Monday, October 26, 2015

The Islands At The End of the World by Austin Aslan

Set in Hawaii, The Islands At The End of The World tells the story of a father and daughter trying to survive in world devastated by the presence of an alien entity.

Sixteen-year-old Leilani Milton lives with her parents and seven year old brother Kai in Hilo, on the big island of Hawai'i. Her father who was originally from New Mexico, is Dr. Michael Milton, a professor of ecology at the University of Hawai'i at Hilo and white. Her mother is pure Hawaiian and also a professor of ecology at UH at Hilo too. They have only lived on the island for three years.

The story opens on Sunday, April 26 with Leilani surfing with her best friend, Tami. On their way to get ice cream afterwards, Leilani and her father hear the siren warning of a tsunami. A few hours earlier, there was a meteor strike in the northern Pacific, eight hundred miles south of Alaska. Eventually the threat is downgraded.

Leilani, whose name means "Flower of Heaven", is leaving at six the next morning with her father for Honolulu, on the island of O'ahu. She will undergo special tests and a drug trial for her epilepsy. It was epilepsy that resulted in her being dropped from the gymnastics team when she was twelve. That was the age Leilani had her first grand mal seizure. She had been having petits mals for years. Once at O'ahu, Leilani will stop her meds, then started start a trial medication. If the medication works and she has no grand mal she will continue. If she has a grand mal, the trial will stop. All of this is making Leilani very nervous.

Before she leaves though, her grandpa arrives that evening so he can see her off in the morning. Leilani's grandpa is determined to keep alive the cultural practices of his Hawaiian ancestors. He was in the navy and then become a cop on Maui. Now retired, grandpa is Leilani's kahuna or spiritual adviser.  Grandpa tells her that Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of lightning, lava and volcanoes is her guardian spirit.

Their forty-minute flight on Monday, April 27 takes them over Maui, Lana'i, Moloka'i to O'ahu. In Honolulu, they drive to the clinic where they meet Dr. Makani who tells them more information about the trial. Meanwhile, bizarre things begin to happen around the world. Leilani and her dad learn that the U.S. President is recovering from surgery for appendicitis. At the clinic while some tests are being done on Leilani, they learn that the stock exchange has been shut down, the Vice President is missing as is the Prime Minister of Japan, Congressional offices have closed, the Euro has collapsed and several British banks have failed. Trying not to worry, Leilani and her father check into their fancy hotel on Waikiki Beach.

While talking with her mother and Kai, Leilani and her father also watch the President of the United States as he addresses the nation. However, the transmission dies as does their internet connection with her mother and Kai. All they know is that president was trying to tell them something very important and to warn them about something. Leilani experiences a petit mal seizure during which she hears a voice saying strange things in what seems like a dream. "These islands and their sacred tides call me forth." and "Come drift upon me, and spread. Bring me the means of life." Later on Leilani recalls these words and finds them to be strange, since she never dreams or hears things during seizures.

The next morning they awake to a power outage, satellite networks and electronics inoperative and flights grounded. At the clinic, Dr. Makani tells them that his neighbour with NOAA indicated that there is some kind of geomagnetic storm or something that is interfering with the Earth's magnetic field. That night from her room at the clinic they notice "a hazy green knot dominates a quarter of the night sky". The next morning a local astronomer indicates that there seems to be a correlation between the green light seen at night and the blackouts and malfunctioning electronics. By Thursday morning, all the equipment at the clinic is not working and the newspaper has dubbed the green cloud the "Emerald Orchid". They also learn that tsunami struck O'ahu's Kailu Bay earlier on Wednesday as well as the area around Hilo on the Big Island. The tsunami's are believed to be due to the Emerald Orchid. Leilani's dad decides that they need to get home and they need to begin looking for ways off of O'ahu now.

Leilani is released from the clinic however, their attempts to leave Waikiki are hampered when Leilani has another seizure. Again she dreams and hears a strange voice, "These islands are here for me, and I crave what they will offer. It is a good thing...I am Leilani. Spellbound, I blossom." By Friday chaos reigns. There are gasoline shortages, the National Guard and coast guard have been deployed, there is no way off the island for tourists, and no communication with the outside world. The government decides to send tourists to the Marine Corps Base at Kaneohe Bay to be evacuated by navy ships to the West Coast. First they try to leave via one of the smaller island airstrips, Kalaeloa Airport, but discover they can't book a flight until the following Tuesday. Talking with people at the airport, Leilani and her dad learn that the military is simply shuffling people around. Leilani's father decides to try to find someone to take them to the Big Island by yacht or sailboat. This too is unsuccessful. Leilani witnesses the brutal murder of a man who is caught stealing a boat and this brings on yet another seizure. Again Leilani dreams and hears a strange voice. "This is right. I am here. It is time. And this one spits fire. It oozes heat. This one has not warmed before. I will linger, then as I have done on other shores, and we both shall have our fill."

Two days later, on Monday morning, Leilani wakes in the hotel room in Waikiki. Their hotel is now under attack by gangs who are after the tourists. Waikiki has been looted and buildings are on fire. The Emerald Orchid now dominates the sky at night, complete with lightning bolts and meteor showers. Their attempt to reach Kaupa Pond is thwarted when they are diverted by the military to the Marine Corps Base. Arriving by bus at Kailua, Leilani and her father are forced to surrender their backpacks and food and are eventually placed in a makeshift camp. They are told to they will be called when their turn comes to be transported by helicopter to their home on the Big Island. While waiting, Leilani meets a handsome soldier, Aukina. As conditions deteriorate in the camps, Leilani decides to induce a seizure in the hopes they can get out of the camp. But like the other seizures, Leilani continues to hear voices. "You are Leilani. I am Leilani. Suckle. Gather your strength...Time to linger and grow strong on the heat."

Leilani's father now becomes determined to break out of the camp. Aukina tells Leilani that people on the islands are breaking into factions according to race. The Sovereign Nationers want to secede from the United States. He reveals that all the military are taking potassium iodide tablets in anticipation of the radiation fallout after the nuclear reactors fail. He tells them that the military is out of fuel and that what is left is being conserved for a special action which he wishes he could take her with him. The only thing he can do is provide Leilani with wire cutters. After stocking up on food from the warehouse, which Leilani breaks into, they flee the camp into the night.

The first place they flee to is the abandoned home of the chancellor of UH Hilo. After cleaning up and getting some rest, they are warned to leave. They manage to steal a boat, but Leilani's father is shot during the escape. They head towards Moloka'i but when they run out of gas, Leilani and her father now risk being smashed against the rocks of the island. Leilani manages to jump onto a ledge and eventually pull her father to the safety. Then from the direction of Kalaupapa, an outrigger canoe comes to rescue them. They are taken to a clinic on the beach where Leilani's father is operated on and she receives stitches for a gash on her forehead. The older man who rescued her tells her that he is a healer. Identifying himself as Uncle Akoni, he abruptly questions Leilani about her epilepsy and suggests to her that maybe her epilepsy is an "opportunity". As they both recover from their ordeal, they find Akoni's community a refuge. Akoni begins dropping hints to Leilani, referring to the Emerald Orchid as a ship that likes the radiation or "hotness". After four days, Akoni indicates that he must go to deal with other factions on Moloka'i. Akoni indicates that things might begin to get worse and he offers Leilani and her father a way to get to Maui. He tells Leilani's dad that through a ham radio, they have confirmed that nuclear reactor meltdowns are occurring all over the world as power systems fail and there is no means to cool the reactors. These meltdowns will continue as more and more reactors fail. However the strange thing is that no radiation has been detected. Akoni tells them that they cannot even read normal amounts of radiation. It is at this point that Akoni reveals what he knows to both Leilani and her father; that the Emerald Orchid, whatever it is, is preventing a catastrophic nuclear winter from happening. He tells Leilani that people with epilepsy like himself and Leilani can "hear" the Emerald Orchid and he begs her that upon her arrival in Hilo, to go up the mountain, listen and try to contact them.

As life on the islands begins to unravel further, the military abandons the islands and Leilani and her father struggle through the last part of their journey, Leilani begins to understand what is happening to her planet and how they are tied to the Emerald Orchid. She realizes she may be the only one who can save her dying planet.

Discussion

The Islands At The End Of The World is a story of journeys - human and alien. It is well-written piece of science fiction that uses the alien-comes-to-earth trope but with a twist. Instead of the aliens being highly intelligent beings, those of the Emerald Orchid are compared to sea turtles who follow their instinct to migrate to their ancestral breeding grounds. In this case that ancestral home is the atmosphere of the planet Earth. The first foreshadowing of this comes when Leilani and her father are on Moloka'i watching a sea turtle. Her father mentions that "some turtle species cross the entire ocean to lay their eggs...When the supercontinent of Gondwanaland was just breaking apart, the turtles would simply swim across a narrow strait, lay their eggs, and then head back home. Over the next hundred-or-so million years, the continents drifted apart, about an inch a year. The turtles went about their business, doing what they used to, what their parents used to do, each generation unaware of the imperceptible change. Now they cross oceans. And they'll be here still, following their ancient paths, inch by new inch, long after we're gone."

It is this exchange that helps Leilani to piece together the circumstances behind the Emerald Orchid five weeks after its appearance. It is while resting at a small plot of marijuana plants and smoking pot, that Leilani and her father have a detailed discussion of the "Emerald Orchid." They both notice that the Emerald Orchid has changed and seems to be made of two entities. It reminds Leilani of the jellyfish she's seen at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Remembering "those dark seizurescapes, the snatches of imagery, the voice, the echoes of thought flowing through with my own consciousness" results in Leilani realizing that the "Emerald Orchid" is alive and that like the sea turtles, it has come to Earth to give birth.

"I only put this together just now! But it is a ... cosmic sea turtle! It was born here. It's just returned to lay its eggs, or spawn, or whatever it does. It's feeding on the atmosphere. That's how it works!"

Leilani's father believes the "Emerald Orchid" may be the explanation behind the mass extinctions throughout Earth's history. For both Leilani and her father, this realization is overwhelming. "I catch a glimpse of my father's wonder: if our terrestrial turtles will cross oceans, unaware of the drifting continents, then how much grander are these creatures, who voyage between worlds?"

But the Emerald Orchid is different from Earth's sea turtle as evidenced by its response after Leilani makes contact and explains that they need it to stay and "to take up all the hotness until it is gone." Although the "Emerald Orchid" and its young one want to leave, they want also to help. "I want the depths, but I want to do the good thing more. The good thing is to stay." They decide to stay a feast on Earth's radiation, so that they can grow strong and so that Leilani can protect her young.

The story of Leilani and her father's journey back home is told entirely from Leilani's perspective. Her narrative is broken into five parts named after the Hawaiian islands. Fortunately for the reader, Aslan has provided basic maps both of the Hawaiian chain of islands as well as maps at the beginning of each new section that help to place the events for readers. At the beginning of their journey, Leilani and her father's world is encompassed by the Hawaiian islands. The islands located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean give the sense of isolation. By the end, they have a sense being apart of something much larger and much grander. In particular, Leilani has felt socially isolated because of her epilepsy; she was dropped from the gymnastics team and doesn't yet have her license because her doctor hasn't yet signed off on it. She's also of mixed ancestry on an island that prides itself on full-blooded Hawaiian ancestry. However, in this new world, Leilani's epilepsy is a gift that saves her world and her mixed blood is a call to all to co-operate in order to survive.

It's easy to recognize that author Austin Aslan lived on the Hawaiian Islands. The novel is filled with fascinating historical, geographical, cultural tidbits as well as some references to Hawaiian mythology. All are woven into the story seamlessly, both informing and engaging the reader.

One theme that appears early on is the conflict in Hawaiian society between the white and Hawaiian races. One group, whom grandpa refers to as "Sovereign Nation people" want the islands to be governed by those who are pure Hawaiians. While Leilani's grandpa acknowledges that "The seizure of Hawaii by the U.S. military was a despicable act." he is willing to recognize that people like Leilani's father who have married Hawaiians and now live on the island are just as much Hawaiian as he or Leilani's mother. This conflict becomes more dominant in the novel as conditions on the island worsen and civil authority collapses.

Overall, The Islands At The End Of The World is a debut novel well worth reading. Aslan has planned a sequel, ready for publication in 2016.

Book Details:

The Islands At The End Of The World by Austin Aslan
New York: Wendy Lamb Books      2014
358 pp.

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