3 out of 4 stars
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The Earth Family Smith by Chun-Tien Leung is a science fiction novel that also aims to be a political commentary. It tells the story of three children who escaped an Earth ravaged by climate change, only to become separated from their parents and trapped on an unfamiliar planet. They're lucky enough to be taken in by a kind alien, and they learn about the planet's history of welcoming interstellar visitors. However, political polarization has led other denizens of the planet to become distrustful and even hostile towards outsiders, and even this new world isn't free from the dangers of climate change.
Overall, I really loved this book's worldbuilding. There are a whole host of colorful alien species, and their technology, culture, and norms are all quite distinct from that of Western civilization while still being somewhat relatable. For example, the psionic abilities of many of its denizens led to an erosion of privacy, and there's a religious sect that discourages its members from releasing gas through pores in the skin. These elements are cohesive, too, and they come together to form a vibrant and imaginative world.
Unfortunately, I can't say the same about the political commentary. The core message seems to be that the 2016 United States election was a mess, largely due to distrust and misinformation, but this idea is neither interesting nor entertaining. Much of this information is delivered in monologues or one-sided conversations, too, making it feel dull and faintly moralizing. There are some clever moments, like when an elected official proposes that non-sentient ungulates be made to pay for a wall, but these references aren't enough to carry the story.
In terms of plot, this book is decent, if not spectacular. Much of the focus is on the human children navigating a new planet, and that sense of exploration carries the book forward, so a riveting plot isn't really necessary. The pacing is solid, and there's enough conflict for the story to have tension and stakes. I found the characters somewhat stereotypical, though, especially Cameron, the main character. She's a typical bland teenaged girl who accepts being forced into a motherly role, and her empathy is her strongest virtue, which is yet another cliché among female protagonists. There's even another character, Daniel, who exists pretty much just to be her awkwardly forced love interest.
At the end of the day, despite its flaws, I did still enjoy reading about a vivid alien world, so I'm rating this book 3 out of 4 stars. I can see some people enjoying the whimsical planet for what it is, and it might be good as an introduction to the political climate in the United States for children who are just starting to be aware of politics. The narrative does support some of the ideas espoused by the democratic left, like the concepts that killing immigrants is wrong and that sick people should be treated, so more sensitive conservative readers may want to stay away.
The Earth Family Smith
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