In many creative industries there’s a concept known as the elevator pitch: pretend you’re in an elevator with a captive audience only until the doors open, so sell your project in two sentences or less. I can just imagine the elevator pitch for Starworld: “An updated take on 1994’s Heavenly Creatures — only no psychedelic claymation or murder, and directed by the Gen Z equivalent of John Hughes.”
In a high school possibly near you, the nerdy and awkward Sam crushes on the popular and seemingly perfect Zoe from afar. A random contrivance allows them to exchange phone numbers, and a friendship slowly begins to blossom as they text to create a shared fantasy world of dragons, starships, and epic quests — a world where the very real troubles of their lives seem bearable.
I realize some book lovers despair over how the YA market has exploded in the past decade or so, wondering why there’s so much attention given to the love triangles and tribulations of kids who don’t even qualify for a driver’s license. I’m not one of those readers, and I have the books by Lloyd Alexander, Laurie Anderson, and Margaret Mahy to back that up. Young adult books can be more than the formula. YA narratives can be subtle!
Starworld isn’t, though. Dueling first-person POV chapters outline the main character’s personalities and primary concerns in quick paragraphs, with a tendency to tell us how they feel or act without letting the reader observe for themselves. Sam and Zoe also have an entire television season’s worth of Very Special Episodes between them: dying parents, parents with mental illness, emotional abuse, adoption anxiety, abandonment anxiety, disability… And this is all before Sam, who is gay, realizes she’s falling ever-deeper in love with Zoe — who is very, very straight.
I wasn’t kidding with the John Hughes comparison — it’s a classic setup, although with a more realistic execution. (Think the original ending of Pretty in Pink, where Andie goes back into prom with Duckie instead of Blane.) Nostalgic teen comedies are almost an American pastime at this point, but don’t current teenagers deserve more media that speaks directly to their experiences? And if we’re being totally honest, Hughes’ movies can have issues in retrospect: Bender pawing at Claire beneath the table, the visual jokes with disabled students… Long Duk Dong.
Unfortunately, Starworld has its own issues.
Not the same issues — we’ve come that far, at least. And from the authors’ afterword and list of official resources, it’s clear the intention was to elevate the general discussion.
I find I can’t give them a complete pass, despite that. While more disabled characters and more characters with mental illnesses in fiction is an admirable goal, it doesn’t do much for the conversation when those characters are little more than the walking embodiment of each concept. Sam’s neglect at the hands of her mother is never addressed as abuse separate from the fact of her mother’s mental illness, ignoring how many people manage to be good parents despite tricky brain chemistry. Likewise, Zoe’s brother on the nonverbal end of the autism spectrum mainly functions as a potential menace, with Zoe constantly reminding us of the times he physically harmed or otherwise devastated her parents.
While negative emotions involving difficult family dynamics are normal, and nothing to be ashamed of, Sam’s mom and Zoe’s brother don’t get to be anything but difficulties. The mom’s mental illness is there to provide Sam a story of personal liberation, and the brother’s disability only serves to underscore Zoe’s anxiety about her place in her adopted family. Put plainly: they’re not well-developed characters, they’re obstacles; the dragons that must be slain to reach the princess(es) in the castle.
One of the reasons Hughes’ films endure, despite their problems, is their honesty. A lot of popular teen media transports its characters into fantastical contexts, like magical boarding school or a technology-enhanced gladiator’s arena. Or, if the context is mundane, then the characters themselves become fantastical: they ooze adult confidence and glamour, navigating lives of sleuthing, seduction, and even murder. It’s hard to make realistic teenagers in a realistic setting entertaining, because… well, we’ve all been there, and it’s hard to package our own experiences as escapism. But Hughes did it.
To its credit, so does Starworld. The drama gets dialed up as far as it’ll go, but the kids involved are still very much kids. There’s a frankness about sex, swearing, and even some casual alcohol use, but everyone is a little awkward and believably rough around the edges. The POVs for each character can be intense — Zoe can’t go ten minutes without falling into despair, while Sam piles on the pop culture references to the breaking point — but so is high school. No one gets through without running the gamut of humiliations and high emotion.
Admittedly the book loses a lot of its surety when it tries to tackle much more serious and specific issues which are less universal than the struggle of adolescence. I’m not sure what it has to offer to a reader who is already at the point of “these things happen, it can be a part of someone’s everyday life,” but it could be the perfect jumping-off point to start a conversation, especially with younger readers who crave a relatable context for what might be intimidating issues. Starworld only lays the groundwork for these discussions, and it perhaps introduces a few too many elements that deserve a deeper investigation than they’re given. There’s still an irrepressible charm in the voices of its teenage characters and the sweetness of its premise. Maybe Starworld is not the problem-free John Hughes-esque lesbian high school romance we all deserve (deserve, dammit!), but it’s still fun.
Review by Katharine, a volunteer at Philly AIDS Thrift @ Giovanni’s Room.