Waiting for a bus a month ago, I spotted a book stand and decided to take a look at the used books selection. Noticing my interest in science fiction, the vendor excitedly suggested I bought a book I’ve never heard of before: “Amanda and the Eleven Million Mile High Dancer” by a certain Carol Hill. I don’t like strangers suggesting books to me because I have no idea what their taste is like and chances are slim he or she can know what I look for in a book. Still, the way he was describing the book – as silly, wonderfully imaginative, wildly adventurous and as funny as the Hitchhiker’s Guide… – I realized it could actually be a very good match for me. So I bought it.

And, yes. The book is exactly as the vendor described it, and more. At times it’s poetic, very nicely written, and conversations between characters are masterfully hilarious.

The book is about Amanda, the top American astrophysicist who’s getting ready to be the first person to fly to Mars. NASA invested incredible amount of money in her and she’s not disappointing them: she is absolutely brilliant, in every sense of the word. She’s incredibly smart, resourceful, brave, skillful, and on top of all that – incredibly beautiful. The way Ms. Hill describes her, she reminds me of Barbarella, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Barbarella was really Ms. Hill’s model for Amanda. Not only is she a pretty big-boobed blonde, she’s also silly, bordering on crazy and weird, but in an irresistibly charming way.

Amanda is the person who drives her superiors crazy, because she shows up at work in NASA center wearing red, white, blue and star-spangled tights, riding on roller-skates and flashing everyone her brilliant smile. But despite her eccentric behavior, she is an expert scientist and an unsurpassed pilot, so her superiors can only grit their teeth in angry helplessness.

Carol Hill slowly builds the story around this fun protagonist. Strange things start happening in the desert where the space program center is located. First, there are mysterious appearances, astronauts who come back from space talk nonsense and appear to have parted with their brains, desert storms take new and unusual forms. Very soon Amanda starts seeing and hearing strange things. An officially dead astronaut appears by the side of the road to warn her of upcoming events (connected to her flight to Mars), a guy from some other dimension sends her an unusual visitor who fumbles around her apartment not knowing what to do, voices inside her head keep repeating one seemingly meaningless word, and Amanda starts feeling like she’s losing her mind. Except, she’s pretty confident she’s not.

To add to her confused state, there are two men in her life who fight for her love. Actually, one is very determined to win her over, and the other is her true love (she thinks), but is as transient as a cloud, and she can’t hold on to him. In the middle of some cosmic crisis, Amanda is deep in agony over her love life.

And last but not least, there’s a special character in the story to whom great attention is devoted – Amanda’s cat Shrodinger who sleeps most of the day, but has the ability to purr in such a way that shakes the whole house. Most people think he’s dead, and think Amanda is weird for keeping a dead cat. When people come over to her place, they throw Shrodinger back and fourth as if he were a pillow, not realizing he’s not a toy but a real cat.

And then comes the day of the space shuttle launch. Amanda goes off to space and we enter a world far beyond our wildest imagination. And this is where Carol Hill loses me.

The Creator, Meaning of Life and… Stuff

While she gave the impression of really having a good grasp of science in the first part – the part where Amanda is still on Earth – Carol Hill wanders off into the totally childlike way of presuming what’s “out there” in the second part of the book. This adventure in space reads like a cartoon, with purple-and-green snakes wearing funny shoes, robots who play games, a great cosmic mind that stinks and speaks like a rude young man, inexplicable travels through time, space and black holes, etc. Of course, no one can present space that’s many light years away from us convincingly, but a cartoon is a little over the edge for me.

Another disappointing trait of Ms. Hill’s writing is that she tends to think up “solutions” as she goes along, sometimes even in the middle of a sentence – you can see random thoughts and ideas, not making too much sense, and you don’t feel like it’s necessary to try to understand how things function in this version of the great big universe.

At the end of the book the author cites Frijoh Capra’s “The Tao of Physics”: “Science does not need mysticism and mysticism does not need science; but man needs both. ” It seems Carol Hill really believes that mystic experience is necessary to understand the most secret nature of things, but the way she weaves the mystic into this book somehow downplays her authority. The book is not a serious science-fiction (the way that “Solaris”, for example, is a serious sci-fi), and, in fact, the author denies that this is science-fiction at all, but the way she makes an incomprehensible mess out of Amanda’s space adventure is inconsistent with the harmonious first part.

To get back to what I like about the book, I admire how obvious and urgent Ms. Hill’s care for the planet is. At the center of the great cosmic mind’s discontent with homo sapiens is our monstrous destruction of Nature. We need no help from outside to destroy our race, but they will destroy us anyway, because they are fed up with our scandalous behavior. There are reminders all throughout the book of what we have done: poisoned rivers and air, killed hundreds of animal and plant species, changed the climate, initiated our own doom. The author is very sharp in her criticism of the Man and though working towards an optimistic ending, it is debatable whether she really believes the man deserves to pull through. Her vivid descriptions of one possible future – the survived biological systems slowly crawling through a horribly polluted swamp, with deformed bodies, covered with slime and stink, living day by day as some brainless vegetables – clearly demonstrate her fear of where we are headed.

Though small inconsistencies and not making much sense in the second part of the book make the book weaker than it could have been, it is definitely worth reading because of the longer first part, all the amazing characters, situations and interesting plot. As I mentioned earlier, there are quite enough passages where you can admire Ms. Hill’s style and philosophical musings about life.

I’ll end with two sentences that, at the time of reading, really struck me:

“The sense of meaninglessness comes straight from the heart shriveled with grief.”

“He was comforted by [the stars’] beauty and absolute certainty that the object of his pursuit, his secret goal, was removed from him by hundreds of light years.”