Review of the Day: We’re Not From Here by Geoff Rodkey
There’s stuff in the publishing industry that “everybody knows”. For example, it wasn’t that long ago that “everybody knew” that books with green covers wouldn’t sell. Then Percy Jackson comes along and so much for that theory (it’s sepia covers that don’t sell, anyway). “Everybody knew” that kids weren’t all that into fantasy right up until the moment Harry Potter started a worldwide craze. But there’s a pretty persistent “everybody knows” theory floating around out there that continues to this day. It seems that “everybody knows” that kids don’t read science fiction. Star Wars stuff? Not real science fiction thanks to that mystical component. Post-apocalyptic stuff? Too realistic to be considered science fiction. No, we’re talking space opera type stuff. Rocket ships. Aliens. The whole enchilada. But this year, 2019, is also the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, and I’ve noticed an ever-so-slight shift in the number of space related children’s books hitting the market. There’s the usual historical, factual stuff . . . and then there’s the pure science fiction. Books like We’re Not From Here by Geoff Rodkey. Unapologetically bold, it wears its little science fiction loving heart on its sleeve. Managing to also be funny and strangely poignant, this isn’t a book about “Why can’t we all just get along?” It’s about what happens when our differences are so glaring we have no choice but to acknowledge that they’re there at all.
It’s not like the human race really wanted to go to Choom, but it’s also not like it really had a choice in the matter. Earth was officially an ex-planet, beyond hope or repair. Attempts to colonize other moons and planets had yielded bupkiss. And best of all, the four species that reside together on Choom (many of which were refugees themselves) were happy to give the humans a chance. It would just take twenty years of bio-suspension for the people to get to Choom. Trouble is, when they arrive the government of Choom has changed and the planet is rejecting them. Humans are too violent a species to accept, they say. That’s why Lan’s family is selected as the guinea pigs to give Choom a try. If they can convince the three dominant species (when did it become three?) to accept them, they’ll have saved humanity. Trouble is, humanity is pretty hard to save when dark governmental forces are determined to turn you away.
The other day I was listening to a critique of the film Green Book and the critic was talking about how regressive the message was. “It confuses prejudice with racism”. For some reason, this line kept coming back to me as I considered this book. I was thinking about how this story would have been constructed even ten years ago. The notion of humans having to prove their worthiness to immigrate to a planet isn’t necessarily new, but what might be new are some of the elements surrounding their arrival. In this book the government has changed since the humans were last in contact with the planet. This government is, as Marf (essentially a friendly superintelligent giant marshmallow) explains it, more conservative than the last one. They don’t want to cause genocide by denying a species access to their planet, but they also don’t want them there. The simple answer then is to fill the televisions with fake news showing the humans out of context. That’s not something I think we would have seen in a middle grade novel in the past. Then there’s the solution to the problem. The humans are initially being asked to assimilate and by the story’s end it’s interesting to note that while they are still trying in some areas (sports, for example) they’ve also carved out their own specific parts in the culture where they thrive. They integrate but remain separate in specific ways. In short, Rodkey knows the difference between prejudice and racism (or, in this case, species-ism).
Ultimately the humans use two skills to win over the planet: humor and music. Put another way, the human race is saved by what essentially boils down to “America’s Funniest Home Videos” and “American Idol”. But along the way there’s a lot of serious consideration about government, mob mentalities, and why we offer refuge to others. Like any good science fiction author, Rodkey knows that an alien planet full of giant mosquitoes is never just an alien planet full of giant mosquitoes. As a result, he has to figure out how much he can say about the times we are currently in, while remaining true to this story and avoiding the dreaded soapbox. It’s a balancing act, honestly. When do you joke and when are you serious? What’s important enough to mention and what do you elide? Finding the right mix is the key. Fortunately, the man is up to the challenge.
It helps that the book really is funny. I mean, right from the start Lan’s talking about how they first heard about Planet Choom when taking a break from filming a video called “Top Ten Toilets of the Mars Station”. I’m not ashamed to say that if I were on the station I would have completely have been on board with that video. Later, when Lan’s family has settled on Choom, Lan meets Marf of the Ororo species and comes up against her dry, deadpan humor. The first time she meet Lan she says she’s there to “convert you to our religion.” For half a second there I fell for it, like Lan, and started having flashbacks to The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. But once she starts describing the painful (and utterly fake) conversion process (“As part of the initiation, Ezger will have to chew off one of your arms. But you will find great spiritual meaning in your suffering”) I knew I’d found my favorite alien. Rodkey isn’t all laughs all the time, but when Lan decides that the only way to save the human race is to make it appear ridiculous (and, therefore, harmless) I had all sorts of real world equivalency thoughts. Get ‘em with the funny, then secure ‘em with the beauty (the music in this case).
We’re Not From Here looks like other silly science fiction tales, but choices were made throughout that kept catching my interest. For example, the main character, Lan, is never defined as being either a boy or a girl. It’s not something I actually noticed on a first read. I had to have it pointed out to me, and once I did I was intrigued to find that the publisher went along with it. Lan on the cover could be male or female. Lan is never referred to as either “he” or “she” in the text. I made note of this. Then there’s the fact that the family prays. We don’t know their religion or to whom they pray. We just know that in times of trial the dad suggested “Why don’t we all pray?” and that when they did, “It helped a little.” Prayer, as ubiquitous as it may be in some American households, is very rarely mentioned in works of fiction that are not already overtly about religion. The mention Rodkey includes is casual, a part of day-to-day life, and never the central focus of the tale. It just grounds the book in a specific reality. One notable in its rarity.
There’s not a children’s middle grade book out there right now that isn’t weighted down by the times in which we live. The trick is knowing how to take that knowledge and turn it into something useful. When people round up the books about immigration and refugees that came out in 2019, it is unlikely that they’ll think to include a silly little space tale of humans and the bugs that sport the personality of the Muppets’ Sam the Eagle. Still, it would be foolish to disregard We’re Not From Here. As the very name implies, sometimes you can say a lot with the impossible. Whether they’re winning their enemies over with laughter or silencing them with humanity’s greatest gifts, the kids in this book know what it’s like to be the outsider. Let’s hope they can show some of our real world kids a little of that empathy. After all, that’s what science fiction does best. And that’s why kids eat it up when given half a chance. Forget what the professionals say. Loads of kids are going to find this book a blast, space opera or no.
On shelves March 5th.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- Astronaut Academy by Dave Roman
- The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex
- Mars Evacuees by Sophia McDougall
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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