Books
3:57 pm
Mon December 1, 2008

Space: A Novel, by Roger Reid

Awith the botany/ecology of Longleaf, there is in this novel some science, surrounded by a large spoonful of sweet whodunit to make the medicine go down. Reid weaves in information about black holes, the escape velocity required to leave different planets, the Big Bang and the expansion of the solar system, discussions of the speed of light and the cosmic wave background, ubiquitous in the universe, and the necessity of living in the right neighborhood in any galaxy?not too near the center, not too near the edge. All of this is quite palatable.

The young hero of Reid's second novel will be familiar to many. Fourteen-year-old Jason Caldwell had a series of adventures in the Conecuh National Forest in Reid's 2006 novel Longleaf. He and his new friend Leah had to run for their lives and outwit some real villains. Throughout that story Reid inserted, gracefully, lessons on forestry, the longleaf pine ecosystem (what is left of it), forest creatures, weather, you get the picture.

Longleaf took place in April, and obviously Jason survived. Now it is June, just a few weeks later, and Jason and his dad, who is a university professor of astronomy, are in Huntsville, Alabama in some rustic cabins on Monte Sano mountain, at the annual meeting of some old friends from graduate school who call themselves, with some nerdy irony, the "space cadets."

This group gathers to stargaze, reminisce, and discuss, for a week, questions of science that interest them. This year is a little different because six months earlier one of their number, Raymond Warrensburg, was killed in a car wreck and his son, 16-year-old Stephen, was paralyzed. Jason has been brought along partly to be a companion to Stephen, who is an a know-it-all and fairly unlikeable. Jason feels guilty about not liking Stephen, but wheelchair or not, Stephen is obnoxious.

The week begins badly, with Stephen announcing, to the group that the wreck was no accident and "One of you killed my father. I'm going to find out who and see that you pay."

Well, this is a party stopper, but it does launch the action of the novel. Was the wreck an accident or had the car been tampered with? There is a mysterious man in a red flannel shirt hanging around. Is he some kind of law enforcement or a villain? It looks as if someone is trying to kill young Stephen. Is this so? Are some members of the space cadets actually spies for a foreign government or corporation?

Stephen and the reluctant Jason become like 21st century Hardy Boys, gathering clues, eavesdropping, getting into dangerous situations, escaping from those tight spots. I am not a middle-schooler but I am happy to say I read right along, carried by the plot and the personalities of the two teenagers, and turning each page to find out what happened next. The action takes place in an observatory and around the Huntsville installations.

And as with the botany/ecology of Longleaf, there is in this novel some science, surrounded by a large spoonful of sweet whodunit to make the medicine go down. Reid weaves in information about black holes, the escape velocity required to leave different planets, the Big Bang and the expansion of the solar system, discussions of the speed of light and the cosmic wave background, ubiquitous in the universe, and the necessity of living in the right neighborhood in any galaxy?not too near the center, not too near the edge. All of this is quite palatable.

Reid, whose day job is writer/director/producer for the Alabama Public Television series Discovering Alabama, has clearly developed a satisfying avocation here. There will surely be more Jason Caldwell adventures, and why not?

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