[SF Signal welcomes the return of guest reviewer Jason Sanford!]
REVIEW SUMMARY: While long-time readers of science fiction will find nothing new here, the novel is a fast-paced and exciting read which should appeal to genre newcomers.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Nine young aliens hide on Earth after the destruction of their world by the evil Mogadorians. However, the fourth of these aliens is tired of hiding and wants to fight back, even if that means revealing himself to his deadly hunters.
PROS: A fun, fast-paced science fiction novel which will appeal to the young adults readers who currently devour fantasy stories.
CONS: It would be a cliché to say this novel steals from every available science fiction cliché, but it does. And the characterization rarely rises above often-seen SF stereotypes.
BOTTOM LINE: Long-time readers of science fiction will find nothing new in this novel, although many will still find it a fun, quick read. More importantly, the book should appeal to young readers who haven’t been exposed to a true science fiction novel.
Make no mistake: The science fiction novel I Am Number Four has been crafted to succeed. Even before authors James Frey and Jobie Hughes landed a publisher for this new series, Michael Bay and Steven Spielberg purchased the film rights. Add in the massive advance for the first book in their “Lorien Legacies” series and there’s no mistaking the hoped-for whiff of mega success all over this property. To say everyone involved wants this to be Harry Potter with a science fiction twist would be an understatement.
And that’s probably why I Am Number Four, the biggest young adult science fiction release of the year, hasn’t garnered much attention from those inside the science fiction community. After all, one of the authors—Frey—is supposed to be disgraced after Oprah sucker punched him over his faked memoir A Million Little Pieces. And Frey certainly doesn’t have a connection to the SF genre (unless Frey really is John Twelve Hawks, in which case the laugh’s on everyone). As for Hughes, he’s barely out of writing school and has stated that “this project is far from what I normally do,” which in his own words is “serious adult fiction.” When big money gets thrown at the first science fiction work from a pair like that, you can see why people who’ve written and read SF all their lives would ignore the book.
Which is a shame, because I Am Number Four is exactly what the genre needs right now.
Not that this is the best science fiction novel of the year, or even the best young adult novel. Far from it. Only those without even a superficial reading of science fiction will find anything new here. But none of that matters. This is a novel with the potential to bring new fans to the genre, and for that reason I hope it rockets to the top of the best-seller lists.
As I mentioned, I Am Number Four doesn’t break any new science fiction ground. The plot revolves around nine young aliens who hide on Earth after the destruction of their world by the evil Mogadorians. The nine aliens have what to humans seem like superpowers, and are protected by some type of technology which means they are only be killed in a certain order. The book opens with the Mogadorians hunting down and killing the first three kids. This means fifteen-year-old Number Four is next on their to-do list.
But Number Four is tired of running and never having a life. He wants to make friends at his new school in Paradise, Ohio. He wants to actually spend time with his new girlfriend. And when he learns that the Mogadorians covet his adopted planet of Earth, he wants to finally fight back.
According to media reports, Frey wrote the concept for the Lorien Legacies series while Hughes wrote the first novel, which Frey then revised several times. Touches of Frey’s distinctive style are evident in several of the early chapters, but otherwise the novel is decently written in a non-intrusive style. And for this story, that is exactly what is needed.
Aliens pretending to be human are nothing new, nor are science fiction novels where much of the so-called science is really magic masquerading as other than what it is. And the characters within this novel are also nothing new. Here we have the geek who wears NASA t-shirts and obsesses on aliens, the football jock who is a bully, the hot ex-cheerleader who likes both the popular and unpopular kids, and the outsider who is so far outside he’s actually an alien.
It would be a cliché to say this book is one big science fiction cliché, but in many ways it is. Not that it really matters. The book is a page-turner, and even if it isn’t deep it is a fun ride. I read the book in a single night and enjoyed it. More importantly, my oldest son—who is the novel’s target audience—is now enjoying the book.
And that last reaction is precisely the one the science fiction genre needs. While my son loves science fiction, there are too few entry level SF novels for his age group. But perhaps this is starting to change with the recent arrival of books like I Am Number Four and, more importantly, the amazing Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi. While Ship Breaker is a more literary and ground-breaking young adult novel, my son also loved it. And books like Ship Breaker and I Am Number Four are what our genre needs. We need books to turn young readers into science fiction readers, much as the Heinlein juveniles did during the 1950s.
So will this prove to be a gateway book for new readers? Possibly. If it doesn’t end up bringing new readers to science fiction it will because the book’s science is so, well, fantastic. This is almost a fantasy book wrapped up in a sliver of SF. The technology and science behind the powers of the alien kids aren’t explained beyond a few hocus pocus words, which is too bad.
But while I’ve snarked on James Frey before for some of his antics, in this case I like what he has done. And if young adults readers respond to this book as I predict they will, then every fan of science fiction should also be grateful.