“Wonder” by R. J. Palacio (2012)

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“I know I’m not an ordinary ten-year-old kid.”

Many of us don’t even realise how privileged we are. We have money, security, health, and we only notice we’ve got it once it’s gone. Books have that amazing ability to transport us into someone else’s way of life and see how things might be different for others. I’m not even talking about fighting dragons or hurtling through space this time, just simple things about people who are just like you and me, but society treats very differently.

Wonder introduces us to August Pullman, a ten-year-old boy who has Treacher Collins syndrome, which has caused his life thus far to be one of homeschooling, endless operations, and constant stares and whispers from people on the street when they see him for the first time. His unusual appearance has completely changed how he sees the world, and he prefers to hide under an astronaut’s helmet than endure the looks he gets.

His parents, however, have decided that it’s time for him to go to middle school, and he is introduced to the kind Mr Tushman and three students who have been selected for being particularly kind, and gets a tour of the school from them. But once he starts, it’s clear that perhaps those students weren’t the best start and after a rocky few days, August begins to wonder if he should just give up and drop out, as it seems that no one can see past his face. Or at least, almost no one…

I thought I was going to end up coming here today to write this and complain, as ever, about the child narrator. The book actually is in several parts, with most of them being narrated by August, but other characters also step forward and give their versions of the events. My usual complaint – the children talk like adults – stands, but for one, it really doesn’t seem to matter. There is something a lot more important going on here. Palacio says that she was inspired to write the book after a real-life incident involving a young girl with TCS. She was stood next to the girl and, convinced her children were about to say something embarrassing, she hurried off, thus making the whole situation worse. This incident appears within the book, too.

Many people may not think anymore about an incident like this, but Palacio obviously couldn’t let it lie. She thought long and hard about what it must be like to be stared at constantly, for something you have no control over and have people unable to look past. While the book naturally deals a lot with the idea that you shouldn’t judge a person by their appearance, it’s also keen to consistently point out that kindness is perhaps the most important trait someone can have. As Mr Tushman quotes later in the book from J M Barrie, “try to be a little kinder than is necessary”. All sorts of kindnesses are shown within the text, from the children who do look beyond August’s appearance and find a funny, charming and clever boy beneath, to the story of how Mr Pullman rescued their dog, and Miranda’s act of sacrifice to save an old friendship.

Children are shown here, as is so true in real life, to be far more honest than adults, although that honesty isn’t necessarily always welcome. Children can get used to anything though, and it really is older people who struggle with change and the unfamiliar. Just look at the amount of basement-dwelling nerds who have nothing better to do on the weekend than complain about why Doctor Who isn’t as good as it once was, or feel the need to irrationally argue on Twitter with anyone who espouses a different worldview.

As August says, “I think there should be a rule that everyone in the world should get a standing ovation at least once in their lives.” If R. J. Palacio doesn’t deserve one for this gorgeous book, then I don’t know what she has to do to get one.

“The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet” by Becky Chambers (2015)

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the long way“As she woke up in the pod, she remembered three things.”

The publishing industry seems unwilling to take a chance on science fiction novels. Only a short time ago, The Martian was self-published by Andy Weir and when it started selling well, publishing companies started taking note, having had no interest in it before he’d taken matters into his own hands. The situation is the same with The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet. Once it had been self-published and developed something of a cult following, the people with the money showed up. But why was no one willing to take a chance on these novels? Clearly they are well-written and they sell very well, but it seems that the people who are meant to know about these things simply don’t understand it.

The Long Way opens with Rosemary Harper, a Human, on her way to a long haul spaceship, the Wayfarer, which is a tunnelling ship responsible for constructing hyperspace tunnels between distant areas of space, allowing for easy travel for all the species in the Galactic Commons (GC) and their allies. The ship is old but the crew are welcoming. There are four other humans on board – captain Ashby; algaeist Corbin; and the technicians, fun-loving Kizzy and the more sensitive Jenks – as well as a few other crew members of alien species. Without going into too much detail and bogging down the review…

  • Sissix; an Aandrisk; a reptilian species who are one of the most powerful races in the GC and thrive on physical contact
  • Dr Chef; a Grum; one of the last of his species of a race that is never able to be silent and has multiple sets of vocal chords
  • Ohan; a Sianat Pair; from a blue-furred race that is in a symbiotic relationship of sorts with a virus that controls their minds
  • Lovelace; the sentient AI that controls the ship and has vague desires of being able to live in a physical body

The crew are given the opportunity to build a new hyperspace tunnel in a dangerous, untapped area of the galaxy which is home to a species that is always at war with itself. Despite the risks, the money they’d earn would be astronomical, so Ashby decides that this is the job for them. The Wayfarer sets off in the direction, but there are complications along the way. Humans, it turns out, are just about the only species in the universe who hide their true feelings and have the capacity to have secrets. As the journey goes on, Rosemary, Ashby, Corbin, Kizzy and Jenks must all face what they’ve kept hidden, and try not to let it interfere with the mission.

I didn’t know anything about this book before I started it, but I liked the description on the back and was curious. With some science fiction, it can be tedious to plow through the made up words and languages and species for another story about an errant robot or some warmongering species that won’t sit still. This book is nothing like that. It’s special. Yes, there are a myriad of species present, but they all feel real enough, as do their relationships with each other and the compromises they’re willing to make as regards to everyone’s cultures, languages and belief systems. Humans are present, and one of the main members of the GC, but they’re perhaps the least influential. It seems, more than anything, that humans are simply there because there are so damn many of them. The idea of them being the universe’s great explorers or conquerors is laughed off – they’re just fleshy tubes with fairly average abilities at whatever they turn their hands to. If anything, their defining trait is their adaptability.

But for all the AI and wormholes, this book is surprisingly about family. It actually deals with the whole gamut of relationships – enemies, friends, lovers – but, yes, predominantly, it’s about family. We get a lot of exposition via Rosemary’s eyes, as she’s never been off Mars before heading out on this mission, so we can find out in a natural manner exactly how these other species work. Sissix, for example, comes from a species where children are looked after by unrelated elders, and everyone is generally naked and promiscuous (by Human standards). The Sianat are symbiotes; Ashby has a physical relationship with a woman from another species; Rosemary is trying to process the events that led her to leave her family; and Jenks has fallen in love with the AI system. As the story progresses, it seems we encounter each of these species, their stories, and every possible configuration of family that could exist. It’s a reminder that the universe is a vast place, and when we get out there, anyone we meet shouldn’t be judged by our cultural norms.

Frankly, as science fiction goes, this is up there with the greats. It somehow seems irrelevant that they’re in space, visiting moons and planets and dealing with technology that is currently impossible. It’s not really highlighting that “we’re all the same” because, as I said, we’re not and we won’t be once we’re out there. But it teaches us how we can respect those who are different from ourselves, and maybe how the only universal need might be a need to feel like you belong.

It’s beautiful and heart-breaking, but also funny, sharp and hugely readable. Yes, Chambers plays with language and science, but it all feels incredibly thought out and none of it is excess, frivolous fluff. This is some seriously good literature and I look forward to the sequel immensely. In the meantime, you should really get on this – you won’t be sorry.

“Generation X” by Douglas Coupland (1991)

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gen x

The book that defined a generation

“Back in the late 1970s, when I was fifteen years old, I spent every penny I then had in the bank to fly across the continent in a 747 jet to Brandon, Manitoba, deep in the Canadian prairies, to witness a total eclipse of the sun.”

My list of books I still have to read – even those already on my shelves – is huge. As such, I do my very best to not re-read things if I can help it. However, last week a friend of mine – the psychologist – requested a new book to read and asked if she could borrow something off me, my choice. As I trawled the shelves for something really worth sharing, I came to the conclusion that I loved practically every book I own, but for many of them I can’t remember why.

Reading a lot is great, but unfortunately I lose a lot of the minutia after a certain amount of time. I remember loving a book, or crying at it maybe, or even just being haunted by it, but I seldom remember the exact details of what caused that. It was when I was staring at my bay of Douglas Coupland novels that the feeling became particularly pronounced. Coupland, I will always say when asked, is one of my favourite authors, but as I looked at the thirteen books of his on my shelf, I realised that I hadn’t read one since 2011 and that the exact reason for my love of him had vanished. That had to change.

As such, I intend to now read a Coupland novel once a month or so until I’ve re-read his back catalogue. And I’ll be reviewing them again, because reading this has reminded me why I love him and how much I love him, and I want to be able to share that with you, and maybe encourage you to explore his work.

So, this is Generation X: Tales of an Accelerated Culture, his first novel, the one that made his name and helped define an entire generation. The titular generation are those people born between the early 1960s and early 1980s – in short, the offspring of the baby boomers. Coupland didn’t invent the term, but he sure as hell made it popular. This is the story of three friends who have dropped out of the real world and are living in the Californian desert, slumming it in dead end jobs and avoiding the horror of responsibilities and yuppies. They are Andy (the narrator, with two dogs and six siblings), Dag (obsessed with nuclear annihilation and prone to damaging cars for fun) and Claire (wanting to live like Andy and Dag, but still pining for her sometimes-lover Tobias), and they live a relatively simple life. They enjoy telling each other stories, and it is these stories that make up the novel.

We meet other friends of theirs, Tobias the yuppie and Elvissa the mystery, who also have their own stories to tell. The stories are usually slightly fantastical in nature, or somehow involve the end of the world. In fairness, not a huge amount happens, but it is a wonderful patchwork quilt of interior monologues, apocalyptic scenarios and the power and joy of storytelling.

The book, like all of Coupland’s work, is phenomenally quoteable. For example:

“I wonder that all things seem to be from hell these days: dates, jobs, parties, weather …. Could the situation be that we no long believe in that particular place? Or maybe we were all promised heaven in our lifetimes, and what we ended up with can’t help but suffer in comparasion.”

The book discusses the difficulties of growing up in a world that has been pissed on by the previous generation. I’m not one of Generation X, I’m from Generation Y, but a lot of the themes are similar to things that I’ve experienced. It’s one of those books that creeps inside your brain and lodges somewhere uncomfortable just behind your hippocampus and makes you occasionally think a little bit too deeply about what you’re doing with your life and where it’s going. This is not necessarily a bad thing – it is just what Coupland has the power to do. He builds a complete scene, not only always using the perfect metaphor or similie, but by populating the scenes with food, products and names from the era that mean it can only be set in that one place.

The book also includes quaint little cartoons and slogans, and definitions for new terms that sum up experiences that most of us have from now on. Probably the most famous one of all, which is now in fairly common usage, is “McJob”, defined as “a low-pay, low-prestige, low-dignity, low-benefit, no-future job in the service sector. Frequently considered a satisfying career choice by people who have never held one.” Some of my other favourites are below.

Survivulousness – the tendency to visualize oneself enjoying being the last remaining person on Earth.

Black Holes – an X generation subgroup best known for their possession of almost entirely black wardrobes.

Mental Ground Zero – the location where one visualizes oneself during the dropping of the atomic bomb; frequently, a shopping mall.

Douglas Coupland is so in touch with the zeitgeist that he’s all but clairvoyant (not my line, stolen from another review of his later book Generation A), and his books are a beacon of genuinely great literature. Sure, the general theme seems a little depressing, and the characters are lovely but seem to have little of any real value going for them, but there is an underlying current of hope throughout, a sense that everything will be OK in the end, and that to really enjoy life we need to stop worrying about money and success and just seek solace in the little moments, like watching egrets and lighting candles. The book harks back for a simpler time, but knows that it’s never coming.

Coupland’s position as one of my favourite authors is reaffirmed. I can’t wait to re-read the rest.