Alien Promises, by Janni Lee Simner

June 6, 2008

Listen to it at Escape Pod.

When Steve Eley announced on this week’s Escape Pod that the story was YA science fiction, I got excited. I’m a big fan of YA fiction, and not just because it wasn’t that long ago when I was in the target demographic for that particular genre. I believe that children’s fiction and YA fiction contains some of the strongest messages you’ll find in literature. These genres aren’t afraid to tackle the most universal and difficult themes. Lewis Carroll’s Alice books are mostly about the question, ‘Who am I?’ Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is about the question, ‘What is right? What is wrong? What should I believe?’

Why are the questions posed by works in these genres so fundamental? Well, because that’s the kind of stuff that plays on your mind when you’re a child or a young adult. Taxes and relationships have yet to sully your mental horizon, so you’re left with plenty of time to fret about the big questions.

The difference between regular YA/children’s fiction and great YA/children’s fiction, is whether the narrative answers any questions. I’m a firm believer in letting people figure things out for themselves. It’s okay to give people a nudge in the right direction–who hasn’t needed guidance at some point? But the answers that are most satisfying and most right, from your point of view, are the ones that you come up with yourself.

Also, not answering any of the major questions keeps narratives from descending into thinly-veiled sermons on how to live your life when you reach that mythical stage known as Adulthood. Kids aren’t stupid. They know, probably better than anyone else, when they’re being told what to do, and they’re still smart enough to reject false authorities.

I’m not sure whether Alien Promises by Janni Lee Simner is preachy or not. On the one hand, it’s certainly not giving kids realistic advice on what to do with their lives, unless interstellar space travel becomes mundane any time soon. I’d love for that to happen, but I’m not counting on it.

What this story does do, however, is present an overly-idealised ending. Now, happy endings have their place in children’s lit. I don’t advocate doom and gloom in YA lit. But I do feel that the ending of Alien Promises, with the social outcast finally finding acceptance, even among some of the very popular kids, is a little too ‘happily ever after’.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved the message. It made me smile as I was listening to it, because I recognised a much younger me in the protagonist. But, and maybe the protagonist is just a much better person than I was when I was 10, I don’t think that even aliens could have made me stop disliking the kids who were less than social towards me. I might have asked the aliens to zap them, but I think that’s about as far as it goes.

Ah, but then there’s a lesson to be learned here, I hear you think. This story tells us to be more accepting and forgiving of those around us, because everyone is human, and makes mistakes. Even popular kids who like beating less popular kids up can have redeeming features, and they might just be nutty enough to want to be abducted by aliens.

And that’s the part of the story that I really have an issue with. I like the message, I really do. I think that the more kids who realise that the people around them aren’t as awful as they seem, the better the world will be. However, I’m not sure if I like how it’s handled in the story. Don’t read on from here, if you don’t want to know about the ending.

After the popular kids ruin the protagonist’s chances of getting what she really wants, she bonds with them and they form a group. She’s finally got a community in which she belongs. Now, I like that. It’s saying that even people who ruin things for you when they’re not even trying can turn out to be good. That’s an excellent message, because it’s true.

However, we’re then told that they keep in contact forever and they’re going to build a spaceship, and then they’re going to travel to other planets, where they’ll be the aliens bringing peace and joy and cuddles. Well, we’re not explicitly told about the cuddles, but to me it was pretty obvious that that is what was being implied. Even if the cuddles are metaphorical.

This is where my critique might get a bit… sticky. I’m going to start to talk about plausibility. Now, I know, this isn’t something that you should address when you’re talking about a story that has aliens and spaceships, but bear with me. I’m talking about the emotional plausibility, if that makes sense. The reader is presented with this strongly idealised ending, in which the people who wanted to go with the aliens band together and try to make the world a better place.

That, for me, is a little too preachy. I think that the message would have worked much better if the protagonist had stayed friends with her fellow almost-abductees. That is something that, if you left out the aliens and made it a real-life situation, I could see happening. It’s a good image to present to a young reader.

Instead, what’s being shown, is a group of people who were enlightened, and now feel the need to go off and enlighten everyone else. Not only is that unlikely (thank goodness), but it’s also not the best message to send out in this kind of story. That’s just my personal opinion, mind, but it did make me like the ending less than I could have.

Also, speaking of implausibility, I was amazed that the protagonist was so friendly to the popular kids after they ruined her chances of leaving Earth. She was never special, she was never liked, she didn’t feel a particular connection with anyone. What she wanted more than anything else in the world, was to be taken into space by aliens, but she didn’t think that would happen because her planet wasn’t special enough. She didn’t even consider thinking about how not-special-enough she was.

And yet, she’s chosen. She’s singled out for that honour. And then the popular kids take the most amazing thing that has ever happened to her, and they ruin it.

The protagonist must be an amazing person, because I would have flipped my lid.

Anyway, to sum up what I thought of this story: I liked it. It’s a shame that the ending was a little too out-there for my liking (and I’m not talking about the aliens), because I think that this has a strong message that a lot of kids could do with hearing. I’d recommend this to anyone, even if they don’t like science fiction, because it’s one of those stories that makes you warm and fuzzy inside.

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