Anywhere But Here
by Jerry Oltion
Published by Tor Books
384 pages, 2005
Trucks in Space
Reviewed by Andi Shechter
Jerry Oltion's latest book, Anywhere But Here, is packed with fun ideas that for the most part, overcome its weaknesses. But I admit that even the idea of space travel in a specially tricked-out truck couldn't overcome, at times, paragraph long discussions of getting the lug nuts off of a tire on a truck. You really can have too much information.
Thanks to the availability of cheap affordable hyperdrives that can fit into a pickup truck, everyone is leaving Earth for the stars. It's a nasty America, one generation past this one -- the hero's grandparents are referred to as part of the "make love, not war" generation -- where Homeland Security rules supreme and the paranoia of the post 9/11 world has taken root. Americans regularly eat "freedom fries" (oh come now) and are so disliked throughout, well not even the world anymore but the galaxy, that it's hard to leave town without arousing suspicion. But well, God bless the old Internet. You can download the specs you need, there are underground flyers everywhere, so it's not difficult to suit up, add some special features to your truck and take off.
And off Donna and Trent go. Trent, I admit bugs me. Actually both of them do; if they don't stop making goo-goo eyes at each other, I'm gonna whap 'em. Bring along a case of Bud, never take off your cowboy hat. I guess it's to show what a Regular Guy Trent is. And Trent always introduces himself first "and this is Donna". No last name.
The creativity here is lots of fun. The everyday almost mundane, "let's land on this place in Alpha Centuri, oh, look, aliens, oo, one of them is hurt" is delightful; just the idea that it's no big thing, that understanding how to safely take off from a planet in your truck (leaving, mind you, one heck of a crater behind) and safely landing waaaay far away, is a really different mind set. The image for me of trucks in space was lots of fun. And when Trent and Donna land on another planet where people sort of live in trees (well, they are French), the notion grabbed my imagination in a really enjoyable way.
But the sort of accepted simplicity of post-terrorism America didn't ring true. History shows us that, even in the most conformist times, there have been people who questioned, and there's been an awareness of dissent. And if word can get out about how to hide escape velocity plans, then word can get out about how not everyone thinks all Americans are their government. In this world, 9/11 did not happen that long ago. They've still got the 'Net and, while things are being blocked, stuff gets through so I thought that a little difficult to swallow. The occasional asides "The U.S. is bombing civilians!" "They've been doing that in other countries for decades" don't sit well. And, again, it's not that I disagree with the politics, but they certainly could have been more skillfully incorporated. And the naiveté, that this is shocking to these two adults is a bit hard to buy. Even if you do grant the existence of a censored press.
For me, the strengths of Anywhere But There were the parts of the book that make you say: Oh, wow. The creative bits, not the political ones. Oltion's imagination excels when he's world-building. But Anywhere But Here bogged down substantially in the pages and pages of description of how to calculate things and how to build waterwheels and how many lug nuts one needs to secure a tire. Come on already! And while Donna and Trent are awfully handy and often smart, someone who believes that on every world "trees are wood" shows pitiful imagination. How could he go off into space without even considering that what looks like water might not be, that trees aren't necessarily cellulose and flammable, that everything is just like it is on Earth, especially when this isn't their first trip Out There? Maybe it's like going camping, but these folks know how to do that and don't go unprepared.
A more patient reader, or one who doesn't mind a certain amount of naiveté and who enjoys descriptions of star maps, will probably be more riveted by Anywhere But Here than I was. But it's a big world and there are a lot of books. | April 2005
Andi Shechter has been a publicist, chat host, interviewer, convention-planner, essayist and reviewer. She lives in Seattle with far too many books, an old-but-cute purple computer, not enough soft toys (including a small but select hedgehog and gorilla collection), many figure skating videotapes and an esoteric collection of hot sauces. There's a Hugo Award on her mantelpiece which belongs to her partner, cartoonist and artist Stu Shiffman.