Book review: J.O.E. Just an Ordinary Earthling, by Edward Szynalski
J.O.E. Just and Ordinary Earthling (Revision Number 108), by Edward Szynalski, is a very likeable story but the current version has a detrimental tense-switching flaw, which the author has told me will soon be fixed in a new version. When that change happens and a revised book appears (November 2017?), I would then describe this as a really very likeable story. At the moment though, I have to review the original version and I don’t want to stick daggers and basilisk fangs into the cover particularly hard because, as I said, this is a relaxed, easy-spirited and enjoyable book. The author seems to be writing primarily to amuse himself so, if that’s happening, the question as always is whether the author’s sense of fun coincides with anyone else’s.
The first thing I noticed was that the author likes a stunning number of things that I retreat to, that collection of comfy pillows of culture in my psychological warm place. He makes little nods at them as if this book exists in a context of an already charming entertainment culture. There are pokes at the Dennis in the mud scene (anarcho-syndicalist commune… hanging on to their outdated imperialist dogma) — yes, the aliens have actually built a society based on a Monty Python sketch — and the Holy Grail’s intro “the next bit is a lovely chapter”, there’s a nod at Ghostbusters (the hero parties the night away at a club downtown), there’s an EA Poe improvisation around The Raven in Chapter 9, then the Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred Lord Tennyson is recreated on bicycles, a Sir Walter Scott reference appears in Excelsior!, as does a line from Henry V’s speech at Harfleur and Walt Whitman’s O Captain! My Captain! This stuff is woven into the story so fleetingly that most readers will miss it.
The most striking appreciations are deliberate salutes to Douglas Adams (forty-two years later, Club 42, don’t panic, the usefulness of towels), which isn’t surprising because the protagonist in this (Joe) is an everyman character that gets swept up and taken away by aliens and fate picks on him in a similar way to Arthur Dent. I must emphasize that Joe, Just an Ordinary Earthling, is a completely original work and has not aped anything else. It’s just that the author clearly adores lots of other stuff that has influenced people like me and that’s shaped him into aligning new writing into this style of fiction.
Lots of cultural influence then. That’s both good and then slightly worrying. The way I’d describe it is, imagine being on a first date and realising you’ve got so much in common, too much, you have the same taste and style, you laugh at the same things, it’s going great and in the back of your mind you’re dreaming of an affectionate future, then there’s that one extra thing in common that stops your heart when you realise that not long ago you were popping in and out of the houses of some of his best friends. You see? I can be delicate. To assess this book fairly then, I have to step back and mentally remove all the references to things I love already which might have influenced my favourable opinion of this work and then see what I think of Edward Szynalski’s story in isolation.
Well, I still like it, but here’s the problem: On multiple occasions, the tense changes from the past to the present and back again, as if the author is unaware he’s doing it. “Joe jumps back” and then “arms pursued him” etc. This is quite irritating but the author says he’ll correct the problem very soon (hopefully to the past tense). My only other issues with this were “Distance is relative” (stating the obvious) and that the aliens’ Solar System would have to be called the something else system because only our star is named Sol. That whinge of mine comes up surprisingly often. Being pedantic, which I am when I don’t get my orange juice in the morning, it was a full length book with only six typos, so that’s not bad in the grand scheme of things.
Without giving too much of the plot away, Joe gets taken up and then explores an alien culture from his ordinary human perspective. That’s generally a good opportunity for a writer to show us either how we could live or it’s a chance to criticise something humans get up to on Earth, but using the metaphor of aliens doing it far away and thus we find the medicine more palatable. That’s sci-fi theory but in this particular tale, which is an adventure by the way, a lot of it feels very human without there being a lot of over-laid sarcasm, subliminal lessons or critical commentary. It’s just fun for fun’s sake, unless I missed something, so what’s not to like?
As a final comment, I did enjoy this book very much and would like to read more by this author because it’s the kind of relaxed Sunday morning sci-fi that I would be delighted to see more people writing. It doesn’t over-tax your brain and sometimes that’s a good, calming kind of therapy that restores your confidence in fiction. Comfort for the soul. I can’t award it too many stars though because the tense issue needs to be fixed first. When that’s done, you’d have to be a right old grouch not to like this book.