Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Plague! The Plague! Someone Save Us!

The Comet's Curse by Dom Testa
3Q 3P; Audience: M/J

When the comet Bhaktul flits through Earth's atmosphere, it leaves universally fatal death-dealing particles behind. It won't be long until everyone is dead. Is there any chance that a cure will be found before that happens? Is there any chance the civilization can be saved? With the scientists and doctors dying, it looks unlikely. But Dr. Wallace Zimmer isn't willing to take no for an answer to either question. The virus doesn't affect people until they turn eighteen. If he can put together the right group of kids and get them away from Earth, perhaps they'll be able to find the way to defeat the virus and Earth's civilization. After an intensive search and training period, 251 of Earth's brightest teenagers are sent into space to colonize Eos, a new planet. It will take years for them to arrive and create a new life for themselves. But if they make it, they'll have beaten Bhaktul and Earth will, in some way, have survived.

The crew is carefully chosen for their intelligence, physical fitness, and emotional stability. They are carefully and rigorously trained for the formidable task ahead of them. The Galahad has everything they will need for a long space voyage, including farming facilities, living areas, and game and training rooms to keep them physically fit. And they have Roc, their walking (well, almost), talking, wisecracking supercomputer. Yes, they're young. But they're well prepared, brilliant, and ready for anything. Except, perhaps for the stowaway who is threatening to scuttle their mission before they've had a chance to truly begin it.


I wanted to like this book, which is the first in the Galahad series. I was prepared to accept the improbability of a bunch of kids being the saviors of civilization. If it's done well, that premise can be exciting reading. But this is not done particularly well. The characters show some promise, but they are not yet fully developed. The story plays out predictably. The identity of the stowaway is not much of a surprise. But my major issue with the book is the lack of subtlety in the writing. For instance, Testa takes great pains to make sure his readers know that the crew is made up of teens of every ethnicity and culture. Here he introduces Gap, one of the five teens who make up the ship's governing council:

Gap thought of his early childhood in China, raised as an only child by his parents, both of whom were college professors. An early interest in gymnastics was fueled by his training with a former Olympic champion...[Then his parents relocated the family to America] And although his parents were concerned about the abrupt change in his life, Gap immediately accepted the challenge of meeting new people and forming new friendships. It seemed everyone warmed to him as soon as they met him...his school grades reflected his obvious intellect. He kept up his training with gymnastics, keeping an eye on that Olympic future.

Okay, we get it. Gap's Chinese, athletic, very intelligent, and very likeable. All of that could have been shown to us instead of told so bluntly. With Lita, the teen in charge of the infirmary, Testa first goes out of his way to tell us her ethnicity, but then he slips the same information in much more naturally. Which is more effective?

"Lita's black eyes and Latin American skin spoke of her upbringing in Mexico."
or, just a few pages later: "her eyes focused on a glass cube that sat atop a folder. The cube was filled with sand and small pebbles, one of the personal items from her home near the beach in Mexico."

Similarly, Testa works awfully hard to make us find Roc amusing:

I, on the other hand, will continue to be the same sophisticated, charming, and witty intellect that I've always been...I've got reserves of charm that I probably won't begin to tap for years. You're very lucky to know me. Don't you feel lucky?
...I obviously talk to the crew, I run the life-support systems on the ship, I answer questions, and I have a lovely singing voice. If you're a girl, and I'm a flesh-and-blood boy, you're all over me... You and I have the same information, so we'll both have to puzzle it out. The only difference is that I'm incredibly smart. Not that you aren't, but when you can recite the table of elements in twenty-six languages, get back to me.
I wish he'd just relax and let his characters be instead of having his author's voice be so intrusive.

I do think this series has the potential to be an intriguing read for younger teens who enjoy science fiction. I'm curious to see what Testa has in mind as the trip goes on and the kids first have to decide if they want to keep the same Council leaders and if not, what the fallout to that decision might be and then (and especially) when they land on Eos and have to create their own civilization. Will they try to maintain what they know from Earth, or will they try to build something completely different? What difficulties will they face? And what will they find in those rooms in the storage areas that are so mysteriously locked for the duration of the voyage? And of course, we already have a budding romance and a brooding leader who may spell trouble. What sort of fireworks will result from all that? Will they be the sort that inspire a satisfied "ahhh!" or the kind that makes one run for cover?

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