The Short Version: After her mother’s death, Pella Marsh and her family (led by her father, Clement – a politician who was just trounced out of office) leave New York and Earth to travel to the Planet of the Archbuilders: a frontier planet, inhabited currently by only a few settlers. There, Pella comes of age under the harsh, strange light of a different sun.
The Review: Well this just about cements it for me: Jonathan Lethem is one of the most interesting writers working today. I’ve now read a spread of his storytelling – from things more straightforward to sci-fi to almost unassignable (genre-wise) – and all of them have been, in some way, deeply compelling. And, perhaps most fascinating, they all feel unique and different. It’s not even so much that his voice changes but Lethem is just able to write these stories with an honesty that might escape other authors. Perhaps its because he was a genre writer first.
And this book, an earlier one for him (’98 I think), has this strange sort of light about it. I almost mean a literal light: while you’re reading it, you get the sensation of not being able to look directly at the story because of the brightness. There is a discomforting sensation as you read this book that does not go away even when you close it and stick it on your shelf. Part of that might be the strange atmosphere: the Planet of the Archbuilders is an odd new landscape, full of unexpected colors and these strange broken down structure… it feels almost, in my mind, like it would look something like perhaps Bryce Canyon in Utah. The whole planet is something out of a Western – fitting, seeing as this is absolutely a sci-fi Western and Lethem has even cited being influenced by John Wayne in The Searchers.
And Ephram Nugent, the swaggering frontiersman who is the de-facto leader of the settlement, could very well be John Wayne. He’s got a strange sex appeal, a powerful sense of what’s right and wrong (whether he’s correct is another issue entirely), and he holds sway like some cowboy of old. His interactions with Pella are just one of the things that make a reader want to look just off to one side: Pella, just coming into sexual maturity, doesn’t quite know her own power and one very charged scene between the two of them left me on the edge of my seat.
There are several moments like that, however, as the story goes on. Much like any Western, the natives are feared and mistrusted by the adults – and that struggle to understand, combined with the struggle of sexual awakening, ends up being the crux of the story. It’s really a marvelous trick, actually, to be able to pull off the latter bit within the context of the traditional Western. The innocence of the teenagers – the way that they approach a question not with preconceived notions but with just the raw roiling mass of emotions and feelings and thoughts that make up their as-yet-not-completely-formed minds – is of course the thing that the adults are meant to learn from. They don’t, of course, because adults never do: they believe they’ve learned everything already. But isn’t it a marvelous idea that, were we to go out to the stars and continue to be the aggressive white men of old, our children could be the ones to actually bridge the gap between our civilization and that of any other species we encounter, no matter how strange?
And the Archbuilders are strange, by the way. Their planet is strange, they are strange, and these damn household deer are so strange. They – the household deer – are actually one of my favorite parts of the story. There are these little tiny, well, household deer that seem to run around almost unnoticed by anyone after a while. I don’t imagine them looking like deer, for some reason, but instead little blue mites almost – but regardless, the way that they are introduced and then the way that their presence develops throughout the story is absolutely brilliant.
Rating: 4 out of 5. It’s a terrific coming-of-age story, a terrific space Western, and a really smart reflection on human nature. But you can’t quite hold it directly. There is something about it, like the sun out West, where it seems too bright to approach directly. The shattered sense of this future America sets it off on that foot; the scene at the beginning at Coney Island. We almost don’t want to look but at the same time feel compelled and so those two impulses meet somewhere just off to the side of the thing itself. That’s a masterful achievement if I do say so.