So, what is it you want from a holiday?
A chance to luxuriate by the poolside, drinking cocktails and reading a great book? How about gentle walks along a coastal trail, with towering trees on one side and an azure ocean on the other? Or perhaps you want an itinerary of museums, art galleries and historic places of interest, all finished off by a cheeky glass of red wine in a cosy cafe somewhere?
They all sound great in their own way, don’t they?
Unfortunately, vacationer Eunice, off to the pleasure planet of Rydra-17 (that’s quite a crowded solar system they have going on there) with husband Peter in Planet Paradise by Jesse Lonergan, gets none of those things.
What she gets instead is a race for survival when she and a number of other would-be holidaymakers crash-land on a dinosaur-esque filled planet, a small, inconsequential 401 million kilometres off course, and there isn’t a pool or historic place of interest to be seen anywhere.
Not exactly a dream vacation is it, but Eunice rises to the occasion – only she and the injured, drug-addled captain of the ship are conscious so she really doesn’t have much choice – and in an environment inimical to human life anyway (the lizards are doing just fine on all their red scaly, terrifyingly large glory), she manages to find a way to save herself, her cranky injured captain companion Glenda, who seems more interested in high painkiller dosages than actually leading and problem solving, and those fellow vacationers whose status pods didn’t break apart on impact.
It’s thrilling and it’s exciting, funny and maddening, the very last thing someone like Eunice wants, but it is, in the end, the very making of a woman who until this point, we find out later when she is reunited with Peter and they get their long-delayed holiday, was content to sit back and let life happen to her.
But when your life is on the line, sitting back and waiting for the cavalry isn’t exactly an option, especially not when the cavalry is as bored and disinterested as the one that’s supposed to come rocketing its way to Eunice’s rescue.
What makes Planet Paradise such a wholly fun and enthralling read is that Lonergan manages to tell a thrilling tale of survival while at the same time deftly subverting the genre of space-based or planetary survival.
That’s quite a feat because too much one way and you have the kind of serious race for survival we’ve seen a thousand times before without much humanity at play; too far the other way however, and you’re in comedy central which might make for an hilarious tale of hijinks and Odd Couple-type antics but robs the story of any emotional impact it might have.
Planet Paradise manages to be both deeply, engagingly human as Eunice rises to a challenge she didn’t think she’d have to face, unaware she has the skills and temperament to rise magnificently to the occasion, and also maddeningly, cringingly funny as time again you realise that Eunice is facing not simply a hostile planet but a bureaucracy that doesn’t seem all that interested in saving her with any kind of real urgency.
What its employees are very much interested in however is soap operas, slurps and taking its own damn sweet time as employees of the galactic vacationing comply Eunice and Peter have booked with, respond to what is in anyone’s books a bona fide emergency with shrugs, slow, tired walks and an ennui borne of years sitting listlessly in cockpits or control centres.
It is this aspect of bored, barely-involved bureaucracy that gives Planet Paradise much of its appeal.
While we all like to think that real life is like the movies and that all rescuers will dash to our aid with selfless hearts and self-sacrificial speed, awash with the energising thrill of saving someone’s life, the truth is they are often like the people, many people have been swallowed whole by the enervating sameness of the work they do so wholly and completely, that while they might have once cared, they no longer do, worn down by a system that has well and truly lost sight of its original purpose.
This disinterest in making things easier for those in peril comes to the fore in an amusing, but if you’re Eunice, blood-boilingly frustrating way, when it turns out that the rescue beacon, which will beam their location to the stars where rescuers will hopefully hear it and respond, has to be assembled.
Yes, assembled, the process aided, or not aided depending on how you love obliquely drawn-up instructions, by a step-by-step process that owes more to a just get the job done mentality that making things easier for those who might have to interpret them under great emotional and physical stress.
Planet Paradise is a piece of satirical gold, highlighting how those things that should be the best of us, and people who given then chance would be the best of us, are instead sucked into a place of rules and regulations so intensely inhuman that even very good people stop caring after a while.
Take the captain Glenda, whose behaviour by the way at the end of the story is hilariously maddening, who is saved by Glenda only to spend her time high on drugs and remarkably disinclined to help in any way.
Granted her leg is busted but she won’t even help Glenda with basic things like first aid and beacon assemblage and the combination to the weapons lockers wherein lie the very necessary means of defeating the rampaging, very hungry lizards; perhaps she was dedicated to her job once, but after years of battling soul-sucking bureaucracy, she’s cranky, unsupportive and only concerned with looking after herself.
Thank goodness then that Planet Paradise is Eunice’s story.
Eunice, meek, sweet Eunice, who Peter thinks cares more for massages that safaris out in the wild of Rydra-17, who finds that she is the type of person who will take charge, who will fix things and defend injured people and battle of monstrous lizards and save everyone who can’t save themselves.
That’s Eunice, and while her journey to saving herself, Glenda and the others is humorously frustrating in the extreme, it is also inspiring and fun, brought vividly to life by artwork which is minimalist in one sense but rich with all kinds of detail in the other.
We see emotion writ large on peoples’ faces, most importantly Eunice’s, get to know a planet of desert-like ferocity and see what life in our space is really like, not just how inspirational sci-fi would like it to be.
Planet Paradise is clever, inspired storytelling, funny and heartfelt, thrilling and face-slappingly WTF-ing (how can people be that disengaged?) but wholly and utterly rewarding, a piece of manifestly wonderful storytelling that combines art and wordplay to devastatingly good effect, telling the simple but profound story of one woman’s fight fir survival against uncountable odds (many of them of human origin) and how she is happily and permanently changed in the process.