Friday, May 19, 2017

Review: New kid in school -- science fiction as a guide to life

Review of: Revenge of the Star Survivors
Author: Michael Merschel
Publisher: Holiday House
Source: Purchase, Barnes and Noble
Grade: B

You don’t have to be the new kid in school to understand the protagonist’s plight in Dallas Morning News book page editor turned novelist Michael Merschel’s Revenge of the Star Survivors. If you’ve ever been the new hire, the new parent, the new homeowner, the new -- well, you name it -- you’ll get it.

Unfortunately, hero Clark (“like the explorer”) Sherman, who’s facing the first move, and first major trauma, of his young life, doesn’t get it. His parents think moving from their longtime home in Louisiana to Colorado for a job upgrade is a great idea. To Clark, it’s the end of the world as he knows it. Following the example of his favorite television show, Star Survivors, about a spaceship crew lost in the galaxy, he records his thoughts as entries in an astronaut’s log of a journey to an alien world, Planet Festus, aka Loretta T. Festus Middle School.

“We were hurtling across the planet’s surface, seconds away from the drop zone, when my commander spoke. ‘You really want to do this by yourself? You’re absolutely sure?’ The tiny crease between her eyebrows told me she was as worried as I was. ‘I’ll be fine,’ I replied. By which I meant, ‘No, I don’t want to do this at all. . . Please take me home immediately.’ Unfortunately, I sent that second part via psionic mind blast, forgetting that I was not technically capable of telepathy.”

The climate of Planet Festus proves hostile from the start, with its unfamiliar frozen ground and frozen precipitation. The inhabitants are equally hostile, particularly the one bearing a disconcerting resemblance to a “big, carnivorous reptile.” And the planet’s communications system is beyond primitive, having consigned Clark’s previous school records to the local equivalent of a black hole. Fortunately, among the few academic options available to him is Independent Study, which takes place in the school library, aka The Academic Resource Center.

There, at last, he begins to find allies – the aptly-named Ms. Beacon (“the commander of this zone”), and one of the school’s few Asian-American students, Ricki Roi (whose last name Clark misunderstands as “Wah”, a misunderstanding that stymies his attempts to communicate with her outside the classroom).

There’s also Les, an elusive, possibly wormhole dwelling student who will reveal dark secrets about Planet Festus and its leaders. The only thing uniting the disparate threesome of Clark, Ricki and Les: their mutual devotion to Star Survivors. Well, that and their resistance to the rest of Planet Festus.

On their journey through the planet they must deal with bullies, racism, and an evil ruling coalition determined to perpetuate its dynasty. The with whom they will clash in a dramatic conclusion. And as all middle schoolers do, the threesome must also deal with parents who seem initially clueless. At least in the case of Clark’s parents, they finally understand in the end.

This is why, as Clark records in his log, “. . . you should ignore anyone who tries to tell you that Star Survivors is an entertainment program. It is so, so much more. It is a guide to orderly behavior in a confusing world.”

(Unknown to Merschel, his mother had arrived from Colorado for his book’s debut. She was warmly supportive. He was slightly embarrassed that she might think the portrayal of the mom, aka commander, in his book was a portrait of her. Perhaps one day his own children, including two who were in middle school during writing, will write their own books about him. It’s the fate of parents and children.)

At his book’s release this spring at the Lincoln Park Barnes and Noble bookstore, Merschel insisted he didn’t even realize he’d written a middle grade book until others in the publishing business informed him who his audience was. Or who they thought it was. As someone who has dipped for the past thirty years into what my daughter and grandkids were reading, I can attest that good books for children have a universal appeal.

With so much good in Revenge of the Star Survivors, my major complaint is that in its determination to root out all evil from Planet Festus it feels over-stuffed, an over-richness that may have led to its too hurried for my taste climax, as if Clark/Merschel was either tiring of his long battle, or perhaps facing pressure from his publisher to get to the end. And although I initially bought the book intending it as a gift for my soon to be middle-schooler grandkids, I’m going to hold off transferring it for a while, for fear it might prove too terrifying for them. But given the state of life on Planet Earth, they may already be all too familiar with the terrain of Clark's world.

(Next week: summer literary events, contests, conferences, and a Dallas visit from internationally-bestselling Australian author, Kate Forsyth.)

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