BOOK REVIEW: Calling Major Tom by David M. Barnett
Reviewed by Steph O’Connell
Fiction / Humour
Thomas Major has given up on the world and is checking out. He’ll be the first man to walk on Mars, responsible for beginning the grunt work that will lead to a habitable settlement for future travellers. He might never see another human again.
‘You’re going to Mars to dig ditches? And you’re not coming back?’
‘I might survive until the first commercial missions arrive. Might. Depends on how well I set everything up and whether I can cultivate crops in the habitation modules. Sounds dreadful, doesn’t it? A suicide mission. But it’s what I’ve trained all my life for.’
‘Dreadful?’ says Thomas. ‘Going to Mars for ever? Away from everything on planet Earth?’
Bradley nods ruefully. Thomas shakes his head. ‘It sounds bloody wonderful.’
Fifteen-year-old Ellie Ormerod is trying to keep her family together, and working three jobs on top of school. What with her mum gone, her dad in prison, and her nan losing her mind, it’s best if they keep their situation as quiet as possible, lest they be separated.
All happy families are alike, but all bug-fuck stupid dysfunctional families are bug-fuck stupid dysfunctional in their own way, thinks Ellie as she sits on the benches outside the bank, sheltering from the desultory, spotting rain beneath some spindly trees, on the lookout for happy families. She imagines she’s a sniper, like the ones in Stalingrad.
Gladys Ormerod, who’s going to be 71 next birthday, isn’t stupid. She knows what is happening to her. But sometimes she forgets and slips up and brings their secret closer to the surface.
On her laptop Gladys frequently googles her condition and reads all about proteins and things called plaques and tangles. Tangles make it sound not too bad, like the lugs she used to have ferociously brushed out of her hair by her mam when she was a little girl. It’s a good way to describe what goes on in her brain, everything getting tangled up. She imagines a normal brain runs in straight lines from the moment a person is born until they die, with the earliest memories receding into the distance like train tracks. With people like Gladys, the lines are all knotted and weaving in on themselves. An incident from forty years ago can shine as bright as a new penny, while something that happened this morning is murky and faraway. Gladys Ormerod’s mental faculties lived here, 1946-2015.
James Ormerod is clever and loves science, and he has been invited to enter the National Schools Young Science Competition, but that doesn’t mean the bullies will stop harassing him; the poor kid attending their prestigious school.
James says, ‘Why do you only pick on me? Why do you leave everybody else alone?’
Oscar sneers at him. ‘Because everybody else would tell the teachers. You won’t because my dad says you’re looked after by your gran and she’s round the twist, and if anybody found out they’d come and put you and your sister in a children’s home.’ He smiles, not a pleasant sight. ‘Maybe I’ll tell the social services myself. Might be doing my duty and all.’
Through an unlikely series of events, and thanks to a wrong number, Thomas and Gladys begin speaking on the phone, and before he knows it he’s pulled into their lives, despite the fact that he’s moving further and further from them with each second that passes.
Thomas quickly learned that going to Mars isn’t just a case of pointing a rocket at the planet and letting it go. By the time the rocket gets there Mars will have gone. So you point the rocket at the place Mars will be in – according to the Ares-1 flight plan – two-hundred and eighteen days. So the ship is heading out into the void, towards nothingness. Thomas doesn’t really know how he feels about this.
And it might just be that, in leaving the planet, Major Tom is about to discover a connection stronger than any he felt while within reach of the people of Earth.
She looks back to Craig. ‘What do you think’s going on?’
Craig shrugs. ‘I think he’s trying to make amends in some way. To achieve closure.’
‘To who? For what?’
‘Have you read his file?’ Claudia nods. He goes on, ‘His brother. His mother. His father. The girl who went to university. His wife. Especially his wife. And the baby.’
They both look at each other for a moment then simultaneously their brows crinkle and they bite their lips and they both say, ‘Awwwww,’ as though they have just discovered that Thomas Major is, in fact, made of kittens.
This book is science-lite, and it is important to make sure your suspension of disbelief is properly functional before embarking on this journey. But if you can manage that, you’re in for an incredibly fun and engrossing ride.
Thomas is a chemist working for BriSPA (the British Space Agency) who ends up being sent into space purely because he was the only one present when the guy who had actually been selected died of a heart attack right before the press conference announcing him. Thomas liked the sound of going into space and getting away from the entire human race, so he put on the dead man’s orange space-suit and went out to greet the press.
Through the fact that Bowie had died that day and this man’s name is Thomas Major, he becomes an immediate sensation.
Then Claudia minimises the clip and brings up a series of front pages of the day’s newspapers. Most of them are variations on a rather obvious theme.
The Mirror: CALLING MAJOR TOM
The Sun: GROUND CONTROL TO MAJOR TOM
The Guardian: BRITISH EXPEDITION TO MARS PAYS TRIBUTE TO LEGEND BOWIE
The Telegraph: THERE’S A STARMAN WAITING IN THE SKY – AND HE’S BRITISH
And because of this global media and internet status, they decide to send him to Mars despite the mistake that landed him in the spotlight… because you couldn’t buy this level of publicity.
Then there’s the fact that he has many phone conversations with the Ormerods via an Iridium phone that uses the satellites around Earth to make the connection. A connection they anticipate will work for a couple of weeks, tops.
There are various other issues, like when Thomas is being broadcast on TV, and it is mentioned that he cannot hear the people watching the TV, but he seems to be pausing and responding in all the right places as though he’s having a conversation. And then there’s that thing revealed later on in the book which again asks the reader to suspend their disbelief, as one of the rather major parts of the plot is pretty much negated.
But you know what? Despite all of these nonsensical elements, despite how light and easy and convenient many things were within this story, I kind’ve rather loved it!
It’s sweet, cute, heartwarming, and just this side of way-too-quirky. It’s about relationships, people who are hurting in one way or another, coming together to help each other.
‘We have no idea where he is. He might not have even left Wigan. Maybe we should just go to the police.’
‘No,’ says Gladys resolutely. ‘We’re going to sort this out the Ormerod way.’
Ellie glances at her. ‘You mean go off half-cocked with absolutely no plan and no idea what’s going to happen and no actual thought for how serious it all might turn out?’
‘Yes,’ says Gladys. ‘Exactly that.’
Though it does deal with some pretty serious topics – and the reader knows that no matter how the story resolves, Thomas is on a one-way trip to Mars and will spend a decade or two alone, if not the rest of his life – this is an uplifting story that is bound to leave you with a smile on your face.
It is bound to make you laugh, and might just make you cry. You’ll also likely need to listen to a whole lot of Bowie once you’re done since, given all the mentions within the text, his songs are bound to be playing on repeat in your mind.
Calling Major Tom is definitely one for the Best Of list of 2017.
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