The year is 2788. Many of Earth’s cities lie in ruins. Earth itself has become little more than a subject of study for its colonists who have abandoned the planet for others great distances away, now settled and terraformed and all linked together with portals. Much of humanity might have left Earth but one thing they cannot shake off is a sense of fascination for their past. Intriguingly, then, the young aspire to be historians and archaeologists. The celebrities of this age, the winners of medals and acclaim, are TV historians. Of course, Earth’s historical past might be revered but its present is far less appealing and so, at the end of their studies, the young will make the portal journey back to their adopted planet. Unfortunately, not everyone can make their escape. Some are tied to Earth due to a genetic mishap which renders them allergic to life beyond Earth’s atmosphere. Born off planet, the only action that can save their lives as newborns is an emergency immediate portal to Earth, sometimes with their parents, often without. These Earth-chained humans are Apes or Neanderthals, tolerated and patronised.
One such Ape is our Earth Girl, 18-year-old Jarra, a fiercely intelligent, ambitious and immensely likeable girl who wants nothing more than to be an archaeological explorer of Earth’s past, to be proud and independent as she grows and to be the best that she can possibly be. But, as an Ape (a derogatory term that has become all but official), she can’t attend the best universities which are off world. And so she decides to lie. She pretends to be the daughter of military parents, restricted to Earth while her mother and father heroically contribute to the transformation of distant planets for future colonisation. Reality is very different. Parentless, she is legally entitled to contact her parents now that she has reached adulthood but instead Jarra creates an alternate past so that she can achieve her goals.
As a member of University Asgard, Jarra joins a team of students under the instruction of Playdon at the New York Dig Site. Jarra might be pretending to be someone she is not but she can’t fail to impress due to her experience in archaeology (gained during years tied to Earth) and with her bravery and resourcefulness. Even the suspicious Playdon begins to believe her story and soon she has won the admiration of her team and something a little more from Fian, a young man who is also not afraid to test himself. It’s not long before the students’ teamwork is tested to its very limits as disaster threatens the dig site and before Jarra is taken to the very limit of what she is prepared to do.
And so this is the world created by Janet Edwards in Earth Girl. Extraordinarily, this is Edwards’ debut novel. In order for science fiction to succeed, whether it’s for youngsters, adults or both, it has to ring true. It has to be believed. Not only did I totally believe it, I couldn’t get enough of it. The images of a New York decimated by a disaster, reduced to girders, concrete posts and twisted iron, reclaimed by wolves, is extremely evocative. As is the depiction of a network of planets, all at varying degrees of transformation and each with their own character and difficulties. Some celebrate the libido while others live restricted and chaste lives. Some recreate a new Roman Empire before the destruction brought by Civil War while others are so freshly terraformed they may as well be living in the Wild West.
I love the character of Jarra. She is a heroine to be proud of, not least because she is flawed. She comes into her own as a crucial member of the archaeological digging team, realising her dream, but she undergoes another type of journey, confronting her past and struggling to come to terms with her limitations. All teenagers I would imagine understand what it is like to realise with a shock that you are not indestructible, not all powerful. Jarra is especially fascinating and huggable because she understands the restrictions on her, she has self-knowledge yet she is not invincible and she can crumble. She is always believable and I was prepared to believe in her even when she takes a course that contradicts what we’ve learned about her from our author. Jarra makes us believe in her even when the author would suggest we shouldn’t. That is a great achievement of Earth Girl – Jarra comes to exist in our minds almost beyond the limits of her creator.
So much goes on in Earth Girl. The excitement of the sequence of events facing the digging team matches the drama of what Jarra – and other members of the team – has to face as prejudices, dreams and possibilities are confronted. Incidentally, as an archaeologist myself, the digging scenes, although obviously different from anything I’ve experienced, rang very true.
Earth Girl might be promoted as a Young Adult novel but it deserves a far larger readership than that. I cannot praise this novel enough. Janet Edwards has done a marvellous job in combining threads from a range of genres. With no doubt at all, this is the best YA novel I’ve read this year and I am confident that it will be one of my contenders for novel of the year. Bravo, Janet, and more please!