She called herself Reee and she was the last human being on Earth. This was the one thing she was sure of. Because Earth was not a dead planet, not by a long way. There were all manner of strange plants and bizarre animals, and there were the blue boys who always insisted they were human—but she always set fire to them.
There was however Indigo, the all-devouring protoplasmic ocean that was literally gobbling up everything in the world. And there was the enigmatic Emeroo to whom she owed her continued existence. There were also the so-called Martians—humans who had fled to Mars and only came back to Earth to scout for survivors and vent their futile furies on the inhospitable homeworld.
And that is as much as we are going to tell about EARTHCHILD, one of the strangest and most fascinating science fiction novels DAW Books (or anyone else) ever published. It’s by Doris Piserchia, author of A BILLION YEARS OF EARTH and STAR RIDER, and it’s a very original DAW Original.
Folks, I just…I just don’t even know. What did I just read? What is this? What is going on? I am missing something? Like, maybe, half of the book? Did pages fall out? Did all the pages that fell out have the plot on them? Is that what happened?
I am tired. Physically and mentally exhausted from having read this book. I am confused, and tired, and annoyed. I really want to know why this book was published. It seriously didn’t make a lick of sense to me. Not as a narrative, not as a literary experiment, not as art, not as a stream-of-consciousness rendering, not as an attempt to blend Phil Dick with James Joyce.
I think this book was a 200 page version of colorless green ideas sleep furiously.
Normally at this point I’d start a plot rundown but since there wasn’t one, I’ll just describe pieces of the book and we’ll see if maybe some of them don’t start to make sense.
First off, there’s Reee. She’s the last person on Earth since her mother was taken away to Mars. She’s fourteen and completely useless as a narrator or a character. Honestly, that’s fine, though. If your main character is going to be fourteen, I have every expectation that he or she will be useless in pretty much every way. That’s a touch of realism that I didn’t expect from this book.
Reee survives on Earth with the help of Emeroo, who is some kind of green blob that can sometimes take shape into a green woman. Nothing about Emeroo makes any sense. She’s just there and she is able to psychically communicate with Reee (and vice versa) and for a long time she sheltered Reee inside herself, something that happens a few more times in the book. She’s apparently ancient and wise, but nothing she ever does actually proves this point.
Emeroo also has a tendency to create versions of herself to interact with Reee, such as a dude named Moss who is some kind of scientist-type guy for no real reason. He just knows science. He and Reee don’t get along very well at first but near the middle of the book he “dies” and Reee is very sorry about everything. She’s sorry a lot.
Whether these versions of Emeroo are in fact distinct from her in some way is never explained, but Reee goes back and forth between treating them as separate entities and as versions of her green friend.
One of the most truly annoying things about this book is the way Reee and Emeroo deal with each other. Emeroo will occasionally try to “teach” Reee a “lesson” but all it really involves is encasing her in green stuff for 500 years or allowing her to get kidnapped and sent to Mars whereupon Emeroo sets about trying to kill all the Martians when they treat Reee badly. In the meantime, Reee will say something typically fourteen like “I hate you! I never want to see you again! Go away! I am mature and sensible and adult!” Whereupon Emeroo will leave for a bit, usually the course of a page or so, and Reee will get in some kind of trouble and call for help and apologize and say she was wrong.
This seriously happened about fifteen times.
So at this point I’m starting to wonder if this book is some kind of weird sci-fi commentary on the pains of being a teenager. This theory is sort of winning.
I mentioned that Reee gets kidnapped and sent to Mars. The Martians there, who as I said fled from Earth at some undefined point in the past, are completely stupid. They reminded me strongly of the Golgafrinchans from The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, except not funny in any way. They’ve got a bunch of the technology left over from when they originally fled to Mars, but they don’t know how to use it. Their society has stagnated.
Reee gets loose among them and is immediately just treated like crap. It was as infuriating for me as it was for her, because like most of the rest of the book none of it made any sense.
Everything Reee says to anyone on Mars is met with immediate dismissal, and more often than not the conversations did not flow in any conventional way. I’ll make up an illustrative example:
“Why is the sky blue?” asked Steve.
“Roads are longer than they are wide,” replied Gerald.
“But apples are red!” said Steve.
“You liar. Why do you lie all the time?” responded Gerald.
This illustrative example contains many of the things that bothered me most about the entirety of this book. Conversations that don’t flow at all are just one thing. Another is the fact that whenever Reee said anything, anything, to the Martians they would immediately respond with something like “Liar!”
Still sticking with the allegory for puberty here. It’s the best I’ve got.
Emeroo shows up on the planet and starts making things bad, so the Martians have to go back to Earth, where the whole cycle continues.
And then there’s Indigo. Indigo is the tremendous blue blob that is consuming the Earth. At the beginning of the book, most of Reee’s concerns involved Indigo spawning some kind of blue boys somewhere on the planet, which Emeroo would send her to destroy. No reason for any of this was given. I am assuming it is an allegory for chores. The boys would show up and try to talk to Reee, saying things about how they are in fact human despite being blue. Reee would usually dispatch them ruthlessly. They began getting cleverer and cleverer, even started to look more human, before the entire book just shifted completely.
At first Indigo is just sort of a big part of the planet, you see. Then Emeroo puts Reee to sleep for five hundred years, and when Reee wakes up, Indigo has taken over pretty much the entire surface of the Earth except for a few islands and a band around the equator. Indigo is apparently sentient, but described by Reee as “petulant” and “greedy” and “immature.” Apparently she exists solely to consume the world. Little information is given about where she came from, but a hint is dropped as Reee peruses a Martian library. She discovers that at some remote point in human history (strongly hinted to be around our own time), the Earth got so filled up with trash that humanity was living on top of it when somebody got the bright idea to make some kind of thing that would eat it and it got out of control. So I guess that’s one thing that’s explained.
On the flip of that tiny amount of sense-making is that later in the book, Emeroo states that she and Indigo are “sisters.” So that’s absolutely no help.
So if Reee is a weird sci-fi stand-in for all teenagers, that makes Emeroo an allegory for parents/guardians, and Indigo is…um…fat aunts?
Oh wait no I got it. Who writes about aunts a lot? P.G. Wodehouse, obviously. Indigo is the science fiction typification of a teenager’s first forays into Jeeves and Wooster books.
It all makes sense now.
The end of the book features Reee once again being catapulted through time, finding Indigo in humanoid form, and living among some crazy Martian-humans who have movable islands and use them to fight wars. Reee flees this, argues with Emeroo again, gets catapulted into the future yet again to a world where Indigo has receded for some reason, whereupon she finds one of the Martian ships and sets out into the Solar System. She goes to Mars, finds it just as uninhabitable as it was, and then figures she might as well set out for Jupiter. Jupiter, for some reason, is actually solid and a desert planet. The people there worship her as a goddess for a bit and then throw her in a pyramid, whereupon she passes out and wakes up on a beach with people who are more like her than the Martians. And then the book ends.
I guess that means she grew up?
I don’t know. I just don’t.
I had so much trouble with this book that I wonder if maybe the problem lies with me. Am I missing something really obvious? Should it have all come together at some point in a way that made it a powerful statement about environmentalism or herd mentality or something? I kind of hope that that’s the case and that someone will explain it to me, because I just can’t seem to get it out of my head.
I’ve read a fair number of stream-of-consciousness-type books in my day. The Illuminatus! Trilogy is one of my favorite reads. I was able to piece that one together despite weird shifts in character and tone and logic. I didn’t finish Finnegan’s Wake or Ulysses but I know that people all over the world love them, so surely somebody’s able to piece together what they’re talking about. So what is up with Earthchild?
I could cop out and say it’s just bad, but I don’t think that really covers it. I can’t tell you why it’s so bad. It’s not just that the main character is unbearable, I feel like that was intentional. It’s not that all the other characters were incomprehensible, that seemed intentional too. The lack of structure and plot seemed intentional. Everything about this book seemed crafted to be that way. I just don’t see why.
This book is fixed solidly in the New Wave of science fiction, I can tell that. I can see the same kind of influences in this book that I might find in more well-known writers like Harlan Ellison or Ursula Le Guin. The book is barely even “science” fiction, it just takes place in the future and has some rocket ships. But unlike any of her contemporaries (that I’ve read), Piserchia doesn’t seem interested in having a story that’s driven by anything, be it characters or situations or a moral. It’s just kind of there.
Something in me wants to draw comparisons to this book and real life. Much like real life, the things in this book were random and frequently inexplicable. Cause and effect were existent but in the far background. The things that people hardly made a lick of sense and didn’t seem to have any kind of rhyme or reason to them. In a way, I can get that.
The problem is, I personally don’t want to read a story that follows the rules of the real world. I read books to escape the real world, to retreat to something with internal logic and reasons for things happening, something with a flow that is, if not satisfying, is at least somewhat logical. In essence, I want something about the real world revealed to me in a way that is different from the real world. Isn’t that, in a way, the nature of art?
Earthchild struck me as a book with pretensions of being art that failed because it couldn’t tell me anything about anything else. It just existed for the sake of itself, like a cat or a mountain. That’s all well and good, I guess, but it’s not why I read.