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Interstellar Pig
by William Sleator
1984, E. P. Dutton

Interstellar Pig is a young adult novel from before the time that that was an established genre, and more than that, a young adult science fiction novel. It is somewhat clumsy by today's standards and is no longer a popular choice in modern libraries, but in the 80s it was something special, and as such is considered a classic by many aging SF fans.

The story is told by Barney, a teenager who is stuck on a beach holiday with his parents. Things look up suddenly when a group of interesting young bon vivants move into the cabin next door, and turn out to be aliens. Moreover, aliens that want something that Barney has -- access to his beach house, the site where an ancient sailor may have hidden the mystrious amulet that drove him insane.

Which sounds exciting, but Sleator goes for the slow reveal, and moreover, Barney is considerably slower than the reader at putting things together. A lot of the story is simply Barney watching the pretty girl in her skimpy outfits, the aliens obsessing over a board game they call Interstellar Pig, and everyone doubting that anything special is really going on. It's not exactly boring, but neither is it a particularly gripping tale.

But then! Barney discovers where the alien amulet is hidden, and suddenly things start moving. His parents are absconded, the next door neighbors start making open threats and intriguing bribes, and the Earth is invaded by (even more) aliens; suddenly the story is not Barney investigating an odd mystery, but Barney fighting for his life, and perhaps the future of his planet.

Interstellar Pig is somewhat weak in some areas, particularly pacing and characters. My impression is that the author was having a lot of trouble writing Barney as your typical teenager at a time before teenagers were not typically viewed as viable characters. Despite the fact that Barney is telling us the story in the first person, most emotion enters the book through his describing the reactions of other people: we can infer much of what he's feeling from his actions, but by his account he appears disengaged and uninterested. This is in stark contrast to most modern YA fiction, which tends to show their characters as emotive on the inside, even if they act passive.

Other than that, this is a pretty good book; I would generally recommend it to anyone who likes YA science fiction and is interested in trying something a little different (and slightly retro). Sleator has written a number of YA SF stories, including a belated sequel to Interstellar Pig, the 2002 novel Parasite Pig, and this is a good introduction to his works.


As a side note: The board game within the book, Interstellar Pig, is noteworthy because it is intentionally impossible to design with human technology, but still interesting enough that many people have spent some time trying. It is also just close enough to possible to make it feasible to design around the 'magic' bits. For example, the game raises or lowers the players IQ based on the alien species they are playing, which can be mimicked through complex mechanics... or requiring people playing the dumber species to take a drink or three before they start playing. BoardGameGeek.com reports that Warp Spawn Games actually published a official Interstellar Pig game in 2002, but it has no on-line rankings, reviews, and is not currently available for purchase. It'd be more fun to design your own, anyway.