Understanding the Stars, by Xela Culletto - 4 Stars

Understanding the Stars is to science fiction what Twilight is to horror. What I mean by that is you take a genre, any genre, describe a normal female student protagonist who would have had an ordinary life (this one delivers pizzas), then introduce a fantasy boyfriend figure who is fully immersed in a reality hidden from our own. The next stage is obvious, as boy draws girl in, her awareness increases, they get chased a lot and he demonstrates his protective qualities, he’s hunky but sensitive, then admits his undying love and proves it by sacrificing his future, or life, for hers. It’s a dream, fantasy dating, but this might be the first time I’ve seen this transferrable outline in a sci-fi setting. Generally, you have to admit that it is a very successful angle, with a huge potential audience of teenagers who’d queue up to date a bf with alien tech. It’s fun, it’s fantasy and, uh, then the girl lands kicking on the vivisection table.

Don’t worry, there are a lot of last minute escapes, nothing horrific or off-putting within and only one human gets turned inside out. It’s hard to feel sorry for all of the aliens who get zapped by the CIA but it would be a mistake to presume the CIA are the heroes either, as humans and aliens are all fairly flawed and compromised in this story. Generally, there are three races and two kids are getting bounced around between them.

In fiction, you’ve got to have a scary plot element for the characters to run from (and ultimately defeat), otherwise you’d never see your heroes panting, ripping their clothes and showing their full potential. The test of fitness is all. However, there are obvious cultural influences in the history of reports of contact with aliens, particularly surrounding abduction. People who have reported being snatched by aliens and operated on, dissected etc, are almost exclusively all from the USA. Other nationals report abduction but without this element. The British report polite manners and conversation, while Brazilians report abduction followed by inter-species copulation and the French report aliens who demand to worship French culture. Therefore, I’d see going under the scalpel as a signal that these themes are set not by supra-geographic extra terrestrial life but by ordinary terrestrial suggestion. If the aliens had wanted to do something else, something completely original for a change, that would have been more impressive.

The reason why the girl is important to the aliens, the author weaving the fantasy into her body, is that she’s been tagged some years previously and that is not only evidence but rival aliens are interested in acquiring it too. This gives rise to the kidnap and dissection scenario, which suddenly becomes essential to the plot, and the scenario also has a voyeuristic thing going on where the boy can spy on the girl’s life by seeing everything she sees; imagine a camera on an eagle, except this one mostly zooms in on pizzas. Yum.

What isn’t essential and I don’t think ever works well is the baddies persuading a victim by laying out their point of view and then asking for approval to do something nasty, which they’re going to do anyway, then saying things which rile the victim and force them to fight back, which is surely counter-productive? If they are an advanced sentient species, why would they not take the most clean and direct route, i.e. laughing gas, pop the human down and get out the tool kit? Winding them up is just stupid. Then again, perhaps that’s how the author demonstrates which species has morality on their side. Still, that jarred a little, although I can see the writer wanted to make the reader sympathetic to them and then go for the big reveal. Still, why go to all the trouble of A if you’re just going to reverse all the good work with B and the listener will be dead in five minutes anyway so it’s pointless?

Did I like the story? Yes, it was a good yarn and bubbled along in an easy going kind of way. It feels like the introduction to a series, presumably also in the young adult style. Older readers won’t get as much from it if they’re not into the first kiss stuff as it could benefit from a big idea or two, maybe a funny situation, insightful lines or a unforeseen surprise of some kind. I know it is dissimilar but War of the Worlds, for example, had humans outclassed all of the way through and then bacteria defeat the aliens, which I bet no one saw coming. In this case, the aliens gather knowledge seemingly for knowledge’s sake. So, what’s the real reason for that? They withhold knowledge. Why? This, to me, also suggests more books in the series to build the opera. That’s it really – this book is like two or three instruments playing and establishing a catchy motif but you can see a fuller orchestra waiting patiently for their turn behind them. When the steady theme has been set by this book, not over-reaching, presumably the more complicated development follows in book two? Xela Culletto has constructed space in this opening adventure and now needs to ignite a few stars.