RogerBW's Blog

Jillian vs Parasite Planet, Nicole Kornher-Stace 14 April 2023

2021 children's SF. Jillian is eleven, and going to visit her parents for Take Your Children To Work Day. Her parents explore other planets…

Things change gear a bit between introduction and main action. Jillian has a generalised anxiety disorder, so the suddenness of having to shift from "I am visiting my parents at work and want to be a space explorer one day" to "I can actually go (to a safe world) for a week's camping trip" throws her, in well-observed ways. But once she goes, and things go horribly wrong (no spoiler) and she has to make shift for herself… I don't think she's any more more anxious than would be entirely reasonable given her situation. Maybe that's Kornher-Stace writing well enough to fool me, because with a few technical concerns I really liked this. Concerns first.

So there are these portals, and the standard mission profile is that the portal opens, the scout robot goes through and signals that all is well, the human explorers go through, and if anything bad happens in the first little while they can retreat through the portal back to Earth. Then it closes, and opens again in the same place a week later. OK.

There's a "total comms blackout" so you can't radio through the portal. But you can see through it. Um, visible-light comms lasers are a thing…?

The portal can only stay open for a few minutes. But things go very wrong almost at once, and the portal is explicitly still open after the accident (because Jillian's injured parents try to get her to abandon them and go back through). So wouldn't someone on Earth, looking through, observe that things have gone catastrophically wrong, and say "ooh, maybe we shouldn't wait a week, maybe we should send a rescue mission now"? Even without that and if they didn't have a comms laser, couldn't a tiny fragment of the swarmbot that goes with them fly back and hit whatever panic button there is?

Most of the supplies are lost in the disaster, particularly water. This planet has a light-dark cycle and specifically gets cold at night. Nobody thinks of using one of the tarps to rig up a condenser and pull water out of the air. Maybe people don't know about this any more.

I mean, I get it; all of these things are set up so that Jillian can find herself stranded on this alien world with very limited resources, two badly-injured parents to look after, and no way to call for help. But even if you think that's a reasonable compromise of worldbuilding to make the story work, this book isn't written for adult readers who can be told to ignore the cracks and get on with it; it's written for children who will ask "but hold on, why didn't she…?".

But apart from that: there's an ecological puzzle in the grand SF tradition, and there's a splendid double-act between Jillian (smart, but not superhuman) and the swarmbot SABRINA, which is tremendously powerful but only in specific, limited ways, and has plenty of knowledge but not the creativity needed to come up with new ways of solving problems. There's an alien planet which feels properly alien, There's a really sympathetic and interesting protagonist.

There are occasional illustrations by Scott Brown, but for me they didn't add much. Even so, I'd recommend this, particularly but not exclusively if you have children of the right sort of age.

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