09 December 2013

A fresh look at old tropes

Books | Matt Stephens | The Jake Colbert Testimony

This is a book that is full of old SF tropes, both from books and movies. As page one tells you, “I have told this story twice, and one of the skeptics has made the point of saying that there are several clich├ęs in the narrative. If you think that too, then just remember, these things are apparently commonplace in these testimonials for a reason.”

So, while it's as tropey as a summer movie for teens, it's fun to read, and fresh. The book is written as a report, pulling heavily on Jake's journal written during the actual events. This helps maintain a lot of suspense, as the 'live' reports get a lot of editorial help from hindsight.

Jake Colbert, teen protagonist, is getting a new girlfriend in his life, the school president Jess Connolly, someone he adores from what he thinks is a distance. She has a possessive boyfriend already, Pierce Tanner, son of the sheriff, making this opening situation a typical teen life problem. There is also the black best friend, a self-proclaimed coward, who wrily remarks in the opening chapter, when told to investigate noises in the cornfield: "I've seen this movie a thousand times." Zack said with certainty. "It starts with a kid looking through a telescope, then a bunch of high school kids start talking about scary monsters in the cornfield, and then the black dude wanders off and gets eaten by something." Zack's girlfriend, Marie, used to be Jake's girlfriend, and is very worried for his love-life. As you can see, author Matthew Stephens dives right into it, and you have the eerie noises in an overgrown cornfield right there in chapter one.

Aliens appear not too far into the story. The adults seem to be either oblivious, controlled, or complicit. In many ways, it's a typical teen movie plot: the only ones who know the truth are teens, and the truth is so full of tropes, that it is dismissed. Stephens carries this off quite well. At the same time, these are teens, after all, so worries about school, the upcoming festival, the issues with the new girlfriend, the relationship of Pierce with his father, the worry Jake has for his kid brother, all these combine to reinforce the dissonance of the aliens juxtaposed against normality (ok, normality for American teens). As the 'normal' bits play out, the aliens get bolder, and the teens are left fighting with fewer and fewer resources.

The best parts about the book are the growth of the characters, and the slow exposure of their true natures, full of heroism and cowardice, betrayal and redemption. Like any teen book, the adults are NPCs (non-playing characters) in the main, more like extras who populate the scene, essential for economic stability, but usually not fundamental to the teens' decisions. This is as a teen story should be. If I was a teen, I wouldn't have it any other way. Even as someone with teenaged kids, it's still as I want the story to be.

The pace keeps picking up, as fast as the reader can keep up. There are climactic scenes of battling the aliens, full of sound, explosions, zombiefied crowds milling around and creating further obstacles for our heroes.

And the end is surprising and satisfying and not at all tropey.

Go ahead. Read and enjoy!

Full disclosure: I got an advance copy (before all the typos were all fixed) in return for an honest review. So here you have it.