by Catherine Jinks
Published by Allen & Unwin
288 pages, 2007
Alien for Teens
Reviewed by Sue Bursztynski
Catherine Jinks is an amazingly prolific and versatile writer. From historical fiction to children’s ghost stories to science fiction to fantasy to suspense, she’s had a go at all of it. She has even written some fiction for adults, although she’s best known as an author of books for young adults and children.
Living Hell is young adult science fiction. The author describes it as Alien for teenagers. Well, not quite. Nothing is laying its eggs in unsuspecting humans who then burst open when the young alien hatches. More like Fantastic Voyage for teens. It is scary, though.
Plexus is a generation spaceship which has left Earth long enough for the crew to produce children and form a shipboard society. A disaster back on Earth is implied. In any case, the crew aren’t going back, ever. They can’t.
Crew A and B, along with their families, take turns at work and suspended animation sleep. The population is carefully controlled and the ship is like a city, with streets, transport and work places. All in all, it’s not a bad lifestyle, and the children born aboard ship know nothing else.
Then something happens. The ship flies through a mysterious ray in space and suddenly, it is alive, a huge body, with formerly inanimate objects as a part of it. Like our own bodies it has an immune system, which decides the humans aboard are an infection. Teenage boy Cheney and some of the other teenagers and children are forced to run, doing whatever it takes to keep from being destroyed. In the end, they will have to work out a way to make the body in which they are now living ignore them. Meanwhile, people die quite horribly, and we don’t even want to contemplate what’s happening to the sleeping crew members. Really, we don’t.
You have to accept that there’s something out there which can turn an inanimate object like a spaceship into a living body, but once you have done this, the rest of the premise is intriguing: a good strong science fictional what-if. What if the ship in which you were travelling did come alive? You can’t destroy it, you can’t switch it off; there’s just nowhere to go out there. You have lost contact with all but a few of your fellow voyagers. What do you do? It’s a nifty idea -- and the author has done her research on the human body, so the parallels are very interesting.
Cheney is an ordinary boy -- at least as ordinary as you can get when you were born in space and large chunks of your life are spent asleep, waiting to go back on shift. He has the usual concerns of teens, though the kids on this ship have to be more mature than teens in the present-day Western world. He is not a Chosen One, just a kid who happens to be there when things go pear-shaped and has to protect younger children, some of whom have suddenly been orphaned, as best he can. He doesn’t know, for a fair bit of the novel, if his own parents are still alive.
Living Hell takes you for a whale of a ride. Every other page, you gasp, “Oh, no!” It is a return to form after Elysium, which was something of a disappointment. The manga-style cover with a katana-waving figure on a spaceship should certainly attract the attention of young readers who will then stay for the adventure. | June 2007
Sue Bursztynski is the author of several children's books, including the CBC Notable Book Potions To Pulsars: Women Doing Science and Your Cat Could Be A Spy. Her fiction has been published in various SF magazines. She publishes two blogs, a general one at http://greatraven.blogspot.com and a review/SF blog at http://suebursztynski.blogspot.com. She lives in Australia.