Book review: How to Live on Other Planets

I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned this at least a dozen times, but I’m have a friend who owns an indie publishing company, Upper Rubber Boots. She publishes both poetry and short stories, the latter being one of my all time favourite genres. She also puts together some great anthologies of both short stories and poetry combined: Apocalypse Now (about the end of times), 140 And Counting (very short stories and poems from a Twitterzine),  Soles Series of Stories (technically a collection and not an anthology, but they were really great so I’m plugging them anyway), How to Live on Other Planets (immigrant/emigrant sci-fi), and Choose Wisely (good/bad women – actually, I’m not sure how to define it as I haven’t read it yet).

This is about How to Live on Other Planets. It’s a collection of poems and short stories relating to being an immigrant or emigrant, but with an extraterrestrial angle. I love the mix. It includes everything: racism/speciesism, cultural differences, the lack of rights/protection immigrants can face, fear of what the new life/home will be like, adjusting to foreign landscapes, etc. It’s a really solid collection with some really good stories that left me wanting more.

There were two stories in particular that stood out for me:

  • Little Ambushes, by Joanne Merriam (my friend, who is lovely and awesome)
  • Primes, by Lewis Primer

I’ve read Little Ambushes before (all of the pieces included in her anthologies are reprints) and I love it as much now as I did when I first read it. It’s a story about a woman taking part in an alien exchange program. Both are artists and the alien has come to her to learn about Earth art. Joanne does a great job of subtly shifting the relationship from the initial discomfort with the unknown to the realization that this alien has become a friend. But, she also remembers that the story is about two species coming together. In one of my favourite parts, the alien is frightened by her laugh. It makes sense, if you think about it. Some people’s laughs can be quite startling, even to people who recognize laughter as being a joyful reaction.

But, as someone who grew up loving and doing a lot of art, I was also very interested in the art aspect. The alien comes from a world where art is picture perfect and she teaches him to “see” differently so that he can develop his own style. I remember I used to always bee really envious of people who could draw or paint something perfectly. It’s an incredible talent that takes a lot of practice, but is also something that some people just have a knack for. In my art education, I was first taught the importance of something having to look perfect: a whale that looks like an actual whale and not just a blob or even a cartoon version of a whale. It wasn’t until later in life that I started learning about developing my own style and exploring interpretations of the subject, it’s relation to it’s surroundings, the feelings it evokes, etc. Whether she realizes it or not, Joanne hit on a pretty important part of everyone’s art education, regardless of how well they can make picture perfect copies of their subject.

The other story that grabbed my attention was Primes. In this story, two alternate worlds collide and combine so that there are doubles of everyone. The author did a really good job at remember to think about the often overlooked details: Did both copies of an individual live this long? Did they both make similar life decisions? Even, did one of them opt for a different car? He reflects on the fear and panic, the strained relationships, the consequences of companies not being able to suddenly pay twice as many people, etc. I also felt that he did a really good job of conveying the loneliness, confusion, and isolation of being the “extra.”

One thing that surprised me as I read it was how much I felt I could relate to the main character. He was in a situation where he was a third wheel and he had to make a difficult (and, I’m sure, scary) decision about whether to stay or move on. He’s faced with lots of changes in his life – some small, some big – and is essentially faced with both the familiar and the unfamiliar at the same time. Everything was the same, but different. I can relate to that. Despite not being gone that long (not quite a decade), going back home or even just hearing about things back home present me with that same familiar/unfamiliar feeling. Clearly, not to his extreme, but it really helped me to empathize with him, and I think that made the situation even more scary and emotional for me.

There are so many other great stories in the book. The poetry was great, too. I jotted notes in the margins for at least every second story I read, which is a sure sign that something about it intrigued me or hit me right where it counts. You can find the book on Goodreads and buy both print and ebook versions (epub and mobi). Information about where to buy it can be found here.

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One Response to Book review: How to Live on Other Planets

  1. Pingback: How to Live on Other Planets: A Handbook for Aspiring Aliens | Science Book a Day

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