Monday, November 20, 2017

2018 Contenders: See You in the Cosmos, by Jack Cheng

Alex Petroski is an 11-year-old boy from Colorado who loves astronomy, rocketry, and cosmology in general. He has a rocket that he hopes to launch at the Southwest High-Altitude Rocket Festival; his goal is to get the rocket into outer space, where it will carry his "golden iPod" out into the universe, just like the "golden records" carried by the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 probes. Although his father is dead, his mother is clearly suffering from mental health problems, and his older brother is far away in Los Angeles, Alex heads off to the festival alone, planning to meet up with some of his friends from an online rocketry forum on his way there. His journey ends up taking him not only to the festival, but much further afield as well. Through it all, Alex continues to record to his iPod, and these narrations form the text of this quasi-epistolary novel.

See You in the Cosmos has received some stellar reviews, and I've heard Newbery buzz around it as well. In some senses, I can see why. Many of the supporting characters feel real and well-developed -- I'm thinking here especially of Ronnie and Terra -- and the book hits some heavy themes, especially in its second half, with an admirable open-heartedness. However, I'm not entirely sold on the novel, largely due to Alex himself, whom I was never able to fully believe in.

Alex is OBSESSED, in an all-caps kind of way, with Carl Sagan. He's intimately familiar with the original Cosmos, has seen Contact some uncountable number of times, and even owns a Sagan-style sweater. Heck, his dog's name is actually Carl Sagan. When Alex refers to Sagan, he often calls him "my hero." This isn't a passing fancy; this is integral to Alex's character and identity.

And...I just had a hard time buying it. The novel is clearly contemporary -- it's full of references to Snapchat, Yelp, and Google maps. As such, Alex would have been born in 2006 or so. And yet, the original Cosmos aired in 1980; Sagan died in 1996, and Contact came out in 1997. Alex's fixation on Sagan would have been like me being 11 and refusing to stop talking about George Gamow. I was a weird, weird kid with some off-the-wall interests, and that would have been a bridge too far even for me.

I could maybe have believed it if Alex's hero was, say, Neil DeGrasse Tyson; my stepdaughter is 11, and she not only knows who Tyson is, but likes him well enough to have expressed a desire to read his books. But, although Alex does mention Tyson once (in the context of Cosmos), that scene just reminded me of Martin Prince's opinions on Ray Bradbury:

Perhaps time has made me cynical. Perhaps there's some kid out there who could legitimately serve as a model for Alex. But I note with some unease when adult authors give child characters anachronistic interests, be they Carl Sagan, Heloise's Hints, or knowing the exact time that a network TV show airs, as if on-demand had never been invented. It usually feels to me like the authors are breaking the illusion of the fictional world they're creating, interrupting my willing suspension of disbelief. I couldn't help but compare Alex unfavorably to someone like Joey Pigza, who's much more easily recognizable as a real kid. (This is especially true since The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza deals with many of the same deep themes as See You in the Cosmos). 

However, in other ways, Alex is deeply authentic. (His paragraph-long run-on sentences, in particular, sound exactly like conversations I've had with kids that age.) Indeed, the prose itself is exemplary, and as I mentioned at the start of this review, there's a lot to like about the novel. If it's easier for you to believe in Alex's love of Sagan, you may well enjoy this book much more than I did. But this is one where, although I see why people adore it, I can't necessarily bring myself to love it myself.

Published in February by Dial/Penguin

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