I’ll admit it. I am very excited. The first total solar eclipse to span the United States in over 100 years, and we are close enough to the path to get a very good show. We’ve been getting lots of questions about the eclipse, about eclipse glasses, and about the best places to view the eclipse, so I know eclipse-mania (eclipsanity?) is not restricted to my nerdy circle of friends. And I am delighted to have a chance to further build the hype among our young patrons – I’ll be presenting a special eclipse themed storytime this Thursday.
I’ve been obsessed with space for as long as I can remember. I grew up on a steady diet of Star Trek and Star Wars books, before graduating to more “sophisticated” fare like Starship Troopers, The Forever War and, of course, Ender’s Game. With the coming eclipse, I’ve been thinking about these books and even revisiting a few of my favorites. And yet what I keep coming back to is the best book about an alien invasion that I’ve ever read, even though there aren’t any actual aliens in the book.
Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle is the history of an apocalyptic pandemic as recorded by Austin Szerba, a wry, self-aware teenager dealing with fairly typical high school problems: school, family, local jerks, and his complicated relationship with his girlfriend, Shann. He’s also facing some issues that are a little messier – his brother is off fighting in Afghanistan and he is not sure exactly how to define his feelings for Robbie, his gay best friend.
Of course none of this is too far outside the realm of many other great coming of age stories. That’s because I haven’t yet talked about the plague that Austin and Robbie have accidentally unleashed. This is not the kind of virus that “simply” kills it’s host. Instead it causes them to molt their human shell, turning into giant praying mantis-like super-soldiers who are only interested in two things: eating and ….well, you can probably guess the other thing. As this beastly infection spreads at an alarming speed, either infecting or devouring anyone in its path, Austin, Robbie and Shann embark on a hilarious, perilous, and awkward journey towards both self-discovery and an understanding of the history and consequences of the merciless killer they’ve unleashed.
Smith is an incredible writer with a precise and masterful feel for the uncertainty and self-consciousness of teenage life. He also understands the tedious boredom of the daily adolescent routine and the bursts of frenzied excitement that punctuate these years. As with all his books, the quirky strangeness of his writing captivates from page one but it has extra vitality when delivered in the voice of Austin Szerba. Austin is obsessed with creating historical records even though he understands the futility of doing so, as he explains in the book’s opening:
I read somewhere that human beings are genetically predisposed to record history.
We believe it will prevent us from doing stupid things in the future.
But even though we dutifully archived elaborate records of everything we’ve ever done, we also managed to keep on doing dumber and dumber shit.
This is my history.
There are things in here: babies with two heads, insects as big as refrigerators, God, the devil, limbless warriors, rocket ships, sex, diving bells, theft, wars, monsters, internal combustion engines, love, cigarettes, joy, bomb shelters, pizza, and cruelty.
Just like it’s always been.
In a sense, the entire book is a narrative journey through Austin’s meticulous records. Despite the many engaging storylines what truly shines is Austin’s frustrated devotion to his town and its many residents, warts and all. His obsession with unwinding their histories may be laced with acerbic wit, but he is telling these stories because he cares desperately.
Maybe my ranting and raving praise doesn’t make you curious to read this book. Maybe you’re still wondering why I am talking about a book published in 2014. Maybe, just maybe, I can sweeten the pot. Edgar Wright, geek director extraordinaire, is in the process of developing the film adaptation of Grasshopper Jungle, which I am waiting for with far less patience than I am for this damn eclipse. And if that’s not enough, come on people! Giant, horny, man-eating praying mantises!