Two backwoods Maine boys, “part angel, part impossible,” get the fright of their lives one hot midnight, skinny-dipping in the local pond. Caught in an intense “umbrella of light,” they are paralyzed temporarily. One of them, the book’s narrator, intuits a message: Wait for instructions.
Thus Robert Klose launches into his tale, part science fiction, part political satire, part bromance between two emotionally arrested young men, with a topsy-turvy take on the debate between evolution and intelligent design, thrown in to boot. It turns out that life on Earth was created by intelligent designers, to wit, aliens called the Spong. Humans were an accident, the mistake that ruined the project.
The narrator, Nestor, grows up, graduates from the local college, and ends up with a doctorate in philosophy. Poye, his high school friend, goes to Yale, where he is inspired by his professor to dedicate his life to teaching biology, especially evolution. Klose, by the way, is a much-loved biology professor at the University of Maine in Augusta. He is also a writer of fiction and non-fiction; “Life on Mars” is his sixth book.
Nestor, now a professor at his old college, has more or less forgotten waiting for instructions when they arrive in the form of an unordered pizza. The little plastic tripod that keeps the cheese from sticking to the box proves to be the transmitter that he will use to communicate with the Spong. They look like huge octopuses with an eye at the end of each tentacle, and there are four of them.
The Spong are appalled by the mess that the unanticipated Homo sapiens has made of what they had planned as a vegetable garden. Their solution will be the “Treatment,” but they have been impressed enough by the two young men to spare them. Instead, Nestor is to be “Earth’s final biographer,” which, with Spongian logic, will consist of a minute-by-minute account, in real time, of his friend’s life henceforth. He is never to let him out of sight, from the college (where Poye is also teaching) to a couch in the apartment he shares with his highly sexed girlfriend, Clara. She is an uncontrolled force-of-nature woman, surprisingly besotted by the terminally passive Poye.
Besides Clara, Poye’s life is dominated by his mission to teach evolution. Unfortunately, since he graduated from Yale, the United States has become the Theocratic Union of American States. Institutions like the Department of Environmental Protection have been “instructed to change direction and not put faith in scientific data.” The TUAS views evolution with particular abhorrence. Regardless, Poye marches on, teaching evolution to his increasingly outraged students until he is fired. He and his friends are soon on the run.
They are joined by Poye’s old professor from Yale, now reduced to driving a Good Humor ice cream van. Together they mount a frenetic campaign against the theocratic forces of darkness who have, in a stroke of irony, inadvertently gotten the part about our Intelligent Design origins right, although not the part about who the Designer was.
“Life on Mars” is a very funny book. Its style sometimes reminded me of early Vonnegut, although, in my memory, those characters were not as appealingly eccentric as Klose’s are. He also writes with the vivid eye of a cartoonist. Their waving tentacles as the Spong express themselves, the professor’s ever-present Good Humor white cap and change-maker, the increasingly Ruritanian uniforms of the various branches of the TUAS government: what a comic strip – think of the old Mark Trail – they would make.
This is in no way a criticism of the book. Klose’s dry humor is a joy that keeps its freshness from the beginning to the story’s rollicking end. Regarding Darwin’s theory, “man was not a custom model but rather a stock collection of cells and genes and fluids.” Clara reacts to the narrator “as if she were assessing a lamp she had no intention of buying.”
It would be paltering with the truth to suggest that there is much subtlety in the forces of evil. Nonetheless, most of them enjoy some recognizable dimension. The one exception is the Theocratic Union’s President, Bass Drum Henker. He is “a mere stick figure with a sparse gray comb-over.” Henker has had so many heart transplants, he is now connected to an artificial heart carried by an aid in an aluminum suitcase. “When he spoke, he sneered. He lashed out at his opposition.”
It’s worth noting that “Life on Mars” was first published in 2019. So when Klose writes – by way of explaining Henker’s rabid followers – that he “had lit a fuse, which led to a detonation,” he was showing imagination as well as foresight. Sometimes pushing too far, even for satire, is the only way left to go.
Thomas Urquhart lives in Falmouth. His new book, “Up for Grabs,” a history of Maine’s Public Reserved Lands, will be published next May.
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