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Julie, Roehampton Readers

Sputnik's Guide to Life on Earth

Sputnik’s guide to life on earth gives us a hearty helping of Frank Cottrell Boyce’s humour and fantasy whilst being grounded in the not so wonderful life of Prez a young boy who is living in temporary care. It is typically a boy orientated narrative with episodic flights of fancy and imagination. The flights of fancy are great investigations of “what if?” –
What if the remote control really could rewind real life?
or a reverse explosion could rebuild Hadrian’s Wall?
or the supermarket self check-out gave you money and not the other way around?
all delivered with Frank Cottrell Boyce’s trademark humour. These sequences also allow him to explore big themes: time, ageing, death, love, home (Life the universe and everything?) The story also gives insight into the experience of children who are carers, living with dementia and life in care for both young and old.
The starting out “what if” premise concerns the real life dog Leika – what if she had not really died in space but had communicated her doggy perspective of earth to other beings in the universe ? (eg everything on earth is edible, dogs are the dominant species p56.) It is Leika who has apparently prompted the arrival of Sputnik, an alien, who has come to take care of Prez. And so we are introduced to a big message of the book: seeing from another’s point of view, just as right from start Sputnik is perceived as a dog by everyone (almost) except Prez. Frank Cottrell Boyce plays with this conceit for a while so that we can discover the multiple manifestations of Sputnik for ourselves. Later we experience the different perspectives of other people of Grandad - particularly his knifeskills - and the young offenders on their midnight trip to Tesco’s
Humour comes largely from the great dialogue between Sputnik and Prez which deals well with varying perspectives of events.“I was told the most popular form of communication on the planet was urine – for dogs not people.” (p.74)
The distinctive voice of Frank Cottrell Boyce/Sputnik made me laugh out loud at times, although I perhaps did not find all of the magic sequences as hilarious as might a young reader, I did love the scenes at Annabel’s party with the light saber. (p38 39)

In the cleverly constructed plot, the various adventures could be Prez’ imagination taking up remembered lessons or facts, for example Jessie describes how you can get stuck in the mud in the estuary of the Merse (P94) and this is exactly what is described at the end of the book when Prez is rescuing his granddad. Sputnik gives enthusiastic and experiential lessons about physics which are equally convincing and confusing in a blend of reality/imagination eg does gravity really come in waves? This feature and the plot premise that the earth is imminently to be destroyed by aliens are reminiscent of Douglas Adams’ Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, whilst Sputnik’s character is a mix of ET and The Doctor. We are always brought back to reality from where we left off in everyday life “We got back to the bus stop just in time for its first trip of the day” (p239). So did any of this really happen? – it depends on your perspective of course.
Communication is also a theme, which manifests itself in the form of lists, - the list at the start of the book acts as a contents list of chapters and the compilation of a list of 10 great things about the Earth acts as a unifying narrative - post it notes, the guide/companion, the map and using instructions – Sputnik has a catch phrase “did you read the manual, it’s all in the manual?”. At the end we discover that Grandad’s treasured sea chest is not full of artefacts, but full of the notes Prez had written for him - his “memories” or “rememberings”. The last item on the list of 10 things is a post it note with the number 10 on it. Frank Cottrell Boyce offers alternative explanations for this, so readers can make up their own minds.
Frank Cottrell Boyce plays down the detail of Prez’ circumstances - the reason for his mother’s departure is hardly referred to. We know that Prez has been brought up by his Grandad since he was a baby, but this story is not a case history. Our social conscience is developed through insight into what living in care is like and into what it means to be a young carer. Within these circumstances we are given a best possible resolution which amounts to a happy ending.

Posted on: 9th August 2017 at 11:29 am

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