What do a grumpy scientist, two poor children being raised by their grandmother, and David Bowie have in common? Answer: they’re all featured in the book Calling Major Tom, by David M. Barnett, a funny, silly little book that makes you think about why we’re here.
Here’s what it’s about: The grumpy, fed-up-with-people scientist Thomas Major suddenly has the opportunity to go on a solo mission to Mars (there will be life there), and, seeing as he’s got nothing left to stay for, takes it. At the same time, the Ormerod family, grandmother Gladys, teenager Ellie, and child genius James, are trying to make ends meet. Somehow, through a misdialled phone call, they get in touch, and start relying on each other more and more. Add to this a constant stream of references to David Bowie, and you’ve got yourself a book!
Wait a minute. How can someone be an accidental astronaut? And why on earth does Thomas make that phone call? When you read this summary, it all sounds incredibly silly. And to be honest, it is. “This book was written mostly for laughs,” Barnett states in the acknowledgements, and that’s exactly why this book works. It’s funny, it’s weird, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s a very sweet novel, and it deals with important themes like dementia, loneliness, and poverty (and Bowie). This book shows that serious issues do not necessarily need to be dealt with in a really serious way.
What I especially like about this book is that the characters slowly realise what it is they need. Thomas realises, on his way to Mars, that he does need people in his life after all, and not just his favourite records – but he can never go back. The Ormerod family needs someone from outside of their own lives (someone literally out of this world, in their case) to put them back on track, and I love how Barnett wove their separate stories together. The conclusion of the book is, completely in style, very silly (lighting your farts in space, really?), but also hilarious and heartfelt.
Reading this book did make me think, though. Would I want to be alone for the rest of my life if it made me the most famous person in the world? Would I want to leave everything behind, just because the past has been disappointing? What, actually, are the things that make me feel like I belong here?
It’s books like this one that ask exactly the right questions while also bringing a smile to your face. So turn up the volume of your favourite David Bowie record, and start reading!
What would you do if you were faced with this dilemma – stay on Earth or go to Mars? And if you could bring one thing with you, what would it be? Please share your thoughts in the comments!