Monday, April 27, 2009

The True Meaning of SmekDay by Adam Rex

The True Meaning of SmekDay was published as a book for younger readers, but without an explicit age range on the book (because, as we know from the UK, age-banding is an evil thing that will only lead to misery and the cataclysmic death of all life on Earth). But, since the main character, Gratuity Tucci, is twelve years old, one can apply the old rule of kids' books -- that kids will generally refuse to read about kids younger than they are -- and estimate that it's primarily for 9-13 year olds.

SmekDay is the first novel by Adam Rex, who was best-known before this for his sly and humorous poetic picture book Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich. It has rather more illustrations than adult readers would expect -- one every five pages or so, including "photos," comics, and other things.

SmekDay starts off as an essay that Gratuity writes for school in the eighth grade (just a few years from now) as part of a contest for a time capsule -- all of the kids in the US, presumably, are writing about what this new holiday means to them.

You see, on what used to be Christmas Day in 2012, an alien race called the Boov invaded Earth and took over. They weren't overly hostile -- they seemed a bit goofy and not entirely competent -- but their technology so far overmatched human abilities that, as they say, Resistance Was Futile. Six months later, after trying to live among humans -- mostly by kicking people out of their homes and moving Boov in -- they decided to relocate all humans to reservations and keep most of the planet for themselves. All Americans were to move to Florida on one June day, aided by Boovish rocketpods.

But Gratuity's mother had disappeared just before the invasion, after claiming to have been abducted by aliens to teach them language and to fold clothes a few months before. So Gratuity was alone, and didn't want to take any Boovish rocketpod -- she wanted to go on her own. So she drove her mother's car and took her cat, Pig, straight south from eastern Pennsylvania towards her new home in central Florida. She didn't get very far before the road ran out; the Boov had been disintegrating the highways. But she met a Boov named J.Lo who rebuilt her car and then came along with her. (He was in trouble with his people, for a reason we don't find out until later.)

So Gratuity and Pig and J.Lo get to Florida and find trouble there, and have to move on to another human reservation. Along the way, they learn that another, much nastier race of aliens (the Gorg) is on their way. And the Boov shift, in the minds of the readers and Gratuity's view, from being clueless but obnoxious conquerors to something like allies, as those Gorg get closer and closer and finally arrive. According to J.Lo, the Gorg will drive the Boov away, then enslave some lucky humans and eat all the rest (and much of their planet). In the end, though, Gratuity helps to make a freer, happier world -- and finds her mother along the way.

That all sounds very serious, but SmekDay is a deeply funny book -- the Boov are buffoonish conquerors, though still dangerous (and the Gorg are not funny at all). Not a page passes without a laugh, or at least a smile. Boovish diction and biology -- they have seven sexes, including boygirls, girlboys, and boyboyboyboys -- are particularly amusing. For a while, the Boov invasion looks like a looming metaphor, but that's not Rex's intention at all -- he's telling a story that can go from farce to serious on a dime, but he's aiming for a more universal type of "serious," and he lets his subtext stay subtext.

SmekDay moves quickly, is incredibly entertaining, and has a subtly cynical view of human (and alien) nature that will endear it to smarter readers everywhere, no matter what their ages are. It's also an excellent contemporary SF novel for younger readers, and I know many folks have been beating the bushes for those. It's a wonderful book, and I hope Rex writes many more novels like it.

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