The big three--Asimovs, Analog, F&SF--ganged up on me with their review articles about this book. Things like "haven't had so much fun reading in a long time" and "highly recommended." It was one of those books that got relentlessly good press. So much so that I actually paid for the damn hardcover, so desperate was I for a humorous sci-fi novel. With the 2024 presidential election coming up, I wanted something to counter all that unbelievable negativity.
I was disappointed almost immediately. The main character Francie is a slightly above-average mind and a very generic personality. She read to me like an everywoman for the late-twenties crowd.
Using her, the book puts a band together for a very tepid adventure with very low stakes. There's the alien of course, but even by the end of the book, communication is somewhere between imprecise and unclear, so guess how much nuanced character we get from him? Given that, guess how much pathos we wring from him? Yeah. Then there's Wade, the con man drifter. Connie breaks a baseball bat over her readers' heads telegraphing that he isn't what he seems. Joseph is an old man with an RV that conveniently serves as the fully-stocked moving set for this one-room play. Lyle is an over-the-top cliché UFO conspiracy nut who spouts inane stuff that an eighth grader wouldn't deign to have come out of its mouth. Lastly, there is Eula May who is a very old casino hacker who presents as the grandma next door. She's the closest thing to an engaging character in this cast, for me at least.
Starting to sound familiar? Perhaps a little like the movie Paul? Alien and his pals motoring around the Southwest in an RV while sending up UFO culture? Oh how happy I would have been if this book had any of the wit and dramatic tension of Paul.
Still, a tepid adventure with low stakes could be fine if the other dimensions of the work picked up the engagement slack, but they don't. The character work is weak. The worst trait among all the humans is that Lyle eats like the twenty-year-old jackass that he is. It's a constant diet of nice people being bland.
The world-building is weak and the characters are generic milquetoasts, so what about the plot? That's the worst part. Right up to the end, we don't know it. The plot becomes trying to figure out the plot. It's meta. The alien--Indy (don't ask)--is on a mission that the Scooby Gang wants to help with. So we get hundreds of pages of wandering around aimlessly. How does she fill so many pages? Eighty percent of it is "what is he saying" and endless permutations of maybe it's this or that or the other thing. Quite maddening to me. Another ten percent of the fluff is navigation; take this highway or that; golly the Vegas Strip is slow; let's walk through yet another truck stop. Maybe ten percent moves the plot along, such as it is.
And it's not spoiling much to say that there is a romance in the group that culminates in a marriage. Despite having no meaningful interactions, Francie finds herself in love at the end. It's amor ex machina. But don't worry, they really are in love. In this book, they don't need to build a relationship, they just need an alien to assure them that they love each other. I'm serious.
To give you an idea about how tepid this book is, here is an inventory of characteristics that shape it as an elementary school read: no one dies, nothing blows up, no one drinks alcohol or does any drugs, no one has any sex, no one discharges any weapons, no one has a physical altercation (beyond restraining people), and no cool tech is introduced.
Ms. Willis has won every award even peripherally related to sci-fi. She's a properly invested Grand Master. So when she writes an insipid plot about boring cutout characters dealing with an alien that can't communicate--all in the most boring prose possible--no reviewer dares to call it out.
Clearly, I'm out of sync with the industry's taste. It explains a lot, really. Once I got through the last page, I deposited my expensive hardcover in the trash. Maybe you will enjoy it more. God knows all the reviewers did.