A Heinlein juvenile about a family that joins a colony terraforming Ganymede. I read it as a kid, but didn’t remember much. Continuing my theme of surprise!grimdark, I thought it would be a charming tale of explorer spirit and space farming, and it turned out to be awesomely depressing despite a pasted on yay semi-upbeat conclusion. That is not the normal tone of a Heinlein juvenile, which could have dark aspects but were overall optimistic. It also has my least favorite of Heinlein’s juvenile heroes, Bill. He’s clearly meant to have flaws and learn to be better, but I really disliked him for a good 80% of the book.

Bill, an Eagle Scout, lives with his father after their mother’s death in a glum dystopian Earth with food rationing and few opportunities. (It does have microwave dinners, though – good prediction, Heinlein!) Due to being bad tempered and insecure in that awful teenage way that manifests in constantly trying to prove himself and thinking he’s better than everyone, he doesn’t play well with others. Also, he despises girls and women. The misogyny is partly a sign of the times thing and partly a character trait that he’ll mostly get over, but it’s really grating.

He begs his father to let him go be a colonist and farmer on Ganymede, and is pleased when his dad, after testing him to see if he’ll flip out if his father goes without him, tells him they’re going. But first he has to get married! Right now! To a woman Bill barely knows, with a daughter he’s never met before!

You can see where Bill gets his interpersonal skills.

Bill sulks, is mean to the daughter (Peggy, who is younger than him and clearly adores him), and refuses to go to the wedding. Nevertheless, they embark. The space voyage involves Bill running a scout troop, learning to be slightly less of a colossal jerkwad, and saving a bunch of lives by plugging a hole in the ship with his precious scout uniform after a meteorite strike. There are also multiple pages of math and physics explaining… stuff. I skipped those.

At Ganymede, the colonists find that they have been victims of a bait and switch: the farms they were promised are not available and won’t be for years, and the existing colonists don’t want them. It’s hard or impossible to go back, and conditions suck. Poor Peggy can’t adjust to the low air pressure and has to be lodged in a special pressurized room for as long as they’re there. This is super depressing, but the gloom lets up a bit when Bill sharecrops for a nice family who has successfully farmed, and the family eventually gets a farm of their own though Peggy is still stuck in her room and can only leave it in a bubble stretcher.

The farming part is unusual. Due to the expense of transporting mass, there’s very little equipment and farmers need to pulverize rock into dust, then mix it with bacteria to create dirt. It’s backbreaking labor, and that’s most of the farming we see. I was a disappointed, as I wanted more “Little House on Ganymede” details, Bill learning about cows when he’s never seen one before, etc, but most of what we get is pulverizing rock.

And then! Depressing spoilers! Read more... )
In six months, Earth will be destroyed by a giant asteroid and everyone will die. Society is slowly disintegrating, with many services gone and lots of people bailing from their jobs or committing suicide. But some people are still hanging on... and one new detective is tackling his first murder case. But if everyone is going to be dead in six months anyway, does it matter if a single murder is solved?

I loved the premise of this story, which is such a great vehicle for exploring a lot of themes I'm interested in: does what we do matter if it's impermanent? What is worth doing if we know for a fact that our time is limited? What's worth doing if all the usual consequences are stripped away? And I liked the book to the degree that it explores those themes, and also to the degree that it does an interesting job of portraying life six months before the apocalypse.

That degree was mixed. Life before the apocalypse was pretty good, interesting, and convincing; things are falling apart, but not everyone reacts in the same way. My favorite moments were those concerning people doing stuff other than committing suicide in despair. (There were some of those, but John Wyndham did a more affecting depiction of that in The Day of the Triffids.) A new young cop chases a thief, gun ready, screaming, "Stop or I'll shoot, motherfucker!" and later confesses that she just didn't want to die without ever having done that; a barista sets up a game with coffee beans and paper cups for his customers to bet on where the asteroid will strike; a coroner stays on the job because it's what she's always wanted to do.

The main character, Hank Palace, also really wanted to be a cop, which partly explains his fixation on solving a case when he and the world only have six months left to live, but partly is also looking for something to take his mind off the apocalypse. The thematic issues I mentioned come up, but not in any great depth. They're suggested rather than explored, as Palace doggedly pursues leads while lots of people (but not all) question why he's even bothering. It's an issue which he seems to not want to dwell upon, which is understandable but which led me to expect him to have more of a revelation of or confrontation with his own motives at the climax. This doesn't really happen. He solves his case, which as with many mysteries is more interesting as a puzzle than a solution, and then the book ends abruptly. Not with an asteroid strike. With a "read the sequel!"

Worth reading if you like the premise, but not entirely satisfying. Not sure if I'll read the sequels; a skim of reviews suggested that they're pretty similar to this one.

The Last Policeman: A Novel (The Last Policeman Trilogy)
The continuing adventures of reviews of books I read a while ago but never got around to writing up.

Front cover: An earthquake leaves Kriss stranded with an old hermit and a "talking" chimp!

Back cover: Capers for every kid. Adventure. Mystery. Science fiction & fantasy. Hilarious escapades... by many of today's favorite authors.

This is why thrift stores are great sources of books. I can't imagine finding this weird little unknown work-for-hire book by a very famous author in a regular bookshop, and indeed I never have. I had vague recollections of reading this book as a kid, though I had not remembered the author (I probably read it before I read any of Yolen's more typical works), and recall finding it rather disturbing. I re-read it as an adult. For a very short kiddie adventure novel, it actually is rather disturbing.

The beginning introduces Kriss, a clumsy California boy who wears glasses. His father refuses to take him camping on the grounds that he's so terrible in the outdoors that he'll instantly break his leg, his glasses, and get poison ivy. Annoyed, Kriss decides to sneak out and hike to his grandmother's house. He'll show them!

It is mentioned in passing that a few years previously, there was a huge earthquake and Los Angeles fell into the ocean.

Kriss hitches several rides to get to the wooded area through which he plans to hike. I check the copyright date. Huh, I guess in 1981 the idea of a kid hitch-hiking wasn't OMG SHOCKING, because nothing is made of that. His last ride is with a guy transporting caged signing chimpanzees to a lab. Then the Big One hits! The truck crashes. The driver is killed. All of this is described in pretty vivid detail - again, especially, for a book intended for eight-year-olds.

Kriss releases the chimps, who stick with him. I have to say, after reading about the guy whose chimp ate his face, I would have regretfully left them where they were. But these are nice signing chimps, not face-eating chimps, and they and Kriss wander around the wilderness, helping each other and fleeing the people who immediately reverted to cannibalism pet dog-eating - okay, I guess Yolen did make a concession to the age of her audience. Then one of the chimps falls into a crevasse and is killed.

Kriss then runs into an old vegetarian hermit named Chris. They have adventures together, including trying to rescue some pets from a pet store (most are already dead - I told you this was dark), but he does get another chimp. Then Chris has a heart attack. Surprisingly, he does not die. They are medevaced out by a mysterious, possibly sinister helicopter, and Kriss releases the chimps into the wild and certain death lest the helicopter people do something awful to them. Kriss still has no idea whether or not anyone in his family is still alive.

The end! Only not, because Yolen has an author's note discussing signing chimps. It concludes - this is the last line of the book - But even though scientists may disagree about the talking chimps, they all agree that there is a real possibility that one day California will have a different coastline than the one it has today. Have a nice day, California readers! It is scientific fact that one day you and your family may be killed in a giant earthquake!

I don't give this an "awesomely depressing" because it doesn't actually read that way, despite the dead people, dead chimps, dead dogs, dead pets, possibly dying buddy, and possibly dead family. It reads as an entertaining but slight adventure that would probably have been more memorable at a longer length. But seriously, that author's note! What was she thinking?

The Boy Who Spoke Chimp (Capers)

So, what weird children's books do you recall, or wonder if you imagined? Have you read any of them as an adult? How were they?


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