Review: Terra, By Mitch Benn

It's Lbbp from Hrrng on the planet Fnrr!

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The Independent Culture

Celebrities writing books, eh? Can't they just stick to what they're good at, be that pop music, acting, or falling out of nightclubs for the paparazzi?

A popularly held but fatuous opinion – are people only allowed to be good at one thing? And Mitch Benn – while famous indeed thanks to his turns on Radio 4's satirical current affairs programme The Now Show and his stand-up comedy, isn't exactly Katie Price. And if you now have an image of a bearded, guitar-playing Jordan in your head, I do apologise.

The genesis behind Benn's book deal is suitably unorthodox – he wrote on Twitter that he was at a loose end in London and Gollancz editor Simon Spanton told him to drop by and discuss "the SF novel you're going to write". Which he duly did, and Gollancz duly published, and here it is.

But is it any good? The first thing to be said about Terra is that Benn obviously knows his science fiction. This is not a book by a slumming sleb trying to turn a quick buck to pay a tax bill. Benn obviously has a great love for the genre, knows its conventions and, more importantly, how to gently subvert them.

The second thing to be said about Terra is that it really falls into the sub-genre of comic science fiction. There are passages in Terra in which Benn seems to be channelling Douglas Adams – omnipotent descriptions of technology and events in a slightly sardonic manner – but he quickly (and thankfully) reasserts his own influence ... which is a good thing because Mitch Benn is a very fine writer and Terra is a very fine book.

The eponymous heroine is a young girl who is born to a very Roald Dahl-esque pair of grotesque and squabbling parents. When they are driving home from the hospital with their new charge they are suddenly faced with a flying saucer and flee, leaving their baby behind. The pilot of the UFO – a gentle alien of the grey skin and big black eyes variety, called Lbbp – has been observing the human race for some time and, shocked by this desertion, takes the baby, which he names Terra after her homeworld, back to his city of Hrrng on the island of Mlml on the "distant orange-green planet of Fnrr".

The nomenclature of the Fnrrns is composed entirely of consonants. Humans are Ymns, Earth is Rrth. Somehow, Benn manages to avoid this descending into irritable vowel syndrome and it's much easier on the eye than it sounds.

The novel concerns Terra – now aged 11 – and her search for answers about her past, while not stinting on spacey technology, alien battles and knowing comic asides. It has more warmth than an 18 tog duvet and more heart than a butcher's shop window. At the beginning of the book I was unsure whether it was aimed at adults or younger readers, but by the end I realised that it is simply a novel for humans – or Ymns – everywhere.