BOOK REVIEW: See You in the Cosmos by Jack Cheng

BOOK REVIEW: See You in the Cosmos by Jack Cheng

Puffin
February 2017
Paperback, $16.99
Reviewed by Steph O’Connell10

Middle Grade

7/10

All eleven-year old Alex wants is to launch his iPod into space. With a series of audio recordings, he will show other lifeforms out in the cosmos what life on Earth, his Earth, is really like.

But for a boy with a long-dead dad, a troubled mum, and a mostly-not-around brother, Alex struggles with the big questions. Where do I come from? Who’s out there? And, above all, How can I be brave?

Determined to find the answers, Alex sets out on a remarkable road trip that will turn his whole world upside down…

 

See You in the Cosmos is a gorgeous, heartwarming middle-grade novel, with a decent helping of rocket-related passion at its core.

People used to ask my hero stuff like that too. They’d say, We have so many problems here on Earth, we have global warming and was in the Middle East and kids in Africa who don’t have food or clean water, so why should we try to go to Mars or communicate with extra-terrestrial intelligence when we can’t even solve all the problems we have on our own planet?
And do you know what my hero said to those people? He told them to think about what it would mean if we went to Mars. He said if we can do something that big, something that’s never been done before in the history of humanity, then of course we can solve all the problems we have at home, DUH! And I agree.

But in addition to that, this is a story about family, finding your place in the world, and searching for the real truth. It’s about friendship, and adventure, and finding things that you maybe weren’t looking for when you set out but realise are way more important than the things you went looking for in the first place.

Alex’s 24 year old brother, Ronnie, doesn’t live with Alex and their mum.

He lives in Los Angeles and his job is an agent, and I know what you’re thinking but he’s not that kind of agent. He’s not a spy or Bond, James Bond kind of agent. He doesn’t fight terrorists or bust drug dealers or play poker with super-villains. He helps basketball and football players get show commercials. But he does go to fancy parties and wear sunglasses, so I guess it’s kind of the same.

And Alex does all the cooking and cleaning in their house, because his mum has been having a lot of “quiet days” lately.

But he’s not exactly lonely. He has his dog, Carl Sagan, named after his hero; he has all his friends on Rocketforum.com; and he has Ancestry.com searching for any information about his long-deceased dad, because mum doesn’t talk much these days, and Ronnie is always too busy to talk.

Ancestry also sends me an e-mail whenever they find out something new about my family – it’s like having my own CSI, which is an acronym for Crime Scene Investigator. Except instead of solving crimes it’s solving stuff about my dad, it’s my DSI – Dad Scene Investigator.

With the upcoming SHARF (Southwest High-Altitude Rocket Festival) weekend, and a new notification from Ancestry telling him that someone with the same name and birthday as his dad lives in Las Vegas, Alex and Carl Sagan set off on an adventure that will give Alex the answers to questions he didn’t even know he had, present him with further questions, and show him just how complex this world can be.

 

This was a delight to read, there were a few laugh-out-loud moments, and anyone who has looked up at the stars and wondered if one of those blinking lights out there might host intelligent life is bound to understand Alex’s passion and mission.

The biggest disconnect for this reader was that Alex seemed a lot younger than 11. He made the argument that he was actually a lot older in “responsibility years”, and to be fair, he’s not wrong.

I told him I’m more responsible than a lot of thirteen-year-olds I know. I said I’m more responsible than even a lot of fourteen-year-olds. But he said it doesn’t matter, the only thing that matters is your real age, and I said that’s really stupid because kids are different. They should give everyone a test to see how responsible they are and then give them a responsibility age. I know I’d be at least thirteen then because I can already cook and take care of a dog.

But if you were to test Alex on what he knows about the world, colloquialisms, and various other things one would likely be well-versed on these days, I’d be surprised if he scored higher than about eight or nine years old.

Terra laughed really hard for like two minutes! And then she said, For someone so smart, you sure are clueless about a lot of things, and I said, Of course I’m clueless about a lot of things, I spend all my time learning about rockets and astronomy and my hero and if I spent my time learning about other stuff I’d be smarter about other stuff too, DUH!

It’s true, part of his lack of social skills might come from the fact that he spends so much of his time researching rockets and the universe, and one does have to wonder if he is perhaps on the spectrum, which would also explain why he doesn’t understand certain social cues. Alex’s seemingly much younger emotional intelligence doesn’t get in the way of the enjoyment of the story, for the most part. But there are instances in which this breaks the flow a little.

I showed Terra the business card Ken gave me at SHARF and she said we should call him, maybe he’ll let us crash, and I said, But if we crash then how are we going to get to Rockview without fixing the car? Terra laughed and said it’s not that kind of crashing, it’s the other kind, like when you’re at a friend’s house and it’s late and you’re too tired to drive home so you spend the night. I said, Oh, you mean like a sleepover, and Terra said that’s exactly it, we’ll call Ken and ask him if we can have a sleepover in his yard.

There were two astronomers, Henry and Nick, and they were the bestest of friends.

But in the end this was an engaging, sweet read, with depth, heart, and serious hurdles for the characters to overcome, told in the form of transcripts of recordings on Alex’s iPod.

With the recent announcement of the discovery of seven Earth-sized planets orbiting ultra-cool dwarf star TRAPPIST-1, this book feels particularly poignant at the moment.

BOOK REVIEW: See You in the Cosmos by Jack Cheng

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