Science-fiction writers attempting coming-of-age stories have seldom risked showing the stew of loneliness, anger, and angst that really characterizes adolescence. Jonathan Lethem, on the other hand, avoids the plucky sidekick syndrome and instead gives us breathtakingly realistic Pella Marsh, a girl at that awful and wonderful crux in her life just before people start calling her "woman." Her broken family has just moved to a newly settled planet, with strange and passive natives and the decaying remnants of a great civilization. Something in the alien environment soon enables Pella to telepathically travel, hidden in the bodies of inconspicuous "household deer," into the homes of her fellow settlers. She inevitably discovers the seamy side of humanity--loss of innocence eloquently portrayed. Don't read this book on a dark day, as there's not very much sunshine in here. The entire planet is covered with ruins: ruined towns, ruined hopes and dreams, ruined families. For a rare dose of SF realism, this is a fantastic read, full of raw (but not explicit) sexuality and the unhappy hierarchies of childhood. Forget about cheerful settlers moving in next door to helpful indigenous life forms. This is what the planetary frontiers will be. No matter how far away from Earth we may travel, we'll still be the same dirty, disappointing, beautiful monsters.
From Publishers Weekly
A surrealistic bildungsroman about a teenage girl unfolds among the ruins and frontier violence of a distant planet in Lethem's latest genre-bending exploration of science, landscape and the metaphysics of love and loss. As the novel opens, Pella Marsh, age 13, sets out from her subterranean home in a post-apocalyptic New York City for a final visit to Coney Island with her two younger brothers and her mother, Caitlin?all sealed in bodysuits to keep out the cancerous sun. Pella's father, Clement, has just been swept out of elective office in New York and has set his sights on the next political frontier: joining the first human settlers on the Planet of the Archbuilders. When Caitlin suddenly succumbs to a brain tumor, Clement whisks the grieving children by space ship to the faraway planet. Once the domain of a super-evolved alien species who used "viruses" to alter their ecosystem before abandoning it, the planet is now a hothouse landscape of ruined towers and refuse inhabited only by skittery, mouselike "household deer" and a few remaining Archbuilders?gentle, druidic creatures with furry, tendrilled, exoskeletal bodies and names like "Gelatinous Stand." Clement's mission, to forge a community that embraces the Archbuilders, puts him on a collision course with Ephram Nugent, a xenophobic homesteader who so closely resembles John Ford's John Wayne that one keeps expecting him to call Clement "Pilgrim." Lethem (As She Climbed Across the Table, 1997, etc.) affectingly chronicles Pella's tumultuous journey through puberty and loss and the knockabout society of children thrown together by their homesteading parents. As a result, this lyrical, often far-fetched meditation on the founding myths of the 21st century remains thoroughly rooted in an emotional world much closer to home. Author tour.
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