Once again the Earth is in danger from aliens, but in this particular case the damage has been done. Our sun is going supernova and there’s nothing we can do but work together and get everyone out into space, heading towards a planet that may or may not be hospitable. And since we are dealing with the first book of a series, I’ll tell you right now that Last Day On Mars has much more to do with the process of leaving than it does arriving. Save some details for the future books, after all. Do the great big gigantic ideas in this book work as a whole? I’d say so. Emerson introduces the notion of saboteurs fairly late in the game, and it can be confusing to have two entirely different groups of villains with two entirely different agendas working in different capacities throughout the story. Other than that, though, he keeps everything coherent with a nicely ordered chaos in the periphery.
Of course, science fiction books for kids are hampered by one very important point. Mainly, that publishers don’t want to publish them. There is a general belief in the mainstream publishing industry that kids don’t want science fiction stories. And if there is a science fiction equivalent to high fantasy (high science fiction just sounds druggy) then they CERTAINLY don’t want that! The fact that any work of science fiction makes it out of the gate in the first place is, to my mind, always a mark of success on the author’s part. Look at you! You upended the industry hive mind and managed to convince them to publish you at all! Well done! Now let us, in turn, consider the young science fiction reader. This would be a child that gravitates towards possibilities. Part of what I like so much about Last Day On Mars is the playful way it toys with expectations right from the start. In the Prelude we are asked to think about a map and a creature studying the map, but the author keeps making it clear that the best our little human brains can do is make rough estimates as to what these would look like. As things progress and the reader is met with more impossible ideas, the book takes a step back and says, “Put it this way: If reality was a blueberry pie . . . you are so small and so far inside your own blueberry that you can’t even tell it is a berry in the first place.” And what’s remarkable about this sequence is how quickly it passes. As an author, Emerson is capable of introducing great, grand philosophical musings one moment and then tuck them into an old-fashioned tale of good alien vs. bad alien just a couple pages later. In a way, it’s playing it every which way. The brainy kids get their brains. The mystery lovers their mystery. The action kids some good old-fashioned laser shootings. And for the reader that has never read a work of true science fiction before, they get something else. An intriguing start to a scintillating story.
Genre is only as strong as its writing, though. In this, Emerson does pretty well. At the start I was a little worried that the three friends breaking the rules were too similar to the Harry Potter trio. Any children’s book with two boys and a girl is bound to feel like that, if only for an instant. What I didn’t anticipate was for one of the kids to go AWOL for the rest of the book and for the only girl, Phoebe, to not only be a risk-taker but also have a much more interesting backstory than you’d initially suspect. Our hero Liam is the most potentially problematic character, though. He’s the hero, a thankless role, and so I needed to see how Emerson would balance out Liam’s inclinations to do what is right and safe with his need, as a heroic character, to risk it all and take initiative. It helps that he gets his hands on some alien technology at the story’s start, but just handing your protagonist the right tools isn’t enough for a story. As a result, Emerson has to put Liam in situations where he is capable of seeing the consequences of inaction, forcing him to act. On the one hand this could potentially feel like a cheat. Our hero doesn’t want to take some of these risks, but that’s what comes of alien wristwatch technology. Then again, after Liam sees what has to be done he still has to figure out the details, summon his bravery, and make a bunch of last minute decisions where there’s no clear indication whether or not they’ll help or harm each situation. That Emerson manages to pull it off is a testament to the book’s strength.
You would think with the prevalence of Star Trek and Star Wars and Avatar and other deep space epics that people would need to feed the demand kids have for adventures beyond the stars. That a book like Last Day On Mars comes out only once in a blue moon (ha ha) is cause for both speculation and celebration. Speculation because one wonders if the market for these books will increase (beyond the usual dystopian fare) in the future. Celebration because this book is awesome. Rip-roaring adventure, betrayals, big time booms, a witty villain (never underestimate the power of a witty villain), it’s got it all. I wouldn’t just hand this book to a science fiction loving kid. I’d hand it to any kid in general. Genre-defying, beautifully written, fictional fare.
On shelves now.
Source: Review copy borrowed from library.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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