Thursday, October 6, 2011

Review - Don't Fry My Veeblax! by Bruce Coville

Short review: Goaded into bringing his shapeshifting pet to school, Pleskit sparks another incident, this time pitting insane women's rights activists against insane animal rights activists.

Shapeshifting Veeblax
Brought to school on a foolish dare
Causes much trouble

Full review: As one might guess from the title of the book, the story of Don't Fry My Veeblax! focuses heavily on Pleskit's pet shapeshifter. The story also features a media frenzy driven by sensationalism and half-truths as well as a collection of vocal activists gone wild. But at its heart the story is about a pair of twelve-year old friends from different planets at the center of yet another interstellar diplomatic incident.

The plot kicks off with a visit to Tim and Pleskit's sixth grade class from local poet Percy Canterfield, who apparently comes every year to teach the kids poetry. he proposes the kids write poems about their pets, and that the kids should all bring their respective pets to school. This proposal leads to one student named Larrabe Hicks announcing that he has the most unusual pet in the class: a woodchuck named Harold. Eventually Pleskit brings up his own pet - the shapeshifting Veeblax, which the strangely popular class jerk Jordan immediately dismisses, announcing to everyone his opinion that Pleskit is just making up stories. This goads Pleskit into vowing to bring the Veeblax to school the next day.

(As an aside, this sequence seems odd. Pleskit is a purple alien with a tentacle like protrusion growing from his head whose language includes burps, farts, and smells. Pleskit is known to be from a distant planet and lives in a flying saucer hanging from a coat hanger. In previous books he has displayed technology that changes people's size, makes them think like monkeys, and transforms them into suggestible zombies. Given this background, exactly what is so unbelievable about a shapeshifting pet that everyone in the class would essentially side with Jordan on this? And why does Jordan continue to be so popular and influential among the other students when it has been shown over and over again that he is an ignorant jackass?)

In any event, Pleskit is determined to bring his Veeblax to school. Unfortunately, his father Meenom proves to be too busy for Pleskit to talk to in order to obtain permission, so Pleskit sneaks the Veeblax out of the alien embassy and takes him to school on the sly. (Another open question is that it seems entirely unclear how obtaining permission would have changed subsequent events. The only way Meenom could have "helped" would have been to simply forbid taking the Veeblax to school, a prohibition Pleskit probably would have ignored anyway). Once at school, the Veeblax proves to be a big hit with the other students, although Larrabe's pet woodchuck Harold seems to be overly interested in the Veeblax chow.

Trouble begins brewing when Pleskit's classmate Misty, desperate to have more attention focused on her, demands that the Veeblax pay attention to her, which it seems disinclined to do. This comes to fruition later during recess when Misty calls to the Veeblax who, in an uncharacteristic action, leaps onto her, wraps its limbs around her, and refuses to stop clinging until Pleskit stuns it with his sphen-gnut-ksher. Though Misty is uninjured, the incident is captured by long range cameras and becomes a media sensation. Misty's interviews with the media become more and more fanciful, progressing to tearful confessions of her fear at being attacked by the vicious alien creature, and opposing camps of protesters appear at the gates of the school. Women's rights activists appear to protest Misty's "sexual harassment" (which seems weird - if a dog jumped up on a girl, would that be sexual harassment too?), while animal rights activists appear to stick up for the Veeblax. One protest sign demands "Fry the Veeblax!", giving the book its name.

As the situation quickly spins into a diplomatic incident, Meenom acquiesces to a request to have the Veeblax taken for study, a prospect that fills Pleskit with dread. Fearing that his Veeblax will be dissected if he is turned over to animal control, Pleskit packs up his pet and runs away from home. Obviously, a purple alien twelve-year old with an orange shapeshifting pet is going to have a hard time hiding out on Earth, so Pleskit heads to his friend Tim's house. With government agents looking for him hot on his heels. After a narrow escape (in a sequence that shows that assuming an alien runaway child would be limited to the abilities a human runaway would have is not particularly smart), Pleskit turns to Percy Canterfield for assistance.

Canterfield, being an open-minded and somewhat rebellious fellow agrees, but Pleskit soon becomes remorseful about endangering him and his daughter with his presence. Soon he is on his own again, and as a result of a series of decisions predictable enough that Tim figures out where he is, Pleskit, with a big assist from Linnsy, meanders his way to the resolution of the mysteries that have arisen in the book. Of course, Tim and Pleskit team up for some zany hijinks  along the way and everything turns out more or less okay in the end, especially for Tim who gets an unexpected bonus.

Don't Fry My Veeblax! is the most Pleskit-centered story in the I Was a Sixth Grade Alien series, but oddly the actual heavy lifting in the plot is done by his human friends. While most of the story revolves around Pelskit's attempts to evade the capture and examination of the Veeblax, it is Linnsy who actually figures out what happened on the playground, and Tim who figures out how to find Pleskit and help him out. While Pleskit is clearly smart, he still exercises poor judgment throughout to the book, leaving his human friends to pull him out of the fire. This is a welcome change of pace from the typical Coville story in which the superiority of alien intelligence is extolled, and helps make this an even better book than Coville's usually quite good offerings.

Subsequent book in the series: I Was a Sixth Grade Alien: Too Many Aliens

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