Dusk is falling above Molly and Gene Myers’s house on Crooked Street in Amber Grove, the small New England town where Stephen Cox sets his debut and which, according to its opening pages, sits somewhere between Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, and the legend of Superman. It is Halloween night some time in the late 1960s, and Molly is sewing a costume for Cory, the couple’s excitable and miraculous son.
Halloween for Molly is a season of pumpkin lanterns and ragged paper witches hung from gutters, of fall’s “sad beauty” (p. 1) ushering in the possibilities of a winter still to come, and of remembering youthful evenings spent kicking up dry leaves, before adult life and marriage taught her that “[c]hildhood was a lost country” after all (p.3). It is only when the trick-or-treating neighbourhood teenagers knock on the door, and Cory scurries to the attic and Molly sweeps the stairs for any trace of toys, that we understand what secret the Myerses have been hiding at the end of Crooked Street—and begin to notice the feats and features that make Cory so unconcealable an extraterrestrial boy.
The trope of the all-American family taking in and raising an orphaned alien child is already so familiar a device, from the Kents of Smallville to the Breyers of James Gunn’s forthcoming superhero horror movie BrightBurn, that it inspires less a desire to find out what will happen, and more a desire to find out how the key plot points will be achieved. The parents will strive to give their son (it is almost always their son) as normal an upbringing as his extraordinary nature allows him, until his identity can no longer be concealed. Against the secret state that covets his people’s superior technology and his own superpowers, their warm safe home is offered to us as a more authentic expression of the (white) American soul.
Cory breaks the mould of Superman or the revisionist BrightBurn, and—in appearing immediately and unquestionably non-human, unable to hide in Clark-Kent-style plain sight—comes closer to E.T. (a film Cox says he had not seen all the way through when he wrote this book). The narrative gives us clues to the mystery of how Cory is different before it satisfies our expected curiosity about how he looks, teasing us with the length of time he can hang upside down from a stair rail, or the agility with which he can spring up from a squatting position “like an unfolding frog to his full height” (p. 5). His ears swivel “from ten to two” when Molly brings him the Halloween costume he’s flailed over for days; his long, hairless head is “the colour of lavender milk, the colour of vigour and health”; and he returns his mother’s love by stroking her cheek “with his outer face tentacles, seven-inch fingers the colour of red plums” (pp. 5–7). Roughly the height of an elementary-school child, with a physical appearance that must be somewhere between Futurama’s Dr Zoidberg and Piglet of the Hundred Acre Wood, Cory can take advantage of Halloween as a time to go out reasonably unnoticed—a lesson the Myerses learned during Cory’s first autumn on Earth, just as Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s supernatural creatures and other monsters-of-suburbia have long learned in turn.
Setting Our Child of the Stars in the late 1960s allows Cox, who was born in the USA to British parents, to unfold this particularly American story amid the space race and adults’ fear of nuclear warfare, with defence scientists believably cordoning off the site where the spaceship belonging to Cory and his mother crash-landed (on what has become known to Amber Grove as Meteor Day). Much of the plot describes how Molly, a nurse who dreads conceiving another child after losing her first baby, and Gene, a folk-singing librarian who longs to be a father, smuggle Cory home from the hospital after a Roswell-like incident and hide him from all but the children of their closest friends, until the arrival of a sinister government expert following that second Halloween forces Cory out into the open—and the family on the run. The Vietnam War, Woodstock, and the student protest movement are in the background—Black Power far less so, although it only takes a few pages for Molly to wonder “What would the Reverend have thought of Cory?” beneath her “smiling photograph of Dr King” (p. 4). A curious turn into alternate history, which gives the Moon landings a very different outcome in this world where humans are demonstrably not alone, precipitates the story’s climax, in which the family must flee to the Canadian border with the cautious help of Gene’s conservative parents—and including the intervention of a female journalist from the Washington Post.
Cox’s storytelling is strongest when bringing to life the relationship of Gene and Molly, a couple who have struggled with miscarriage, infidelity, and alcoholism since their courtship and yet have kept alive enough love and trust to bear the responsibility of caring for a hidden alien child. Gene’s doubts about fatherhood are among the book’s most heartfelt passages, and the examples of his own father and neighbours raising their biological children both daunt him and inspire him as he and Molly grow into their parental roles. The potential completion of their family bond only comes, however, when Molly eventually conceives her own child (only biological parenting, it seems, can truly satisfy the human urge for motherhood and fatherhood represented by the novel’s central couple, no matter what they are prepared to sacrifice for their adopted son); but this instead raises the stakes when Molly, Gene, and Cory must escape the scientists and goons who want to turn Cory’s maturing powers into the sort of weapon that this innocent child—and his peace-loving parents—cannot bear to contemplate that he might be.
Cory, indeed, is more plot device than character: it is Gene’s and Molly’s experiences, not Cory’s, with which we are invited to empathise. When the story arc is swinging towards happiness, Cory is a source of familial joy and comfort; when action needs to rise, Cory is a secret that must be hidden, or a package that must be snuck undercover to the next secure location on the trail, and might as well be Pulp Fiction’s glowing suitcase refigured as a sentient child. With a facial appearance that shocks strangers, unusual speech patterns, insatiable curiosity, and flailing hands, Cory is clearly coded as disfigured and also perhaps neurodivergent—reminding me of how often the stories of disabled children’s parents seem to be more interesting to popular fiction and film than those of disabled people themselves. Even the title comes to symbolise Gene’s and Molly’s marriage as much as their child.
Without a narrative point of view to show how Cory manages what must be the intense pressures not to frighten humans with his difference—and thus run the risk of capture—his inner self remains meek and passive, even when enduring interactions such as a newspaper editor wanting to touch the scars from his crash landing, and asking if his skin colour continues all over his body (believable ableist and racist microaggressions in our own world). Cory’s own character seems hardly to grow, beyond the development of some dream-projecting powers necessary to advance the plot, and the action turns on his parents’ choices rather than his own: the story might scarcely be different if he had been replaced with a dangerous cryptid pup or (to misquote Kelly Sue DeConnick’s test for female characters’ narrative roles) an alien lampshade.
Amber Grove’s supporting cast, like Cory, are rarely drawn with their own inner lives. Rather like a Fisher Price playset where plastic figurines wait by their Main Street storefronts until playtime begins, we meet all the stock roles we’d expect—the teacher, the doctor, the nurses, the sheriff and so on—but largely they enter and leave the stage within a period of time only as long as their presence is required in assisting or frustrating Molly and Gene. The small towns of Stephen King’s New England, in which protagonists are constantly drawn into the unfolding lives of their supporting characters, and incidents set up for dark comic relief in early chapters so often end up as the pivots of much higher-stakes action later on, are many narrative miles away from Amber Grove.
Two somewhat more original characters appear once Molly and Gene rendezvous in a crowd of Christmas shoppers with the Pulitzer-seeking journalist Carol, dressed in “an elegant winter coat and […] city hat,” and her companion, “camera bag slung over her shoulder” (p. 348), who just for an instant I fancied might have been called Therèse. Storm, as she turns out to be, provides the novel’s only hint of human dissent from the heteronormative nuclear family ideal, when she lets on to Cory that she was christened with a more feminine name (“There’s a great picture of me aged seven in braids and ribbons” (p. 365)); but any intimacy there might be between Carol and her palomino-wrangling photographer is left to the reader to project onto the narrative. That said, we come to understand that Cory’s home world treats gender more fluidly than 1960s America (or America today): Cory is baffled by Earth shops’ insistence on selling gendered clothes and gifts, and Cory’s people recognise an “inter” gender, the members of which are neither male or female until they become adults. On more than one occasion, the gender of inter is the limit of what even well-meaning liberals like Gene, Molly, or Carol can take in.
The limitations of the novel’s wider social world are most perceptible in Molly’s close friend Diane, “Amber Grove’s first black teacher,” who raises three children after losing her husband, and is a woman of whom “you just knew no mean boy would dare pull braids in her class” (p. 15). The reader’s knowledge of and comfort with the Strong Black Woman archetype can apparently take it from there. We do not see what fears and futures Diane might imagine for Cory based on her embodied experience as a black woman and a mother of black children (quite likely black sons). Nor does the narration question how whiteness or blackness (the only two racialised positions this America seems to contain, besides one astronaut with a possibly Latino surname) might play into different characters’ attitudes to how the US government determines which bodies will be allowed the rights belonging to a human being.
Racism, as opposed to the overbearing personal authority of a (white) sheriff who is briefly equated with Nixonian power (before even the novel’s president, strongly implied to be Nixon, turns out to be more sympathetic than he might appear), seems not to trouble this New England town, even though it blights the rest of this America enough for Molly to reflect several times on the teachings of “Dr King,” and for a group of African-Americans in the crowd of cranks and hippies that surrounds the White House near the end of the book to be holding banners reading “Cory is a Brother, No Racists in Space!” (”While half a dozen men were spouting some nonsense about Cory Myers being a CIA hoax” [p. 465]).
The small-town fantasy of Amber Grove is, indeed, one in which white liberal tolerance will win the day, and the enlightened do not see disability or race. The couple’s politics are carefully drawn as optimistically progressive but never so radical as to disturb the imagined American consensus (they twice distance themselves from pacifist characters who still sympathise with the Soviet Union by referring to the martyrdom of Jan Palach and “the crushing of the Prague Spring” (p. 168)); their escape from Amber Grove sees their heartland community rallying round to fend off the Nixonian sheriff and the sinister defence scientist, with ties of kinship and neighbourliness eventually persuading the more sympathetic conservative characters to join the Myerses' side. Molly has absorbed Martin Luther King’s teachings of non-violence but not his diagnostics of racism, far less his words to the white moderate from Birmingham jail—though there could hardly be a better illustration of how white moderates have perceived him than Molly’s interior narrative when she is almost moved to strike a Communist radical who wants the family to defect with Cory to the USSR: “Time to think again of the serenity prayer, and the writings of Dr King” (p. 390).
Our Child of the Stars will certainly find a readership, especially with its publishers promoting it as their ”lead debut of 2019,” but it is not primarily aimed at readers who are interested in a deep dive into the historical setting, and certainly not at readers who would need to know the details of how an alien boy with skin the colour of lavender milk would be racialised in 1960s New England before the story’s world could come alive. The real-world tropes of disability through which it will be read go unexamined, and the story belongs as much to the genre of sick/disabled child stories as it does to SFF, investigating how caring for Cory tests and eventually heals Molly and Gene’s marriage, like a Jodi Picoult novel in a Halloween costume. (In fact, Picoult fans trying out their comfort with speculative fiction might well enjoy starting here, with an author who shares Picoult’s craft for producing story from domestic emotional strain.) Appealing to readers of mainstream commercial fiction who might not ordinarily pick up a science fiction novel (Cox’s homepage sells it as “a mainstream novel with a wonderful speculative flourish”) is, it deserves to be said, a creative achievement of its own. Yet crash-landing an extraterrestrial child with so little agency into the centre of a story that revolves around his bodily difference from white American norms leaves the novel relying on the well-worn conventions of representing disability within the nuclear family merely to jerk tears and warm the abled heart.