It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


Wanting to be normal – Lydia Netzer’s Shine Shine Shine

I forget where I saw mention of Lydia Netzer’s Shine Shine Shine. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t on one of the many blogs I read, nor by one of the people I follow on Twitter. It certainly wasn’t recommended to me by Amazon – I forget the last time I bought a book by an author unknown to me because it was recommended by Amazon. Wherever it was, the précis of the plot was enough to pique my interest, as the blurb says: “This is the story of an astronaut lost in space, and the wife he left behind”. Since the fourth book of my Apollo Quartet, All That Outer Space Allows, will be about the wife of an Apollo astronaut, I was both intrigued by Shine Shine Shine as well as having a “professional interest” in it.

Happily, it was on half-price promotion in Waterstone’s, so I bought a copy. The cover is,um, very pink, and it doesn’t look anything like a novel featuring an astronaut. Nor did I recognise any of the names who have blurbed the book. But never mind, the story still sounded like it might appeal.

UK cover

But, oh dear. The novel opens:

Deep in darkness, there was a tiny light. Inside the light, he floated in a spaceship. It felt cold to him, floating there. Inside his body, he felt the cold of space. He could still look out the round windows of the spaceship and see the Earth.

This doesn’t bode well. The novel is set in the very near-ish future, though it’s depicted as the present day for all but the fact of mission to the Moon, but that’s language straight from the science fiction of yore. In fact, everything in the novel about the Moon mission is, well, wrong. Plainly Netzer has done no research on it – her prose has zero authority when discussing the astronaut husband. She gets the physics wrong, she gets other details wrong. One of the crew, for example, is a lieutenant commander in the US Air Force. Except lieutenant commander is a naval rank. The USAF equivalent is major. That’s shoddy craft.

And yet, there are things to like about Shine Shine Shine. It’s very “creative writing class” in places, but Netzer has created an interesting protagonist in Sunny, a young pregnant Virginia housewife with alopecia and a son with Asperger’s, whose decision to not hide her alopecia kicks off the story. Her early childhood is not especially convincing, but the sections set in the foothills of the Appalachians in western Pennsylvania, where Sunny and Maxon, her husband, meet as children are good. Maxon, the roboticist turned astronaut, also has Asperger’s, and is depicted throughout as very close to a robot himself. He’s also a genius, a Nobel prize laureate, and a millionaire. While Maxon is handled quite well, all this is just over-egging his character.

US cover

In fact, the entire story is a little over-egged. It opens with Sunny involved in a minor car accident. Her wig flies from her head. So she decides to no longer wear it. Her Virginia housewives circle, of course, did not know she was bald. Sunny has tried so long to be “normal” – hiding the fact of her baldness, using her husband’s genius to excuse his inability to interact with people, organising her neighbours and becoming a pillar of the local community.

Meanwhile, she is heavily pregnant, her husband is on his way to the Moon to oversee the creation of the first robotic colony there, their son, Bubber, has severe Asperger’s but is likely a savant of some kind, and her mother is on life support in hospital, her body riddled with cancer. A meteor strikes the spacecraft Maxon is aboard, stranding the crew in cislunar space (I think – the astrographics is nonsense throughout). Back on Earth, Sunny tries to hold her family together in the face of these threats, and attempts to find the person she was before she subsumed herself in the role of Virginia housewife. Her story is interspersed with flashbacks, describing her birth and early childhood in Burma (her father was a missionary), and her life as a child in Pennsylvania, living next door to Maxon and his hillbilly family of – I think – meth-makers.

Shine Shine Shine could have been an excellent novel, but it’s let down by a lack of research and a consequent lack of verisimilitude. True, not every reader is going to be as critical of the spacecraft-set parts of the novel as myself, but writers should always strive for verisimilitude. Research, research and then research some more. They say “write what you know”, but that’s complete rubbish. If everyone did that, literature would be very dull indeed. But that doesn’t mean you can make shit up when it’s easily checkable. Doing that only makes you look a fool – cf Dan Brown. If Maxon’s career had been in any way convincing, Shine Shine Shine would have been greatly improved. As it is, the novel reads like a thesis for a Creative Writing MA. Disappointing.