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Angry Young Spaceman - Jim Munroe

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Author: Jim Munroe / Genre: Sci-Fi / Fantasy

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      12.12.2007 05:08
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      Jim Munroe's second novel (2000).

      Canadian author Jim Munroe publishes his own work, granting his science fiction novels a sense of D.I.Y. punk credibility and theoretically allowing him to get away with pretty much anything. 'Angry Young Spaceman' is his second novel, and despite some misleading quotes in the blurb that promise something of an unhinged psychedelic sci-fi trip (like Steve Aylett's work), this is actually more of a very easily digested space opera that works along the same lines as classic metaphorical science fiction. We catch up with the tale of Sam Breen about a thousand years into the future, by which time the Earth has established itself as more or less the dominant planet in the known universe following a war in the recent past that is alluded to on several occasions. This barren, capitalist Earth has advanced considerably in some ways and acts as an example to other 'inferior' planets still stuck in the twentieth century, particularly in regard to the equal treatment of homo- and heterosexual relationships, the absence of a gender divide and the abolition of eating meat (the latter most likely a practical issue, as humanity's 'advancement' has led to the extinction of all Earth's fauna), but in other ways things are much worse. Munroe presents something of a capitalist dystopia, a realistic and plausible rather than nightmarish situation, and one that even the least intellectual reader will immediately recognise as a metaphor for American expansion today. Sam Breen has decided, more or less on a whim to escape some of the embarrassments of his youth, to sign up for a job as an English teacher on one of the distant planets, the farther away the better. After losing his costly Speak-O-Matic translator unit at the spaceport, he is faced with the daunting task of having to learn the unique language of the Octavians, a distinctly alien race of squid-descended humanoids, complete with eight tentacles and with an atmosphere with a high water content, but still breathable by humans. Sam revels in the opportunity to effectively start again in this unique civilisation, and begins to despise the planet of his origins once it dawns on him just how unfair Earth's dominion is. English is the international language of commerce, meaning that all alien children are expected to learn it in schools, and aspects of human culture have already begun to corrode away at the conflicting traditions of planets like Octavia, sometimes for their modern appeal - Sam's new Octavian friend and lover Jinya is happy about increased power and freedom for females, for example - but occasionally enforced because they fail to comply with Earth's own standards. The majority of the book is spent chronicling Sam's fairly quiet and cosy domestic life, teaching English to eager Octavian children, courting Jinya, hanging out with teachers to improve his grasp of the Octavian language, and visiting some of the planet's more spectacular areas. Sam intermittently meets up with the three friends he met at orientation, who are also teaching English on other planets in the sector, and it's this smaller portion of the novel that stands out the most for being a little jarring and incompatible. While it's interesting to get further insight into the other exotic planets of this novel's universe, and the four young teachers are all interesting characters in their own right, the ending is just plain weird, and the reader is plunged in and out of it so quickly that it fails to be the good kind of weird. As for the Octavian culture itself, Munroe does a great job making them bizarre and recognisably human at the same time, demonstrating that even the most outlandish or 'alien' culture is still the same as us, deep down. Ahh. The Octavians may have eight tentacles, but apart from this they very clearly parallel the Japanese. Or the South Koreans. Or Eastern Europeans. Or in fact, any culture that has been more or less forced to teach its children English as a second language in order to remain formidable and competitive in a world controlled by America, even down to adopting American fashion and culture in place of its own. Sam's anger at the corruption of Octavian culture makes him an instantly likeable character, particularly once his own violent, rebellious past is unveiled as another level of control by the government in their shady creation and perpetuation of subcultures to facilitate the release of pent-up aggression in youths. Spherical Octavian dwellings and beverage bladders perfectly suited to their tentacles are being enthusiastically replaced with square accommodation and mugs with inconvenient handles, while pop bands like Intergalactic Cool Youth are following a distinctly Earth style of music, right down to their English name (as you've probably noticed, the language of this future Earth is specifically and unanimously 'English'). But for all its positive, relevant and angry statements of cultural preservation, Munroe's novel feels like it doesn't quite go far enough. For the most part, it's content to be the story of Sam learning to live happily on an alien world to get over the break-up of his last relationship and eventually start pursuing another, but the issue of the easily-impressed, easily-obtained foreign bride is all but avoided. Sam makes sure not to flout or encourage his developing celebrity status as the only human on Octavia, but anyone who's spent time in a similar profession abroad will likely recognise many of the moral dilemmas, and the way it's all too easy to be made to feel superior due to your more privileged background, but Munroe chooses not to dwell on these issues. The weird ending concerning Sam's human friends is also far too much of a deviation to make any kind of sense or real purpose, and this is really the kind of book that could be read in part before abandoning it, rather than one that needs to be read right to the end for a satisfying conclusion. Munroe's independent publishing ethic is attractive (though there's no doubt that this book would have been easily snapped up by a major publisher if he wasn't so opposed to them), but I can't help feeling that he's missed some of the opportunities to expand on his major concerns. Still, it's got a nice cover and some snazzy fonts.

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      Sam's going to another planet to teach English, where he hopes to earn enough creds to pay off his student loan and maybe buy a jetpack. He's not entirely comfortable with spreading the English virus but it beats working for the powerbrokers on Earth, and Octavia is a dreamy underwater planet, albeit populated by eight-armed creatures. Once he gets there, Sam ends up learning more than he teaches. From Mr Zik, a singer of melancholy songs. From a boxy robot called 9/3. And from Jinya, whose undulating tentacles make Sam forget all about human legs. Against the colourful backdrop of kitsch science-fiction, this novel entwines UFOs with STDs, androids with androgyny, and youth culture with culture shock. Leave your millennial angst behind and blast off to 2959.