Avonova, 1992 reprint of 1991 original, 290 pages, C$5.50, ISBN 0-380-71876-6
I don’t know much about anything, but one thing I’m starting to understand as an avid reader is that over a sufficiently long time, there isn’t such a thing as “the book that got away”: Whatever books captured my imagination back when I didn’t have enough money to buy them all keep popping up in the strangest places. As long as I’m patient enough, chances are that I will end up reading every book whose cover ever struck me as interesting.
So it is that I’ve been fascinated by Buddy Holly is Alive and Well on Ganymede for a long time, on the sole strength of its title. Never mind the content of the novel itself and contemplate the title once more. Isn’t it wonderful? Isn’t it the kind of title that lodges itself in your brain and pops up occasionally to roll off the tongue? Can you imagine Christopher Walken gravely intoning “Buddy Holly… is alive… and well… on Ganymede”? Even if you can’t or won’t imagine such a thing, you at least have to admit that any novel that sports that title is worth a look.
It begins in 1989, as one regular guy named Oliver Vale sets down to watch TV and finds out that all channels are showing the same thing: Buddy Holly, strumming his guitar while telling people that he’s stuck on Ganymede, and that Oliver Vale is the one who can explain why. Vale takes it in stride: after all, he’s been conceived to the sound of a Buddy Holly song on the radio, at the very same time the singer died in a plane crash. Raised as a rock-and-roll messiah by a single mom with seemingly crackpot ideas about aliens, Vale knows that he’s not the most stable of people, and his first reaction to the TV broadcast is to congratulate himself on the inflated self-esteem of his hallucinations. But when the telephone starts to ring, it turns out that all channels around the world are showing the same thing… and that everyone has heard Vale’s name and address. Now they want answers, and Vale doesn’t have a clue what to tell anyone.
It gets weirder. Much weirder, what with Vale riding his motorcycle to Buddy Holly’s grave site, being pursued by his own psychotherapist, mobs of unhappy TV viewers, a ruthless enforcer from the FCC, two sets of aliens and a cyborg dog. (The dog belongs to one of the alien couples, which explains at least one thing.) Every chapter alternates between Oliver’s first-person narration and third-person viewpoints: the technical juggling of those points of view in portraying the story as it happens is impressive, especially given Vale’s frequent flashbacks to his childhood.
An extended chase sequence set in the American Midwest, Buddy Holly is Alive and Well on Ganymede is the kind of novel that ends up delivering an experience no one even imagined they wanted. It’s fun, it’s pleasant to read, it’s inventive and it seldom stops for breath. The characters are memorable (just wait until you meet Grechen), the prose is delicious and the tone is an unusual blend of light-hearted whimsy, pop nostalgia and a few surprising action scenes. The lead character manages to be sympathetic despite a grab-bag of issues, something that largely owes to Denton’s affectionate attitude toward his characters. It ends curiously well.
For a narrative that features a lot of references to fifties rock-and-roll music, Buddy Holly is Alive and Well on Ganymede is nonetheless accessible to readers who may not recall the era or the music first-hand. Even the messy conclusion doesn’t do any damage to the impression left by the rest of the story. The result is an interesting time-capsule of a comic SF novel, something worth reading even today –and a confirmation that the 1991 Campbell jury was on to something when they named it the best Science Fiction novel of the year.
I ended up finding my copy of Buddy Holly is Alive and Well on Ganymede in a small used bookstore in Winnipeg after nearly 17 years of not-so-assiduous looking, but you don’t have to wait that long: A fact-checking Google trawl ended up revealing not only that a movie adaptation is slated for release sometime soon, but that the entire content of the novel has been freely made available online under Creative Commons licensing.