PROS: Sympathetic characters worth rooting for, real sci-fi concepts, well written and respectful to audience, fun references that serve a purpose, smart space battles.
CONS: Space school isn’t all that interesting, the setting of Confederation Central is sort of bland.
BOTTOM LINE: This is the perfect book to get a kid hooked on sci-fi or reading in general.
I find myself reading young adult novels frequently these days but it’s been years since I picked up a middle grade novel. Even when I fit the age range for middle grade fiction I found the simplicity of the stories and characters insulting. I would have loved to read a book like Randoms by David Liss back in the day. Who am I kidding? I just graduated college and I still loved reading it. It always makes me sad to hear a kid say that they don’t like reading because it’s boring. I would not hesitate to hand such a person a copy of Randoms and challenge them to be bored while reading it. It’s an incredibly exciting book with the potential to act as a gateway to science fiction for young readers.
Ezekiel “Zeke” Reynolds is a 6th grade geek. His dad died when Zeke was seven and his mother suffers from ALS. Because of his mom’s job the two move around a lot, forcing Zeke to acclimate to a new school every year or so. This makes finding friends difficult and maintaining relationships near impossible. Zeke and three other children are given the opportunity of a lifetime when they are chosen to represent humanity to a coalition of alien races. At first it seems to be a geek’s dream come true but Zeke quickly becomes embroiled in a conflict he never could have anticipated. He is then labeled as a war criminal for acting heroically in the face of imminent doom. Light years from home, shunned by his own kind, and despised by the peaceful aliens of Confederation Central Zeke befriends the randoms of two other alien races attempting to gain membership to the Confederation. Now survival and the very fate of Earth could rest on Zeke’s extensive arsenal of sci-fi trivia.
Zeke is an immediately likable protagonist. Unlike the three other initiates chosen to represent Earth’s interests to the Confederation of United Planets, Zeke is utterly average. He’s not highly intelligent or a skilled martial artist. He’s a fan of Star Trek, Star Wars, and Firefly. He plays video games and reads comics and books. He’s no stranger to being bullied by bigger kids and misunderstood by adults. Unfortunately these issues only intensify when he leaves Earth. Zeke is ostracized by his fellow human initiates for being a random — chosen by the Confederation out of pure chance rather than for any particular merit. Or at least that’s how it seems at first. In truth Zeke exhibits a number of desirable qualities and his ability to overcome his own limitations by answering the question WWKD? (What Would Kirk Do) in high stress scenarios proves that he is quite formidable. But any sci-fi geek knows that a captain is only as good as his crew and Zeke’s is a well rounded lot.
The premise of Randoms is hardly groundbreaking but its in the execution that the novel really shines. Liss’s writing is crisp, clear, and well structured. Liss doesn’t presume that his audience is stupid and as a result it reads significantly better than the majority of YA novels. The scenes of space combat are exhilarating and follow a specific set of rules (akin to a more complex Rock-Paper-Scissors) set at the beginning of the novel. Victory requires tactical and strategic thinking reminiscent of Battle School matches from Ender’s Game. Despite some very solid space battles and a daring raid on a prison planet later on in the book, the most suspenseful moment of Randoms is a tense war crimes hearing in which Zeke is put on trial. The graphic nature of violence is considerably toned down but the consequences of it are not. The stakes are high and moments of peril actually felt perilous.
There are some areas of Randoms that work less well than others. The “curriculum” meant to teach the initiates and judge their worthiness is somewhat formless and uninspired. The initiates are taught the history of the Confederation and are tested in math, engineering, and other areas but the only thing that really stands out is the spaceship simulations. Likewise Confederation Central (or what Zeke and his friends experience of it) feels slightly unmemorable. More detail in these areas could have added extra character to the novel.
Randoms takes advantage of a lot of genre tropes but presents them in a way that is both respectful and refreshing. Liss references the classics without resorting to a bombardment of winks and nudges to tell his story. When Zeke references Star Trek or Star Wars it serves a purpose beyond self gratification. The conspiracy at the core of Randoms kept me guessing until the very end and I appreciated that Liss injects a degree of moral ambiguity into the plot. The good guys sometimes have to break rules in order to do what they believe to be right. The good guys aren’t always rewarded and the bad guys aren’t always punished. Nearing the end of the book it seemed to be heading in the direction of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope and instead veered off in the direction of Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back.
Randoms by David Liss is an extremely fun and thoughtful sci-fi adventure that also just happens to be written for the middle grade audience. Readers ages 8-12 are not the only ones who can enjoy this story, though I highly recommend using it as an introduction to the genre for the uninitiated. Randoms is the kind of book I hope to share with my future children and best of all it’s the first in a series!