The right book, in the right place, at the right time, can change a life. At those times its not really about the book, it's the confluence of book and the person, and everything that person brings with them.
For me, Frank Herbert's Dune
is one of those books. I first read it as a story about a talented thirteen year-old boy, isolated from his peers, surrounded by solemn adults, forced to grow up before his time. Since I was also a thirteen year-old boy who was experiencing all of those things, it resonated. Seeing that boy grow up to be emperor of the galaxy gave me hope. It wasn't until years later that I realized that it's not about the stuff I connected with. It's about ecology, psychotropic drugs, and religious saviors, not making a teenage boy feel okay about himself. In fact, it's a tragedy in a way that I was blind to when I was a teenager.
But it doesn't matter, because I still read it and its sibling books at least once a year. (Even the later books which feel like an old man working out his sex fantasies, much like Heinlein's late work.) It takes me back to that place where I found hope, even if I was wrong.
Fortunately, around that time, I also found science fiction with humor. I've literally worn out multiple copies of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
—both the book and cassette tapes of the original radio play. Kurt Vonnegut's gentle, melancholy, wit awakened an appreciation for literary SF, and Harry Harrison's Stainless Steel Rat
stories still make me smile, though I don't read them often. They're a bit dated, though it's through his stories that I fell in love with the idea of an unwilling and audacious hero. Much later I discovered Harrison wrote Make Room! Make Room!
, the book that became the film Soylent Green. When I finally read it, I found it was a nuanced exploration of overpopulation—unlike the film, absent its famous (but cheap) shock ending (and skipping the cannibalism altogether). Going back and reading the Stainless Steel Rat stories, I could see satire and meaning hidden under the jokes. And, as I started my own writing, I discovered how hard it is to write stories that are both fun and stick with you.
So I was very happy to stumble across Curtis Chen's Waypoint Kangaroo
. It's the kind of book that gets on my list of books to reread. It's just the right combination of flippant fun doing its best to hide something more substantial. It's very much from the Stainless Steel Rat mold, featuring an unwilling hero who doesn't have the respect of his peers or superiors, and is no where near as good as talking his way out of trouble as he thinks. But the titular Kangaroo does have a unique talent: He has a pocket. He's the only known person who can store things in another universe by thinking in the right way. This bag of holding
is something of a worn trope, but Chen takes the old cliché that's usually used for convenience and makes it cause as much trouble as it solves. A pocket that can securely hold anything (or everything) is enough to qualify Kangaroo as an interplanetary spy, even if nothing else about him would. When his latest mission goes sideways, the Kangaroo gets sent on a mandatory vacation to Mars. If only he was as good at being a tourist as he was at finding trouble.
It might not change your world, but Waypoint Kangaroo
has more than cheap laughs, and it found me at exactly the right time, when I needed some well executed humor. A sequel
is due out at the end of the month, and I'm very much looking forward to it.