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Bruce Coville's Book of Aliens: Tales to Warp Your Mind Paperback – August 1, 1995
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As a kid I loved these books and anticipated the release of each volume with overweening eagerness, but I was also consistently frustrated by them: I felt like they were too soft-touch.. Now, as an adult, I have a markedly different perspective. I broke out my well-worn copy (say what you want about Scholastic, but this 20-year old paperback binding really was built to last) and broke it down story by story:
The centerpiece of each anthology is always a novella by Coville. In fact, I suspect that a big part of the draw of the project for the masthead writer was the chance to publish long stories that were not quite up to being full-length novels. Our hero this time is Jacob, whose father is a diplomat on a distant alien world (Ridley Scott movies have long suggested to me that interstellar diplomacy would not be as cushy a job as it sounds, but that doesn't come into play here). Jacob has been uprooted from earth and, naturally, doesn't quite fit in with his new alien classmates. And so we meet the presiding theme of this particular volume: culture clash, and the painful value of being an outsider.
This is very typical Coville, in that it's a bit touch-feely and invested with a kind of Bradbury high-wonder vibe, but doesn't get *too* carried away with it. Not much actually happens by way of plot: Jacob mopes around, tries to make friends but can't quite make it work, and toward the end he causes a minor political kerfuffle with some aliens and has to make a choice. It's not exactly gripping, but it's heartfelt.
The main problem with the story--and here my adult self agrees with my 11 year old self--is that while it's fine on its own, it sets a tone for the overall collection which is much too passive.
-"Brian and the Aliens"
This is a goofy little story that's just as much fun today as when I first read it. A screwball comedy of absentminded aliens and body-switching technology run amok (although I guess "amok" is basically the only setting body-switching technology probably has). Very, very funny, and invested with a certain liveliness that some of the other dead-fish stories lack.
A pretentious, dull little morality tale: Aliens come to earth to render judgment on the human race, because, oh, la-tee-da, aren't we advanced, Mr. and Mrs. High and Mighty Perfect Aliens? The "twist" at the end is manipulative and annoying. Kids won't feel quite as insulted, but they'll probably be bored instead, which is almost as bad.
-"The Buddy System"
One of the longest stories in the collection and the one that bored me the most as a kid. As an adult I can see that it's a fairly likable and sophisticated story about growing up: A boy and girl pair of longtime friends find that puberty is approaching and their feelings for each other are starting to change. Confusion results, but a close encounter with a vaguely defined alien presence in a nearby pond helps put things in perspective for them. (What exactly is the alien equivalent of the birds and the bees? The mynochs and the insectoids?)
Not as cloying as it sounds; in fact, it's just a bit pensive in a very good way. But kids will probably be just as put off by it as I was at their age.
-"To Serve Man"
This is, in fact, the very story on which the famous "Twilight Zone" episode of the same name was based. Seemingly friendly aliens come to earth and begin serving mankind's interests, but one jaded man doubts their kindly intentions. It's a good story, and one of the things these collections do well is find literature written for adults that nevertheless appeals to kids. Still, a certain dryness is starting to creep into the collection at this point.
-"How I Maybe Saved the World Last Tuesday Before Breakfast"
A brother-sister pair find an orphaned creature on their porch one have to figure out how to safely return it to wherever it came from. Rather than just put up some flyers, they take the initiative of contacting an alien race. Well, that's ambitious. A fun story when I was a kid, but a little forgettable now, mostly because the kids lack personality.
This is wonderful. A game of make-believe (or is it?) between three childhood playmates, one a delightfully bossy know-it-all, gets a bit out of hand with the introduction of some space pirates who may be too much for the trio to handle. Even better now than when I was young, but readers of any age will appreciate it for injecting a little life into the proceedings.
-"The Secret Weapon of Last Resort"
A teen girl and her obnoxious younger brother accidentally initiate a student-exchange program with an alien race and are stuck with a decidedly...unusual alien visitor (even by the standards of this book). Today the conflict would probably be solved with the intervention of INS, so probably best it was written a decade ago instead. This story is a fun idea, but the principle characters are such snots that they could gather in an empty room and still not be the most personable folks there.
This is the first Ray Bradbury story I ever read, and if nothing else Coville deserves credit for introducing me and other young readers to America's most seminal writer. Another story written for adults but here reprinted for kids, and one that finally gives us what most of this collection lacks: thrills. Diffident adults in a bland future utopia notice that their kids are all playing a particularly strange new game. Is there more to this than meets the eye? Well, the cover of the book has a giant, vacuum cleaner-mouthed alien monster sneaking up on a kid, so it's very unlikely this one is going to end with just an early bedtime.
-"Curing the Bozos"
A story about compassion and being an outsider...noticing a lot of that in this collection? As a kid I found "Bozos" dull. As an adult I find it condescending and self-indulgent. But really, why should we have to choose? It can be both.
Conclusion: "Aliens" is clearly a weaker collection than its predecessor and as a kid it was the book I reached for the least. But in fairness, most of the stories are at least decent, and a few ("Pirates" and "Zero Hour") are fantastic. The problem lies in the curation: Too many of the entries feel same-y and a kind of passive, slightly bland tone that results from too much schmaltz and not enough excitement washes everything. More variety would have jolted this one to life. It's still a good read, but the editorial team can and eventually will do better.
The inevitable ghost-themed follow up manifested in bookstores the next year. Stay tuned for that.