Mister Roberts, By Alexei Sayle

A galactic voyage around his mother
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The Independent Culture

Barely 20 pages into this snappy novella, an Imperial cruiser of the Galactic Empire is sustaining hefty damage from rebel X-wings when a doom-laden drone nips into a Planetary Exploration Suit and deserts in a shuttle that crash-lands in Spain. The Suit, a robotic skin operated by the stumpy, lizard-like alien within, provides camouflage in the form of "a man who frequented jazz clubs in Montmartre 40 years ago – the time of the aliens' last visit to the earth".

Lonesome 13-year-old Stanley discovers the Suit (minus alien) while wandering in the Sierra, and relishes its possibilities for fun. Donna, however, his louche and derelict 29-year-old mother, is locked inside her own selfish victimhood. She coerces a beSuited Stanley to act as her bionic consort to plump up her self-esteem. Donna comforts herself with the thought that "going out with a robot who was really her son wasn't by a long way the weirdest relationship she'd... been in."

This collision of absurd comedy with Donna's car-crash life, and her shameless manipulation of an increasingly miserable Stanley, is the core of Alexei Sayle's bittersweet book. Amid comic riffs on The Terminator and Douglas Adams are more sober reflections on identity, responsibility and the corruptions of power. Sayle works in some tender moments of Stanley's maturing self-confidence around the humour of Donna's maternal inadequacies.

Stanley's queasiness about Donna's unhinged behaviour recalls the young lad supporting his meltdown mother in Matthew Kneale's When We Were Romans. Like Kneale, Sayle has the punchy economy of an accomplished short-story writer, and kicked off his serious literary career with two volumes of short fiction. Mister Roberts, his third novel, draws on a similar restless energy in his jovial sniping at the dissolute lives of the British expats.

Some of the vitriol of Sayle's stand-up years has percolated into his fiction. This makes for a refreshing satire where belly-laugh humour jostles uneasily against Stanley's courageous attempts to rein in his mother's childish impulses. Mister Roberts makes mischievous entertainment of the expat lushes, but manages to close with hints of a bizarre morality tale.