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What does it take for your family to finally understand you? That’s the question motivating Mike Chen’s emotionally resonant and remarkably subversive book Light Years From Home.

Kass and Evie Shao have wildly different theories for what happened to their brother when he disappeared without a trace fifteen years ago. Kass thinks he’s been spending the time being his usual irresponsible self and partying it up, while Evie believes he was abducted by aliens. Now, without warning, Jakob is back in their lives. What follows is a wonderful slow-motion crash that you can’t look away from—even though you have your eyes covered, you squint through the gaps in your fingers because you must know how this actually ends. Chen masterfully weaves a narrative that slips between the points of views of all three siblings, showing us the train wreck of their reunion and the ensuing days.

The book starts off with Jakob’s in medias res account of escaping a disintegrating alien spaceship to find safety in the California suburb he grew up in. Back on earth, we learn that his little sister had Evie moved across the country to search for alien life, and for him. Kass wants nothing to do with aliens, or with Jakob, and has spent the last decade and a half trying to move the family forward from that one fateful moment when their lives veered off course. None of the siblings understands why the other does what they do, why their priorities are all out of whack with reality. Yet, they try anyway, slowly and cautiously, to come together. And that is the beating heart of the book.

Take, for example, a moment from early in the book where Kass is considering her feelings about the object she calls “It”—the only thing that was found when Jakob disappeared.

It, a mess of metal and plastic and stone and whatever else, represented so much more, not just to Kass but to her entire family, like all of the confusion and pain and anger arrived in the form of a handheld object, probably a child’s toy or a novelty device lost while camping. The wrong place at the wrong time for the wrong person: Dad, who needed something to believe in when a body was never located rather than just accepting that Jakob—flaky, unreliable, selfish Jakob—had probably just run off to travel the world while trying every drug in existence.

Because Jakob was a dick. He always had been.

Several years ago, Kass told Evie that Mom had thrown It away. That was the easier path, with Evie wanting photos and details about the stupid thing for her deranged alien web show.

In just a few short paragraphs, Chen colors in so much history, setting the stage for how Kass rejects her siblings and the choices they’ve made over the last decade and a half. She funnels her frustration into the singular object.

But another part of her wanted to go further—find a rock or a brick or something to smash the device, as if destruction might undo the last fifteen years and restore things.

But then Chen goes a little further in the narrative and shows us how, despite her feelings about her family, she can’t shake the fact that she is indeed part of it. That she does care,  even when she can’t stand the sight of her siblings.

Then her back pocket buzzed, interrupting everything. Kass put the rock down and pulled out her phone: a text from Evie. She didn’t even have to read it. Evie’s mere digital presence shifted her thoughts, dissolving any intentions of destroying It.

It is extended moments like these that impress me the most about the book—quiet on their surface but so full of turmoil and love. With an abundance of deep breaths and reconsidered reactions, Chen shows us a family trying its absolute best, its members leaning in and pulling back in equal measure as they confront wounds that have been festering for a long time. Though there are intergalactic stakes, they feel secondary to the main action of the book, which is a family trying, and often failing, to understand each other. The science fiction elements are slight and exist mostly to push the protagonists towards each other. This is not a complaint. Give me all the messy families of science fiction!

Family often tends to have the most rigid understanding of who you are, since any new information needs to be filtered through years of history before landing at a conclusion. My favorite parts of the book were watching these narratives play out every time there was a revelation, and waiting to see what would change. Can Kass trust her twin brother to be a responsible adult, even though she’s never once seen evidence of this quality from him? Is Jakob really on an intergalactic mission or is he an unreliable narrator unsure of his own reality? What about Evie, who has been estranged from her sister since she decided she needed to chase aliens in search of her lost brother?

The magic of the book is that we can absolutely see where everyone is coming from and why they’re making the choices that they’re making, and if it was possible to shout at these characters to convince them make a different one, I’m not sure that they would.

This is also a wonderfully subversive book: Chen takes a lot of the classic space opera tropes and turns them on their head. Some light spoilers ahead: feel free to skip ahead to the next paragraph here. Jakob isn’t picked for his mission because he is smart, or has a great personality, or because he could save the world in some unique way, but because there was spare armor in his size lying around in a passing spaceship. The chosen one returns home, but he’s not victorious, just confused, and it’s a tense homecoming. If there is a military parade with honors for the victors, we are not shown it. The weird piece of alien tech that’s been mentioned since the beginning is a Chekhov’s gun, sure,  but it isn’t anything special: just a weirder version of a wrench used to fix equipment. It doesn’t take a whole lot to convince the “chosen one” to abandon his family and accept his role in a space battle he hasn’t even heard of before. He’s completely on board the second he is given the option.

I think all of this works in favor of the story. By side stepping the expected narratives of grandeur, Chen instead is able to focus deeply on the family drama that unfolds. Sweeping changes, big bangs, and grand gestures do not figure in the book’s dictionary. Instead, Chen chooses to focus most on the quiet moments between people, when they choose who they are going to be to each other.

So it’s probably unsurprising that the book’s weakest link comes in the form of the character that has been given the most science fiction action: Jakob. Kass and Evie are three-dimensional figures with conflicting needs and desires that have to be worked through to bring about a satisfying conclusion. Jakob, in comparison, seems the least developed. He is the one on the great quest to end an intergalactic war and somehow ends up being the most boring of the three siblings. His single-minded focus towards saving the galaxy feels increasingly unearned in the face of the trauma he has left in his wake.

Kass questions Jakob directly in the text, too:

“Look, I know you’re about to go back into sci-fi world, but your space adventure had consequences … So even if you have a noble quest, we’re still the collateral damage. And you know what? That sucks.”

But neither Jakob nor the book can provide a satisfying resolution to the conundrum. One could argue that life doesn’t provide satisfying resolutions either, but it does make for a pretty flat character and a narrative thread that peters out in this otherwise vibrant book.

Light Years From Home joins a growing number of books like The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel or Vagabonds by Hao Jingfang (two of my favorites of the last few years) that explore interpersonal relationships through science fiction instead of focusing solely on unhinged action and adventure. I’m glad this was my first Mike Chen book since I have his entire back catalog at my disposal while I wait for what comes next!



Divyansha Sehgal is a writer currently based in New Delhi. Her writing has appeared in The Sartorial Geek and Bad Form. She is also an associate editor at Kaleidocast. You can find her lurking on Twitter at @div_online.
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