Monday, August 15, 2011

Review - My Teacher Fried My Brains by Bruce Coville

Short review: Duncan Dougal is stupid and his life is crummy, so he takes it out on others by being a bully. Then his alien teacher makes him smart and he becomes nice.

Duncan is a jerk
Then aliens zap his brain
And he becomes nice

Full review: My Teacher Fried My Brains continues the story begun in My Teacher Is an Alien, following Duncan Dougal as he (and the rest of Kennituck Falls) deals with the aftermath of the revelation that the alien Broxholm had been impersonating a substitute teacher in the local school, and that Peter Thompson had left with the alien.

While the viewpoint character in My Teacher Is an Alien was Susan Simmons, in My Teacher Fried My Brains the viewpoint character is Duncan Dougal, who had been a secondary character in the previous book. Duncan had been established as a dim-witted bully who, in the previous book, had spent most of his time pushing Peter around. In this book, Duncan is revealed as a sad child, pushed around by his brother and abused by his father (it is common in Coville books that childhood bullies turn out to be sad children beset with problems for whom the only way to express their sorrow is to lash out at others). While he still believes himself to be fairly stupid, part of his ignorance is explained by his family's disdain for education and learning. In fact, through much of the book Duncan proves to be fairly astute, even before his brains are fried.

The story of the book revolves around Duncan's suspicions that one of the new teachers at his junior high school is another alien, reinforced by his discovery of a human like "glove" similar to the disguise that had been used by Broxholm to disguise his alien features. After getting in trouble with some typically juvenile delinquent behavior, Duncan narrows his search down to four teachers, finally focusing on the new science teacher. This conclusion is reinforced when he participates in an in-class demonstration of static electricity that he comes to believe has made him smarter. Later, when he tries to make himself even smarter by sneaking into the science classroom after school hours, he discovers an alien creature in the classroom refrigerator that seems to confirm his suspicions.

Eventually, the alien is revealed as is the alien's plot concerning Duncan and the machine used to make him smarter. This is more or less merely a vehicle for Coville to work into the book his argument that humanity is fundamentally inhumane. Duncan's previous behavior, bullying and crude, is contrasted with his nicer, more thoughtful behavior after h has been made smarter. Duncan is also alerted to the fact that the Interplanetary Council (an organization all the alien races of the galaxy belong to) is concerned by the violence and nastiness of humans and is considering what steps to take to neutralize the threat humans pose.

Coville's thesis may be true, but I have some serious problems with some of the elements of the book. The most glaring is the idea that when Duncan becomes smarter, her also becomes nicer and more humane. One only has to think back on human history to realize that being more intelligent does not seem to correlate in any significant way with being nice. I also think that the way the alien treats Duncan - performing experiments on him without his knowledge, kidnapping and then imprisoning him to use his brain as a communications device - seems to pretty much destroy any claim the Interplanetary Council may have to the moral high ground. Coville's theme, that humans are bad and the aliens are more moral and kind, seems to depend on the idea that whatever bad things the aliens do is justified by circumstance (this is not the first time in the series that an ostensibly non-evil alien has kidnapped and imprisoned an innocent human to further their goals). This sort of moral inconsistency simply saps away some of the message that the books are trying to convey.

In the end, some dubious assumptions about human nature and some plot inconsistencies regarding the moral nature of the aliens mar an otherwise fun little book about kids dealing with alien teachers. While My Teacher Fried My Brains has flaws that undermine the message of the story, it remains at the very least a decent book for younger readers.

Previous book in the series: My Teacher Is an Alien
Subsequent book in the series: My Teacher Glows in the Dark

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  1. @Julia Rachel Barrett: Coville doesn't seem to resort to gross out humor to keep his readers interested very often. I have some issues with the messages in Coville's books and how they are delivered, but that's not one of them.