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Angry Young Spaceman, Jim Munroe, No Media Kings, 2000, 244 pp.
Every work of art has a political bias, and those novels that seem to have none have only accepted the status quo to such a degree as to render the biases transparent to those who accept the status quo. This truism is an important one to keep in mind while looking at Jim Munroe's second novel, Angry Young Spaceman. Munroe's successful and canny debut, Flyboy Action Figure Comes with Gasmask, was published by Harper Collins, part of the multinational conglomerate News Corp. By Munroe's own account on the No Media Kings website (www.nomediakings.org), the experience of dealing with a ruthless hydra-headed beast like News Corp was a terrifying encounter with the all-devouring maw of late-stage capitalism. That a book like Flyboy, with its quirky prose and barbed satire of media moguls, was published at all by Harper Collins starts to seem like a miracle. The experience galvanized Munroe into starting his own imprint, No Media Kings, and self-publishing his second novel, Angry Young Spaceman.
Self-publishing is a brave venture, especially in a cutthroat arena like the publishing industry. Munroe has a number of advantages over others who have tried the same route. His first novel was published by a big conglomerate, so his name is out there, and it's a name that has passed through the filter that editors at big imprints are supposed to represent. Secondly, everything about the book speaks of quality. Angry Young Spaceman is a handsome volume, with catchy cover art by Mike Brennan and elegant design throughout. The imprint itself has one of the loveliest websites I've seen in a long time, and it has substantial content to keep you reading for a few hours. I should also mention that the book is available for free download (or at least it was at the time of writing), but the dead-tree version is definitely worth the $20. Thirdly, Munroe is actually a good writer, which is the best way to set him apart from the legions of Internet prose artists.
Angry Young Spaceman tells the story of Sam, the human of the title, even though he's not so much angry as disaffected. It's the year 2959, and Sam needs to pay off some student loans so he's on his way offplanet to teach English. He arrives at Octavia, a planet with a partially liquid atmosphere and an alien species that resemble Earth octopi. Sam settles in, takes tours, falls in love, all in a relatively non-urgent manner. The plot moves forward in a completely surreal way, because none of it seems to make sense. Why would aliens want to learn English? And why does Sam, a typical human, feel so uncomfortable about exporting culture when it is apparently received so heartily? The puzzle only unravels about halfway through the book, and it's a nasty revelation. Humans have spent a good portion of the millennium conquering any nearby alien races, and subjugating them to the worst excesses of our cultural supremacy. Our first hint comes on page 93: "The only war that mattered was the one that essentially brought about Earth's ownership of the rest of the galaxy. The one that brought me here." The plot spins out most of the implications of this in the daily details of a lived existence, the little protagonist much like those in Philip K. Dick's novels. Munroe has taken one of the oldest clichés of science fiction, the superiority of homo sapiens, and revealed the harsh, seething xenophobia that it actually represents. And if we take the simplistic explanation that all science fiction reduces down to commentary on our present circumstances, then Munroe has targetted the excesses of Western consumer-normative capitalism with deadly aim. And there's a free jab at science fiction too, with its typical collusion with the expansionist jihad for the values of our society. Wagon train to the stars indeed.
To my mind, none of this would work without a protagonist that could carry this type of anti-story. There's no hint of the rich and powerful here, even though Sam's mother is wealthy and influential. Most of Angry Young Spaceman concerns itself with Sam's day to day existence on Octavia, and the things that he learns. Sam is by no means perfect, and he makes many mistakes, but also has some social triumphs, and has a welcome knack for picking up the Octavian language. The second hinge-point of the book, also a revelation like the one about Earth's warlike history, has to do with Sam's past as a pug. The realization here is just as painful to Sam personally, and Munroe makes us see Sam's anguish quite viscerally. Stripped of individuality, he decided to teach English offplanet, and thus the book begins.
All very tidy, except that Munroe has no conventional ending in store. Unlike Flyboy, Angry Young Spaceman has better control of its internal chronology, but it has a gap at the end that is just as frustrating. I was never expecting Sam to fix the ills of the galaxy single-handedly, which would have been quite a betrayal of Munroe's usual cheer for the individual and individual triumphs. And so things change, but not much is resolved. Angry Young Spaceman has a lot to say, all of it said with wit and originality; in the face of that, a non-standard ending doesn't hurt.
Last modified: September 25, 2000
Copyright © 2000 by James Schellenberg (email@example.com)
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