It's not a good day for Jonathan Higgs Boson. Aside from the unfortunate name he's rather dead, albeit briefly and at the hands of a cashew nut (or was it a peanut?) and things are just going to get worse from here on out. Intelligent Life, the latest YA novel from Neil Arksey, is a wonderfully entertaining sci-fi comedy following our reluctant and hapless hero through a series of increasingly random adventures. After recovering from a rather upsetting start to his day, Jonathan - bullied by an overachieving elder brother and pressured by an over expecting mother - seeks refuge with Dennis, his alcoholic journalist father. This turns out to be a bad idea, leading him into what first seems to be his father's paranoid delusions but what soon becomes a disturbing reality. Jonathan soon finds himself at the centre of an intergalactic manhunt and a pawn in a very high-stakes game. To cap it all there are some very strange things happening, random occurrences beyond all probability.
In Intelligent Life Neil Arksey takes us on a giddy ride through London, accompanied by a fantastically eclectic cast of characters, from our perpetually insecure hero, through his booze-sodden, ranting father, his skeptical girlfriend, the sinister Balustrade and his lackey, Grimly Stoat, and the interstellar detective duo, Sideral and Lagubrious. The names may give you some hint of the kind of humour to expect in Intelligent Life. It's quintessentially British dry absurdism through and through, from the farcical situations and juxtapositioning of the mundane with the bizarre to the wonderful nuggets of trivia at the beginning of each chapter. From chapter 4 for example, "The number of legitimate ways of playing the first four moves per side in a game of chess is 318,979,564,000. The number of illegitimate moves is a lot larger." I'll happily admit to occasionally skipping forward a page or two to read the next one before backtracking to see what I'd missed.
I'm sure Arksey won't mind the obvious comparison that springs up here - sci-fi plus Python-esque humour inevitably equals Douglas Adams. There's a strong resemblance both in subject matter and in literary style but never one that becomes too obvious. Intelligent Life is clearly Arksey's book and his alone. However I did find myself chuckling at how the increasing randomness central to the story's plot resembled the workings of a certain big-hearted spacecraft's drive. In keeping with most great British comedic sci-fi and fantasy the pace never really lets up for a second. We're buffeted from one mishap to the next with impeccable timing and any momentary flagging is soon banished by yet another improbably scenario unfolding. An angered posse of nuns pursuing an overgrown Hitler Youth through a crowded
Covent Garden is an image which will linger for some time.
It’s not all fun and games though and at its heart lies a great underdog story. Jonathan is beset on all sides by devious villains, bumbling allies and a family which would seem to offset any need for enemies. Jonathan's relationship with his father is particularly carefully portrayed, a son trying to look up to a man who can't help but let everyone down thanks to his battle with the bottle. Indeed this aspect of the tale is so convincing, even in a book which seems aimed at a slightly younger audience, that it makes me wonder just how much personal experience Arksey has with friends or family struggling with addiction.
Intelligent Life isn't perfect of course. At times the scenarios seem a little contrived - and yes, I appreciate how nit-picky that sounds when dealing with a book whose core entirely consists of and is dependent upon contrived circumstances. It's more that some of the interactions between characters, particularly Jonathan in his dealings with anyone but his father, often come across as a bit forced and unrealistic. People seem to contradict their motivations from time to time and this can lend a choppy feel to a book which otherwise flows extremely naturally. Also there seems to be a certain weight lacking in the first half of the book, although this is compensated for as Arksey takes the story to its climax. Even then there was a slight feeling of "Is that it?" but the promise of a sequel in the closing pages could make up for it. These are very much minor gripes though, and only surfaced once I finished reading (in record time, I might add).
Overall I found myself very impressed with Intelligent Life. Never having read any of Neil Arksey's previous work (something I'll take steps to remedy) I had no idea what to expect and found myself very pleasantly surprised. Any fans of Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, Monty Python and their ilk will take great pleasure in the mischievous humour on every page. The story is engaging enough to have one pausing only long enough to ponder the last few paragraphs yet light enough to serve as a rewarding bit of brain candy. Hopefully Arksey has more like this up his sleeve for the future.
This review was brought to you by Cannonball Jones. Intelligent Life is now available in bookstores. Thank you to the author for providing us with a copy to review.