Saturday, February 02, 2008

When Life is Brutal, Nasty and Short, Ask Mother: Remnants by K. A. Applegate. (1998-2003)

It's been three long years reading, and I still have about a hundred books upstairs to go, but I'm almost at the end of my project. In this post, I want to describe, not necessarily the best written or the most complex of the books I read, but quite simply the one that captured my imagination most, and which I've been evangelising for even when I only owned parts 1-3 (it's taken me ages to secure all 14 and I'm still missing number 8.)

In terms of recommendations, age is not a factor, but you might not want to give these books to anyone who has a propensity for nightmares.

1. "The Mayflower Project"
2. "Destination Unknown"
3. "Them"
4. "Nowhere Land"
5. "Mutation"
6. "Breakdown"
7. "Isolation"
8. "Mother, May I?"
9. "No Place Like Home"
10. "Lost and Found"
11. "Dream Storm"
12. "Aftermath"
13. "Survival"
14. "Begin Again"

To name Remnants series fiction is rather missing the point. It's series fiction the way The Old Curiosity Shop is series fiction. In reading reality there are two books here, divided into parts: the first ends with Book 8, Mother May I, and the second starts with No Place Like Home.

The first book opens as the Earth is about to be destroyed by a huge asteroid. NASA manages to pull together an old shuttle and turn it into an escape ship, with sleep berths for eighty. The ship is filled with Nasa employees and their families, and people who have bought their way on. It's nasty and messy--think the last helicopter out of Saigon. Two of the boys, Jobs and Mo'Steel are woken briefly to help fix the solar sails and witness the death of Earth.

When the ship people wake, over half are dead. Their hibernations have failed, the coffins have been drilled into by worms, or they were holed by meteorites: for the next few books we are with people experiencing serious PTSD; no instant recoveries here.

When the survivors look out of the ship they see black and white on one side, and colour on the other. They turn out not to have landed, but to be in a ship which has raided their databanks to create an environment out of great works of art: this is seriously disorienting and turns out to be threatening as well. Would you want to be inside a Bosch painting? Not only that, but the other inhabitants of the ship aren't too happy that their environments are being messed with. Plus, there is another species--ejected angels--who want to get back on board: once the engineers of the ship they think the ship (Mother) is mad, and want to fix her. There is also a changeling child, born on board ship which seems to have been taken over by a species called the Shipwright, and a boy called Billy, a refugee from Chechnya who has been brought up in Texas. Billy is insane, as anyone would be if their life support had kept them awake but paralysed for 500 years.

This is not a fun adventure: the first eight books proceed a lot like Charlie in the Choclate factory as concieved by Dean Koontz.

Applegate has not just provided setting: her characters are strong and clear. The children in the ship come from a culture in which children and teens rename themselves in accordance with who they think they are. Our two heroes (trans. they make it to the end of the series) are Mo'Steel, the risk taker who thinks he's indestructible, and Jobs, his computer nerd friend. But Jobs is interested in other things than computers and proves brave when it counts, and Mo'Steel is smart and very, very good at maths. Then there is 2Face, with her burned face; Miss Violent Blake, the Jane Austen fan, ultra-femme and art expert. There are others but these are the main four. All are interesting, All use the skills they bring with them. All go beyond the skills they bring with them and by the end of the book the skill set is mutating just as their bodies are mutating. Oh, did I forget to mention mutations? The main characters aren't too keen on them either. Jobs' little brother has chameleon abilities. Several other characters mutate into spider like beings before forming a gestalt. While in the second half of the serie Miss Violet, the gentle, prim, neat and tidy young lady, becomes a vermiform, able to break into healing worms at will (it's disgusting and incredibly painful) ; Tate becomes all mouth when she detects betrayal--and Mother and Billy haven't really got the hang of indigestion tablets).

The first eight books are horrible, terrible, nasty adventures in which everything that can go wrong does, people are tired, wet, hungry, clutching marble statues and totally disoriented. Brilliant in other words. At the end of the eight they have reached some kind of rapprochment with the ship (Billy has become Mother's friend) and with the other inhabitants...

Which is why in Book 9 they get the smart idea to turn it round and see what's happened on Earth: cue really pissed off neighbours, and a lot of divide and rule poltics and 2Face and (President of the USA's son) Yago continue the divide and rule policies they've battled each other with before, and Yago, who has found god and it's him, tries to convert the aliens on board ship to the one true cult of Yago, while negotiating with a very weird threesome in the hold.

They make it to Earth which is a disaster with a very narrow band of survivability, but Yago, and the three in the hold make off with the ship, accidentally taking Tate. Those on Earth meet up with various survivors--some scientists, and some semi-savages and get caught up in the politics there (but it's noticeable that there is still historical memory, none of the artificial cuts offs of other books). More of them die. The book ends when Tate, who has eaten and absorbed the others on ship into her body and mind, turns the ship around and lands on Earth, where Billy uses the crash site to re-create the world although, as Jobs occassionally contemplates, it may well be all an illusion.

Through out all of this the main characters act with sense, competence, not always sanity, but as humans engaged with the world at all levels. There is no inevitability, no destiny, no sense of helplessness even among the poorest of the people they find on Earth. Romance is kept to a minimum by rining the changes on the focus of interest (just as most teens really do). And if I haven't convinced you yet, let me mention one more thing.... In book 10 Jobs, searching for models of what he is trying to do, remembers readng a book by an author called Heinlein when he was ten, Stranger in a Strange Land.