Book Friday: "Life on Mars" - Jennifer Brown

24 January, 2020

Do not let this hobby consume you. But also let its gravitational pull earn you earnest friendships.

I have finally finished the book "Life on Mars"! It's a nice and calm read that goes by fast enough to stop it from becoming too boring. Sure, the writing leaves a lot to be desired, and everyone is just too darn annoying at times, but you can indeed waste your two hours with this one.

Level 1 Spoilability warning. While there aren't surprise reveals per se, the whole book's pacing relies on building suspense through uncertainty. So if you read ahead and knew the whole story in advance... it's just gonna feel like garbage.

The background

Arty is your typical friend, except he and his dad is really into space. Heck, both him and all of his siblings are named after stars, with "Arty" being short for Arcturus! Accompanying our protagonist are Priya, a cute and knowledgeable girl next door, and someone called Tripp, who, you guessed it, trips all the time.

(Yup, the classic trio is here again. A dorky protagonist (Harry/Percy), a brainy female (Hermione/Annabeth), and that other guy who's always the butt of jokes (Ron/Grover). Jeez guys, come up with something else already!)

Our obsessed middle-schooler has this long-term project where he used a system of a flashlight and mirrors to communicate with Mars - via an unconcentrated light beam no less. This is a legit religion among Arty's best friends, and they often join in on Arty's roof out of curiosity.

Of course, until one day his dad changed to a new job in Las Vegas - the city where night-long lights overpower the faint stars... and Arty's life goal.

This zombie thing can't be legit

As Arty was operating his device one night, he saw a shadowy figure walk past their backyard towards who knows what. The figure consistently leaves every night and comes back every dawn. And most worrying of all, they┬╣ seems to live in the house opposite the street.

┬╣: Arty isn't aware of who Cash is at this point in the story, so it makes sense to refer to him here with a gender-neutral singular pronoun.

Being kids, the first natural explanation they first came up with is that they're a face-eater, vampire or serial killer. And hey, I'm fine with that. Except that the "It'S A zOmBiE!!" part spans half the length of the total book - and that space could've been used for something much deeper.

I'm pretty sure that the first half of "Life on Mars" would feel like that English homework where you hae to stretch 200 words worth of content to a 500 word minimum. Arty (as the narrator) makes space-related jokes at every single turn - every new chapter, every scene, and every moment gets a space fact that is usually only tangentially related to the actual content. Some people think this is straight up annoying, and even I feel like this is padding.

Eventually, with a huge sigh of relief from the writer, Arty had to stay in so-called Mr Death's house for a night while she looks after family. So he had to sleep, alone, overnight, in a house of a shady neighbour who will probably eat him alive.

The astronaut who lived next to me

Arty slept in his mysterious neighbour's house for a night, and - out of pure clumsiness - discovered that he is actually a human astronaut. And not just any astronaut - he's the legendary Cash Maddux, the local space nerd that actually entered the Astronaut Corps!

As Arty starts to make friends with Cash, the move to Vegas became more and more real. Arty geeked out with Cash and tried to delay the move for as long as possible, her parents wondering why they're not yet finished packing up. Aaaand the problems began again.

Firstly, Cash's health is deteriorating with cancer. Secondly, this is where the book throws the Pyramid Model out the window, for better or worse. You'd think that, with everything crumbling around the plucky protagonist, you're reaching the climax. But the way you roll over the peak is just... so inelegant.

Arty gave Cash, hospitalized and continuously approaching death, a visit. And Cash completely surprised us by hissing at Arty that his space passion is like a plague that consumed your life - and that Arty should get out of it before it's too late.

Arty, of course, ran back home depressed, and threw his lifelong project down the cliff. His Dad encouraged him to pick up the pieces again. And then Arty decides to be with Cash one last time, and he gave him a note that basically says "You're the first friend I can openly geek out with. Keep your dreams alive, they're gonna be helpful."

Page that back.

First he says "Dump that pipe dream of yours down the drain", and then 30 pages later he says "Keep your dreams alive".

Can you please explain this to me, Jenny?

Of course Vegas isn't so different

When Arty actually moved to Vegas, the situation is of course not as bad as he made it out to be. He made new friends, his siblings had new partners, and turns out there's an excellent skywatching place a weekend roadtrip away. And Dad now had a well-paying job.

If this article isn't over 700 words long already, this is where I'd write about how every place is the same in a lot of ways and how that is making myself a bit unsatisfied with travelling. Instead, let's move on to the conclusions.

Concluding thoughts

My main impression of "Life on Mars" is that of its new way of structuring its story. It does not follow the typical iceberg model; instead, the tension is built up via the uncertainties in the story. And while I'd like Jennifer Brown's newer books to have more character development instead of many cheap gags, I can't help but notice that it actually got me hooked.

The story is not a work of art like Harry Potter, but it will still make the time pass by quicker. The pacing of the book is really fast, so if you know somebody who's more into comics than novels, this might be a good book to get them started with.

Going back into the universe for a bit though, Arty really needs a better way to find fellow space fans in his city to talk with. Are there any amateur astronomy conferences in the city?