Girl in Landscape by Jonathon Lethem (1998) 280 p.

Pella Marsh is the 13-year-old daughter of a New York politician on a future Earth so environmentally damaged that a trip to Coney Island requires radiation suits. Desperate for a fresh start after her father’s failed re-election bid, her family ships out to the Planet of the Archbuilders, a hospitable world with a small population of friendly native aliens living in the ruins of a once-great civilisation. Shortly before the family is due to leave, her mother dies of a brain tumour, and the family pushes on despite being torn apart by tragedy.

Girl in Landscape sounds like it’s going to be a big sci-fi story, but it takes place almost entirely in a tiny human settlement with a population of about a dozen people, with half a dozen Archbuilders passing in and out – friendly creatures described as a mix of fronds, scales and tentacles, with a love of the human language that conveniently lets Lethem write some irritatingly quirky dialogue. (“I’m in a state of anticipation, anticipating statehood,” one says.) Similarly, the planet itself is a mostly featureless landscape, dotted with edible potato-like plants guaranteeing an endless supply of flavourless food. Ancient alien ruins are mentioned in passing, but add little life or colour to proceedings. The story spools out lifelessly, awkwardly detailing friction between Pella’s father and the local big man, ending in an unlikely confrontation between characters I didn’t much care about.

I’m buggered if I can figure out what this book is supposed to be about. I suspect it’s some kind of complex allegory, but the narrative was nowhere near interesting enough for me to care what that was. Some of the characters are drawn well – Pella’s father, viewed entirely through her own resentment at his former political career, is interesting – but they sit aimlessly about in the alien landscape with very little to do. The novel is also in some ways meant to be a Western, I suppose, but I’m not exactly sure what Lethem was trying to accomplish in that sense.

This is probably the weakest of Lethem’s novels so far. Fortunately, the next up is Motherless Brooklyn, which was his breakout novel, and I expect it to be quite a bit better.