Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Review - My Teacher Glows in the Dark by Bruce Coville

Short review: Peter Thompson has left Earth and discovers that the galaxy is a stranger place than he thought. He also discovers that the Earth is in terrible danger and it is up to him to save it.

Peter leaves the Earth
And has his head examined
To save all of us

Full review: My Teacher Glows in the Dark is the third book in the My Teacher Is an Alien series. The book describes the adventures of Peter Thompson after he left the Earth with the alien Broxholm at the end of My Teacher Is an Alien. The book is told from Peter's perspective, making him the third viewpoint character in the series, the first two having been told from the perspective of Susan Simmons and Duncan Dougal respectively.

The action starts in Kennituck Falls, as Peter and Broxholm evade those who are trying to capture the alien, quickly reaching Broxholm's ship and leaving the Earth. They swiftly travel to the far side of the Moon and rendezvous with the starship New Jersey (so named because the ship is the same size as New Jersey). Once on board, Peter is subjected to some rather unsettling albeit benign boarding procedures and finds himself in a truly alien world. Peter is introduced to the alien Hoo-Lan who undertakes to serve as Peter's teacher to introduce Peter to the intergalactic society he has joined. Hoo-Lan can glow in the dark, giving the book its title, although this doesn't become a plot point (making this the only book in the series where the title isn't a plot point).

Peter quickly learns that the galaxy is stranger than he had previously believed, Peter also discovers that the assembled alien races think humanity is uncivilized and dangerous. Uncivilized because we are unkind to one another: allowing starvation and deprivation, engaging in wars, destroying our environment, and generally behaving badly. Dangerous because we apparently have the largest brains (although we apparently don't use them to their full potential) and are close to discovering the secret of interstellar space flight. This has led the aliens to study Earth to find out why we are the way we are, and divided the aliens into faction that variously believe Earth should be left alone, conquered, quarantined, or destroyed.

Peter agrees to have his brain examined, in an effort to determine if humanity's behavior is due to a biological condition. After much study, the aliens discover that Peter is latently and naturally telepathic, which is apparently quite rare in the galaxy. Unfortunately, while attempting to study this further, Hoo-Lan falls into a coma, which the aliens, of course, suspect is Peter's doing. Oddly, they are made even more suspicious when, despite having given Peter free reign of the ship, he goes to a communications room and contacts Duncan to try to warn Earth of the aliens' plans.

The book ends with the aliens agreeing to give Peter and Broxholm one last chance to find some redeeming characteristic of humanity that would save it, apparently having decided that otherwise they will destroy the Earth. This, to me, exposes the aliens' assertion of their own civilized nature as mere hypocrisy (which seems not to have been Coville's intention). That they are willing to destroy an entire planet (including the environment they are mad at humanity for damaging) merely because of their own fear seems to show their own claims to be utterly peaceful to be hollow and false. This just reinforces the other elements that demonstrate that the aliens are uncivilized in their own way: Broxholm's willingness to harm humans to escape (although it turns out he does not have to), the aliens' original plan to kidnap five unwilling children, and so on.

This, plus the extraordinarily heavy-handed message of the book, prevents the book from being anything more than average. Even making allowances for the fact that the book is aimed at younger readers, Coville ladles the message on in heaping dollops, beating the reader about the head and shoulders with the inhumanity of humans, and asserting the comparative Nirvanah-like nature of the alien civilization. Consequently, despite generally interesting aliens, and a likable protagonist, the book is merely ordinary, which is a disappointment as with less of a heavy hand and more thought given to the alien civilization, the book could have been excellent.

Previous book in the series: My Teacher Fried My Brains
Subsequent book in the series: My Teacher Flunked the Planet

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  1. Wow. This takes me back to my childhood. I think I remember reading My Teacher is an Alien when I was, hmm, like 11? I remember crying at the end when Peter leaves. LOL.

  2. @Molli: I didn't discover Coville until I was older - he didn't really start writing a lot until I was past his target audience's age range. But when I read the book I remember wanting to be Peter. Let me explore the galaxy.

  3. Isn't it disappointing when a book could be outstanding and it's simply ordinary? Too bad - but my kids have enjoyed them!

  4. @Julia Rachel Barrett: Some people might think I'm being to hard on these books, given that they are aimed at younger readers. But I don't think so. I can see the point Coville is trying to make, but even if your message is intended for kids, your delivery of the message should at least be internally consistent, and Coville's aliens seem just as prone to destructiveness as humans - they are just sanctimonious about it.