"Don't judge a book by its cover", they have said since time immemorial (or, at least, since whenever books had cover art). But what about a book's title? After all, judging a book by its title is fair game, isn't it? Covers are trivial things, commissioned by publishing houses and crafted by people who do those disturbingly creative, visual arts like drawing (shock horror), but titles are noble and full of profundity and depth and meaning? Right?
The novel's first half (broadly speaking, it splits into two; the second, starting at page 135 out of 338, slightly longer than the first) focuses fairly tautly - and with, at least at first, minimal sci-fi trappings - on the aforementioned phenomenon, that which we might call our over-sharing culture. And Goss absolutely nails what this means for teenagers, both its manifold excitements (the world can see me do this cool thing really well!) and its manifold disasters (ending friendships, exposing scandal). As Matteusz says early in the novel, "Life does not happen unless you put photo on Facebook. Unless you tweet it. Unless you post video on YouTube. It is like philosophy." Indeed. This same thought occurred to me often in my teenage years - that people would become so obsessed with the Future's Perception Of This Event that they would seemingly neglect the present actuality of the concert or the Niagara Falls or whatever it was they were experiencing at the time. No matter if I can't actually remember what happened at the party last night, the logic would run, or no matter if I didn't really have a good time - the important thing is that I am seen to have done so. That there are laughing, smiling pictures all over social media so I can prove to myself, almost, if I try really hard and convince myself, that FUN WAS HAD BY ALL, HONEST.
This is not a completely 21st century phenomenon (the notion of "keeping up appearances" crops up in most 19th century novels worth their salt about class or a family's finances going down the drain, while Russian aristocrats were known to live frugally all year round so they could afford an enormous banquet with even more lavish entertainment and sailing boats on champagne lakes than their neighbour managed six months ago); but it is of course something that is much, much more widespread now (do you remember the ice bucket challenge, which gets a nod here? What about #necknominate, where people would down pints in ever more ridiculous ways then nominate someone else to do it, and which ended in people dying in hospitals because they'd tried drinking a pint of whisky? "Competitive dieting"? This stuff seems outlandish, but it really happens. This is the inanity of a 21st century existence). Goss milks this teenage panic of #FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) for all it's worth, laying bare the central characters' iffy relationships with peer pressure, the teenage compulsion to share, share, share, and their aching inadequacies in the face of the latest trend. One particularly moving segment sees Ram's texts to his girlfriend Rachel - who is killed at the Autumn Prom in Class' very first episode, For Tonight We Might Die - displayed all over the Internet without his permission for all to see: starting all cutesy and "Prom night baby!!!! Cant wait to see you!" (Read 6:32pm) before abruptly turning into "Miss you" (Delivered), "You're funeral today. Can't face it" (Delivered) and eventually "Please come back" (Delivered), "Please" (Delivered) and "Love u" (Delivered). The pit in your stomach feels a long way down, and that's far from the last deftly delivered emotional truth in the novel.
- I approve of the cover both proudly boasting Patrick Ness' name (a sure-fire to draw in teens/YA in a bookstore) but also using the same font as his Chaos Walking trilogy.
- there's a nice emotional truth to the opening chapter: teenagers do daring things addictively, but deep down they want to be at home with their mums.
- some brilliant stuff inside Ram's head - particularly dramatising his dysfunctional relationship with his "passive aggressive" leg ("it was like having a butler for a limb") and his hypocritical refusal to do an ice bucket video topless so as to stay dignified ("he'd wear a T-shirt. A tight one with the sleeves hacked off"). These are still early days for the group, and the advantage of Goss getting inside his character's minds and fleshing them out a bit more is we learn that at this stage, despite the "gang pulling together" we may see on screen, that Ram "didn't like Tanya, not as such, but he understood the point of her." April seems "out of focus" to him, while she finds him very direct - something akin to a left/right hemisphere split, I should think. Ram also gets a tender, moving scene with an injured boy's mum, in which he thinks she looks like "she was hoping for something better out of life than rain", and his material with his dad Varun displays the warmth of their relationship very effectively.
- This is an April-centric novel to an extent, in that she probably gets the lion's share of the storyline, but it doesn't focus on her to the exclusion of everyone else. What it does do with her back-story, her interiority and her memories of the car crash at the hands of her dad Huw, is nonetheless powerful. "Normal life is so fragile. It breaks easy," she says at one point, echoing her line in the show about "all life is on the knife edge". We also learn she doesn't go clubbing "unless the music is really good", and her reference to "baby steps" nicely pre-empts the ending of Brave-ish Heart, where she uses the phrase with her mother.
- a bit of exposition at the start to set up the show's premise and backdrop, but not too clumsily done.
- "the ambulance pulled out of the car park, leaving behind a mournful crowd taking shocked selfies". Bleak.
- There's some great Quill/Matteusz stuff early on, as we learn she mistrusts him and resents him living in their house. Even when picking a mug in the kitchen, Matteusz complains, he feels she is "judging the mug".
- Charlie and Quill each think they understand humans better than the other. In fact, their dynamic is very well rendered here, and feels in keeping with the show. Quill leaps off the page, in part due to how good Katherine Kelly is, but Goss' stuff for her is just gold. "She was frowning, which, to be fair, was like saying other people were breathing" is good, reading Captain Corelli's Mandolin and wondering why the mandolin isn't some kind of weapon is better, but her barnstorming entrance onto the Skandi world in the story's third act is a corker, shooting down three Skandis, providing the shock revelation that off-world and in this new dimension she can actually use a gun and then shooting April in the head to give us a cracking chapter cliff-hanger -- all of that at once. The only thing I think's a bit odd is her not understanding the Internet, as she seems quite au fait with it in the show.
- Charlie is perhaps a little posher and stiffer on the page than he is in performance (I think it's the lack of contractions, which reads very unnaturally) but he still gets some gems, such as telling Matteusz "please drop your trousers; I wish to look at your legs", being confused about saying sorry (apparently, ritualistic Rhodian apologies demand the right kind of food for the occasion), comparing virtual reality to the Cabinet of Souls, and a fun nod to "plume priests" self-immolating back on Rhodia as an act of political protest (though if it got to oppressed Tibet/Arab Spring levels of bad, maybe we shouldn't mourn the Rhodians all that much...)
- 15 Cats That Look Shockingly Like Miss Quill = wonderful chapter title
- Things You'll Only Get If Your Home Planet Was Destroyed In The 90s = even better
- The Coal Hill StandardDisappearanceLetter Word Document template is an utter hoot
- Not much Tanya here, but the occasional good bit: she fixes Ram "with a disappointed stare that would make concrete check its shoes".
- "That's life," Varun tells his son as he breaks off a bit of chocolate rather inelegantly, "it never has straight lines."
- "There was a reverential way of closing a door that only nurses used. It meant bad news."
- "That was how real conspiracies went. They weren't exciting. They were a bit dull actually."
- "Perhaps she wasn't at the end of the universe after all, but simply in Slough. God, she would love to be in Slough."
- "Is this what it was like for astronauts? Amazement at being where no one had gone before, followed by an annoying slight itch in their space boot?" Ha. Fun look at how experiences never live up to the imagination.
- "She knew aliens existed, but had always thought of them as a vague possibility, in the same way that she knew Russia existed."
- "Who calls their daughter Audrey?" (Surely a nod to The Curse of Fenric). I also thought the whiteness of the other world was a bit Scherzo while Seraphin's colossal face is a bit Face of Evil.
- "There was no simple resolution. No happy ending. It would be nice to say the aliens bowed back, and left in peace. They did not...it seemed easier for them to ignore their murderers. We are, April thought, beneath contempt."
- "We thought we were Han Solo blowing up the Death Star. Really, we're Stormtroopers".
- And, of course, at the end it's revealed that the detox from it all won't last - Tanya goes back to video games, people go back to filming other people's misery and sending it to You've Been Framed! Because the one thing we can learn from history is that we never learn from history, but rather make the same mistakes over and over.