Terra by Mitch Benn
Previously published in Dawn’s Books & Authors.
Mitch Benn is better known as a musician and a comedian, often combining the two in his performances of comedy rock songs. One ordinary day on Twitter, he was invited by a publisher to meet up and pitch a science fiction novel. He did. And then he wrote one, combining his love for comedy and for science fiction in his first novel, Terra which has been lauded by none other than Neil Gaiman himself, who compares it to the work of writers Roald Dahl, Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett - all of whom set the bar so, so high that no one can ever compare. This may have helped sell copies of Terra, but also causes it to be just that little bit disappointing.
In Terra, a bioscientist finds himself in a strange position when he accidentally frightens the parents of a baby on a road in the middle of the night. The panicked parents make a run for it, completely forgetting the tiny baby strapped to the car seat in the back. The bioscientist has no idea if the parents will ever return, and afraid to leave a helpless baby in the middle of nowhere, he takes the child home with him. This is not found acceptable by his friends and colleagues, but their opinions must be set aside when the all-knowing Extrapolator chooses to make a decision about the child.
The Extrapolator is the biggest and most powerful computer in the galaxy…‘had there been a more power computer elsewhere in the galaxy, the Extrapolator would have known about it’. So when this AI intervenes and decides that the baby must remain with, and be raised by the bioscientist as any other local child would be, the council has no choice but to accept the order of the Extrapolator, because ‘so total was its command of all known facts that it was capable of extrapolating…all possible outcomes, predicting the future with almost total accuracy.’ What the baby’s role will be in the future is something no one knows, but it is clear the Extrapolator thinks she will be important. The scientist, his friends and colleagues accept that try as they might, the child will never be one of them - she is, after all, the only human on their planet.
Terra grows up the way any child on Fnrr would, cared for and loved by her guardian, the scientist who rescued her, Lbbp. She knows she is different, but she is happy and content, never having known any other way of life. But when it is time for her to start school, her differences begin to effect her ability to learn the way the other young people on Fnrr do, and suddenly, having vowels in her name isn’t the only thing different about her. Terra is limited by her sheer humanity, held back from learning as fast as the more technologically advanced Fnrr can. Does that mean she isn’t as evolved as them? Of course not - she has what they don’t: her humanity.
The inhabitants of Fnrr have detailed knowledge of the ‘Ymns of Rrth’: they have been silently observing humanity for years and have not yet thought them ready to meet with the rest of the galaxy, given humanity’s penchant for destruction. The people of Fnrr, however, are very much aware of other intelligences existing in the galaxy, and are both waiting to receive further knowledge from beings of higher intellectual abilities (which comes in the form of a recipe for soup - very good soup, but soup nonetheless), and are also in danger from an invasion from a less peaceful people. It is of course Terra who will be the one to save them - her importance has been clearly marked right from the very beginning.
While Benn’s language is simple, it can be a little annoying to read so many names without vowels. Interesting, in fact, to find that your mind really does ‘say’ things as you read them, trying to fill in gaps where it presumes them to be. Not being able fill these gaps easily can make you uncomfortable, but it is all the better to make you realise how little it can take to create a feeling of alienation, of difference, of ‘otherness’. Benn cleverly, humorously plays with themes of tolerance, diplomacy, belonging, ecology and what it means to love and be human, in a plot that gallops along, often jumping over any tedious detail that may bog it down, while making sure it’s ‘message’ is clear. This isn’t a negative aspect of the book, necessarily - Terra doesn’t belittle its audience by presuming they need every detail of the worldbuilding painstakingly explained to them.
Yes, it’s about an alien abduction. But Mulder & Scully aren’t needed here. Yes, it’s about an alien invasion, but not an invasion of Earth so you won’t be needing Will Smith. Instead, Terra is about how you can feel at home in an entirely alien world if you are loved, how even aliens can seem human once you realise that they too can feel just as threatened as you did. It’s a sweet, funny little book that is about finding your place in the world, knowing that you can fit with more than just one sort of family and accepting that perhaps you will always be different, just as much as it is about aliens and spaceships and adventure. It isn’t, sadly, comparable to the books of Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett or Roald Dahl, but then what is?