Forge, 2002, 190 pages, C$31.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-30311-6
In Science Fiction writing workshops relying on the “Turkey City Lexicon”, there is a derogatory expression, “Abbess Phone Home”, to describe “any mainstream story with a gratuitous SF or fantasy element tacked on so it could be sold.” The expression is flippant, but the sad truth remains that genre writers can often found themselves trapped into their own literary ghetto when they try to break into a foreign market with a perfectly good non-genre story that could be published by their usual channels if only it had one or two genre elements.
I won’t try to guess how David Gerrold came to write The Martian Child or how the genre elements found their way into what is otherwise a mainstream story, but there’s no denying that the Science Fiction elements of this novel are largely irrelevant to its greatest success: portraying with frank honesty the tough process of adopting a troubled child. The idea of a kid who may be an alien may be enough to get Gerrold’s faithful SF-reading audience to pick up the book, but it’s hardly what makes the novel so interesting. (One note without further comment that while Gerrold’s novelette that formed the kernel of the novel was published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1994 and went on to win both a Hugo and a Nebula award, the film that was adapted from the novel kept none of the science-fictional elements and was marketed as straight-up drama.)
Like many of Gerrold’s short stories, The Martian Child weaves fiction with fact, featuring first-person narration from a David whose biographical details (gay; Californian; SF writer) are very similar to David Gerrold’s own. SF fans will feel a little chill of name recognition as Daniel Keys Moran, Todd McCaffrey and Steve Barnes each make small cameo appearances in the narrative, alongside a mention of Theodore Sturgeon. If nothing else, even the cover says “based on a true story”.
Because Gerrold did adopt a child nearly fifteen years ago, and there’s no doubt that the experience fueled this novel. As we read all about how a single man adopts a “hard to place” child, it’s the day-to-day frustrations and incidents of the adoption, more than the hints that the child has supernatural powers, that drive this novel forward. Never mind how the child may (or may not) be evidence of an alien invasion plot: it’s the temper tantrums, the petty theft, the threats of walking away from a budding father/son connection that are the real suspense elements in this novel. This isn’t a treatise on adoption, but it doesn’t sugar-coat the experience, and gives all of the right believable details.
For such a short novel, it packs an emotional charge far more intense than you’d expect. Part of The Martian Child’s power is how it focuses on a narrative featuring two main characters and little else. It takes place in a contemporary reality, although it may not be immune to the occasional earthquakes and Hollywood movie props. Gerrold has always been a writer with an impeccably accessible style and it doesn’t fail him here: Every word in this short novel is there for a reason, and you may very well end up reading the entire thing in one sitting, as it is probably intended.
Given all of this, it’s a bit strange that the deniable SF elements of the novel end up feeling like a bit of a genre-friendly side-show, or a way to distinguish the novel from other similar narratives. The real meaning of “Abbess Phone Home” stories aren’t always that they fail at being genre stories, but that most of their interest lies elsewhere. So it is that The Martian Child may attract readers looking for alien changeling, but hit them with the force of a story about real humans.