Review: A sci-fi page-turner propels family drama into intergalactic conflict

Mike Chen is the author of “Light Years From Home”. Photo: Amanda Chen

Mike Chen’s fourth novel, “Light Years From Home,” begins with Jakob Shao exactly as the title suggests, light years from Earth as a hostage inside an enemy spaceship. On Earth he had been a slacker, but in space he is a war hero, a soldier in an intergalactic war against a genocidal group called The Awakened. After watching his best friend, Henry, a horned alien with eight eyes and pincer-like claws, die from crystallization, Jakob manages to escape, teleporting back to Earth, where he was abducted 15 years earlier.

From this thrilling start, the novel settles into a light, earthy family drama that touches on darker themes, without exploring them too deeply at the risk of slowing down the book’s exuberant plot. Without money or clothes, Jakob needs the help of his separated family to find a communication device that will allow him to reconnect with his fellow soldiers. Jakob has missed a lot during his years away. His father, who was abducted with Jakob but returned to Earth, drowned while searching for his son in the lake where they were taken. Her older sister, Kassie, has been tasked with caring for their mother, who suffers from dementia. And his younger sister, Evie, became Fox Mulder of “The X-Files,” hosting a web show about the existence of aliens, never having given up on finding her brother. Once the family is reunited, Kassie becomes Evie’s Mulder’s skeptical Scully as they try to find out why Jakob is back and why he’s behaving so strangely.

“Light Years From Home” by Mike Chen. Photo: Harper Collins

“Light Years From Home” contains a sometimes uncomfortable tension between the stakes of planetary survival in sprawling “Star Wars”-style conflict and the interpersonal stakes of piecing a family together. This friction makes it difficult to take either set of conflicts too seriously and results in unusually broad lines like this: “Despite the most extraordinary circumstances, the most devastating losses and the incredible victories according to land standards, [Jakob’s] the pulse quickened at the mere thought of his parents.

When the right balance is struck, however, the consciousness of this space warrior approaches a kind of wisdom that could resonate with those who come to terms with how our lives have changed since the global pandemic began. At some point, Jakob realizes: “Compared to fiction, his life was a little less glamorous, a little less flashy, but much more violent and filled with much more wonder. The things he had seen and experienced they had delivered so much beyond what he could explain and imagine that these events were somehow existed in her head.”

The third act of the novel cleverly uses extraterrestrial science to deliver a quite moving ending. “Light Years From Home” is a pot of fun sci-fi that stays close to the human heart, even when it comes to aliens in a galaxy far, far away.

Light years from home
By Mike Chen
(Mira, 352 pages, $27.99)

The Bindery features Mike Chen in conversation with Annalee Newitz: Virtual event. 6 p.m. Wednesday, January 26. Free. RSVP required. The Binding, 1727 Haight St., SF 415-863-8688.

Books Inc. Palo Alto outdoor book signing: In person. 3 p.m. Feb. 27. Town & Country Village, 855 El Camino Real, #74, Palo Alto.

  • Leland Cheuk

    Leland Cheuk is the author of three books, the most recent of which is the novel No Good Very Bad Asian. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, NPR and Salon.