Mothership by Martin Leicht and Isla Neal
As a concept goes, “pregnant teenage girl on a spaceship” is a pretty arresting one. Young adult speculative fiction is an exciting and developing field (hint, hint, Hugo!), but I haven’t really seen any depictions of teen pregnancy, let alone a mostly positive one. This might reflect more on my personal experience with the genre, but I’ve only seen the young adult speculative heroine stave it off, if it comes up at all. (Recommendations, as always, are welcome.) So a novel very much about a young pregnant woman was quite welcome. It also helps that the paperback edition features the hideous pun “Resistance is fertile,” which practically made me swoon.
Unfortunately, sixteen year old Elvie Nara is pregnant—and the father of her child, the incredibly gorgeous and incredibly stupid Cole Archer, has skipped town. Luckily, she has applied to and been accepted to the Hanover School for Expecting Teen Mothers, located on a low-orbit space cruiser. If everything goes right, Elvie’s pregnancy will be a minor detour in her life; she’ll put the baby up for adoption and continue her quest to become part of the first team to colonize Mars. But before Elvie can even have her baby, the Hanover School is invaded by a platoon of uniformly hot men who claim that their teachers are baby-snatching aliens. With the ship going down, the girls don’t have much choice but to do what the newcomers say—but who can blame Elvie for flipping out that one of the soldiers is Cole?
Twee is really the perfect word for Mothership. It’s cute, it’s camp, and, when it’s really turned up, it almost emits that frequency that makes your teeth hurt. Elvie is a snarky teen heroine in the vein of Easy A’s Olive Penderghast, or perhaps a Molly Ringwald character with a lot more bite. Heck, her best friend is nicknamed Ducky, explicitly after Pretty in Pink’s Duckie. (The duo are a aficionados of “flat pics.”) She tackles everything, from pregnancy to discovering the truth about her boyfriend to cars, with the same eye-rolling aplomb.
And that’s the problem. Mothership tackles some big issues—whether or not to continue a pregnancy, trust, dealing with the death of a parent, and watching several girls die in the attempt to escape the ship. But these moments, save Elvie’s relationship with her mother, never seem to land. For instance, when informed that there was an alternative to the plan that got some of her classmates killed, Elvie simply shrugs. This isn’t a case of tonal whiplash, but rather a case of flat tone. A story can absolutely have both downright slapstick comedy and emotional weight; The LEGO Movie proves that in spades. So, while the novel is certainly a fun, quick read, it doesn’t particularly stick with you. The fact that Elvie never really bonds with any of her classmates certainly doesn’t help.
However, it does feature a teenage protagonist who has to deal with how pregnancy affects her life. Thankfully, the novel is extremely careful to show all sides. The worldbuilding is pretty light, but Elvie lives in a world where abortion is illegal two weeks after conception (barring severe deformity), which naturally influences how she thinks about it. Plus, her mother died in childbirth, and Elvie doesn’t want a child to thoroughly derail her life. But, in a scene towards the end, she learns that it’s not always so black and white—that motherhood is not sacrifice. Given that the narrative given to teenage girls in sex education is often that pregnancy (and, therefore, sex) will ruin your life forever and ever, this is a welcome and even-handed treatment of the issue.
But I will admit to being a little perturbed by the novel’s lone sex scene, which is how Elvie has gotten into this situation. There’s nothing specifically bad about it; in fact, Leicht and Neal perfectly capture Elvie’s struggle to focus when she’s trying to focus, not flip out, navigate the various cultural narratives that are cropping up unhelpfully in her head, and actually have sex all at once. It’s just that I’ve been reading so many things that feature joyfully communicative and consensual sex that it feels strange to see two characters manage to do the deed without talking about it. Of course, this is probably because Elvie thinks that “real” sex always equals penetrative sex between a man and a woman, which is a bit disappointing. I’d like to imagine that, in the future, we’d managed to move on from that definition, although, given her world’s stance on reproductive rights, that kind of makes sense…
Bottom line: Mothership is twee—cute, campy, and a little annoying. None of the emotional moments particularly land, since the tone never changes, but it is great to have a story about a pregnant teenage heroine that looks at all sides of the issue.
I rented this book from the public library.