As it’s a debut science fiction novel by a comedian and musician with cover praise from Neil Gaiman and a certain amount of internet buzz, I opened Terra with a mixture of anticipation and fear. Could it be that good? Is it folly for an artist to switch styles? Is Benn the heir apparent to the late great Douglas Adams? After an enjoyable 250-ish pages, the answer to all of the above is probably still open to debate.
Terra is the story of aliens being all alien on an alien planet. Not an easy concept to play with. So Benn drags the reader along by introducing a human character in order to relate to. It all starts very Adamesque. The humour is there, the characterisation is witty and the logic behind the scenario all works. Great I thought, this will be fun. Mr and Mrs Bradbury are the characters in question, but when they come across an alien craft they flee their car, leaving their as yet unnamed newborn baby girl strapped in. The alien – a scientist here to study ‘Rrth’ as they call Earth – decides to take the girl back to his planet with him.
Cut to 12 years later. We’re on the planet Fnrrn. Our scientist, Lbbp, has brought the girl up as his own daughter, naming her Terra. Terra is about to go to her next level of education, called the Lyceum. So the reader learns about the history and politics of this old civilisation as Terra studies along with her friends and classmates. We also learn what Benn thinks of our society as Ymn’s (humans) are almost vilified by the Fnrrn aliens. There is also, however, tribalism and conflict on this alien world. Throw in an even older alien race and the ingredients are all there for an interesting book. Proper science fiction as Terra learns her inherent humanness on the alien world, while Benn explores and satirises human nature both from its reflection in the aliens and its study from outsiders.
After part one, with the Adams like humour, the main section is almost devoid of that humour and style. Benn writes it as just about straight science fiction. About half way through the book, it occurred to me that the humour had gone (with the exception of the ancient alien race only visiting to leave a recipe for soup). Indeed, it’s a fairly short novel and becomes quite dark quite quickly. There is jealously, war, destruction and betrayal. Terra is always aware of who she is and where she came from. Lbbp never hides that. However, when she discovers what he did hide, the betrayal becomes brutal and Benn executes it brilliantly. It is heartbreaking. However, the reconciliation is too easy. The darkness Terra feels is lifted with almost no residual consequence, which I just didn’t believe – because the hurt was so painful. In fact, all the darkness and subsequent trust he builds with the reader evaporates too quickly. We’re suddenly all friends again (albeit in the face of adversary), the conflicts are all over, and even the mean character has redeemed himself. Of course, the coda is fairly predictable, but oddly, it returns back to the humorous style.
Terra is an odd sandwich of a book. Humour, light, dark, light, humour. It reads like science fiction 101 for beginners (although not dummies, as there are many smart ideas floating through the book, such as the way the alien invasion is spotted by Terra but not the Fnnrn natives – can you only see in others what you see yourself?). Benn has cleverly invented a familiar alien species with an interesting enough culture. The names and other nouns are (as you may have gathered) are all vowel free and some aren’t so easy to pronounce, with may put some readers off. Terra is a great character, although whether a well-rounded female I’ll leave others to judge. She learns and (Benn) explains ideas in a clear if simplistic manner. Hardened science fiction fans may not get anything new from Benn’s debut. If you’ve never read science fiction (and don’t mind the vowel-free language) or are interested in a fun space adventure with a young girl as protagonist, you’d do a lot worse that Terra.
First published at: http://www.nudgemenow.com/terra-by-mitch-benn-2/#sthash.uORbiLfy.XzWOr0JW.dpuf