Martian Child, The by Gerrold, David, 2002

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Someone asked me recently why I only review SF books on my website when there are so many other better kinds of books out there to read. I will not bore you much with the details of how I corrected that person's outlook, but it got me to wondering if there was any non-SF books that I wanted to put up here. The short answer is "not many." But I did go out and pick up one that I have been meaning to read for a year or so, David Gerrold's The Martian Child. This review is of the novel, which was expanded from a Hugo, Locus, HOMer and Nebula Award winning novelette. John Cusack, one of my favorite actors, made a movie out of this thing recently and although I have not seen it, I will soon. It is about the birth of a new family, made up of a horribly troubled young boy named Dennis, his gay, middle aged adoptive father, David Gerrold himself, and their dog, named Somewhere. Obviously this piece is somewhat autobiographical. I think it is also one of the greatest examples out there of the most important theme in SF, transformation.

There is one thing you may want to know before going into this book, which may help you understand exactly where Gerrold is coming from. Though he only mentioned it once in the text, this book is redolent with the worldview that one finds in EST. Est. was one of the original self-help seminars that started in the U.S. in the sixties, and has grown into something called The Landmark Forum. One of the principle tenets of Landmark Education (yes, I have done the course myself, yes, it is pretty cultish, and no, its not why I picked this book up) is that the individual knows so little about what is really going on around them, that it is best to just stop trying to assign meaning to anything that anybody else does. In other words, they teach you that despite the vast benefit of your prior experience and your innate abilities to read people, you really know nothing about what other people are really thinking, so stop pretending that you do. As a strategy for happiness the Forum teaches that you have to take the things that people say at face value, believe that they are being honest with you (to a point), and forgive the wrongs that others have done to you. Going through the seminar is a pretty powerful experience, and it is very hard to live in accord with The Forum's teachings unless you keep involved with it. To the outsider it may resemble something like AA or NA. The Forum has a reputation as a brainwasher of people, and I honestly cannot say that is untrue. But as I read this book, I was reminded of some of the things from Landmark. A prime component of the Forum is that everyone out there has some "story" that they are telling themselves about life. These stories are part of our individual survival mechanism. When we meet people we go through all kinds of mental convolutions to fit people that we meet into that worldview, and we tell them our stories to inform them where we are coming from. As a result, we often get things wrong about them. To "fix" that, Landmark teaches you to stop telling yourself your story, and listen only to what people tell you. The central message from Landmark is that you have to stop paying attention to your own instincts when evaluating people. That's kind of hard to do; trust me on this. In this book Gerrold really sounds like someone who is trying to do that. The "breakthrough" that he had at the end of the book is straight out of the seminar as well.

In the beginning David was definitely listening to his own story. He had been approved for adoption by the County of Los Angeles for years, but had not yet found a child that he could live with, or who the County would approve for him. One day while at an adoption exhibition, he stumbled across the photograph of an eight year old boy named Dennis. The boy, to put it mildly, was a basket case.

Toward the end of the meeting, the caseworker remarked, "Oh - and one more thing. Dennis thinks he's a Martian."

"I beg your pardon?" I wasn't certain I had heard her correctly. I had papers scattered all over the meeting room table - thick piles of stapled incident reports, manila-foldered psychiatric evaluations, Xeroxed clinical diagnoses, scribbled caseworker histories, typed abuse reports, bound trial transcripts, and my own crabbed notes as well: Hyperactivity. Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Emotional abuse. Physical Abuse. Connors Rating Scale. Apgars. I had no idea there was so much to know about children. For a moment, I was actually looking for a folder labeled Martian.

Thus began David Gerrold's relationship with his son, Dennis, now Sean. It started with meetings and evaluations, but for the both of them, it was love at first sight. Both were damaged, to put it mildly. Dennis has been abandoned by his junkie mother in a hotel room when he was one-and-a-half. Put into the system afterward, he was molested and beaten, and had because of that and everything else he was deemed to be virtually unadoptable. David was alone and middle aged, and apparently had a loudly ticking biological clock. From his own life David could identify easily with the violence and fear that seemed to control the boy. Fortunately both had an incredible capacity for love and understanding. The two made a pretty good pair. They took to each other like peas and carrots, and David decided wisely to let the boy tell his own story only when and as he wished, and left him alone save to shower him with love, affection and companionship. When Dennis finally began to talk he told David in no uncertain terms: He was Martian. He was a Martian tadpole that had been implanted in an Earth mother. Dennis' belief in the truth of all of this was so deep that eventually David began to believe it too.

See, this is the thing about writing - about being a writer. You have to believe in it first. Because if you don't believe in it, nobody else will. So you learn to do the Red Queen's trick and you practice believing six impossible things before breakfast.

So, you might be asking yourself; why isn't this boy as crazy as the L.A. caseworkers who handled him before David came along thought he was?

Being Martian is a metaphor here. Itís a metaphor for all the dehumanization that Dennis and David both had to endure before they made this wonderful little family. It was a way of actually legitimizing those feelings of difference. David's plan was to show Dennis that he (Dennis) could love someone, and then taught him how to express that love. David did it by using his own intuition, and everything that Landmark Education and his Jewish mother ever taught him, by throwing away every little thing he told himself about the boy's past, and actually talking to him about what he was going through.

His extreme idealism of family life was all too apparent. Gerrold approached the relationship with his new son exactly the way he imagined it in his head. And for the first year or so that was probably what the boy needed: Ward Cleaver at home, giving him sage advice about life and teaching him how to have a sense of humor and get along with someone. He taught the boy how to live happily and closely with someone else. But his success strategy turned on him after a while. Dennis had been moved every two years, apparently like clockwork, from one Foster family to the next, and as the two year mark approached for David and Dennis, the boy began to act out. David thought it was because of some recent calamity; an earthquake and the death of the dog, Somewhere. But that was not it at all. The odd little boy who never fit in anywhere was reaching the "appointed time," and saw no reason to care any longer. And the most beautiful part of this book was when David figured that out, and gave Dennis a chance to do what he had been teaching him all along to do: Express it, and become an Earth boy. This is one of the most touching SF stories you will ever read, mostly because it was informed by a true story, and rings very true-to-life itself. Go out of your way to get a copy of this one.

Copyright © 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4 star(s)


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