Friday, May 13, 2016

The Girl At The Center of the World by Austin Aslan

The Girl At The Center of The World is the sequel to The Islands At The End of The World. Seventeen year old Leilani Milton and her father returned to their home on the Big Island. Three months after The Arrival of the Emerald Orchid, an alien being orbiting the Earth and responsible for disabling all electronic and power grids, Lei and her family lead a subsistence lifestyle. They farm their own crops and ration everything.

Leilani's epilepsy has resulted in her being able to communicate with the Emerald Orchid who returned to Earth to spawn as she has done before. An astronomer, Buzz living at the observatory on Mauna Kea helped Lei talk to the Orchid. The alien along with its baby was about to leave Earth but Lei and her father discovered that the Orchid has the ability to absorb the harmful radiation spewed out from nuclear meltdowns. With nuclear reactors no longer able to cool their fuel rods, catastrophic nuclear meltdowns began occurring all over the planet. Lei while in contact with the Orchid during her seizures was able to witness these meltdowns occuring all over the planet. Yet no excess radiation has yet to be measured. When the Orchids communicated their love of the "sweetness", Lei came to understand that this was a reference to the radiation which they absorb.

While the Orchid's leaving would have allowed the power grid to be restored, the nuclear meltdowns would have left the planet uninhabitable. So Lei managed to convince the Orchid to stay a while longer and to absorb the "sweet" radiation.  Lei's connection with the Orchid is strong but similar to a child holding onto a helium balloon. If she lets go, the Orchid will leave for her home in the depths of space where there are many more like her.

However, Lei's problem is that the longer she keeps the Orchid in orbit around Earth the more difficult it will be to recover from the extended period without power. She needs to get a message out to everyone about the nuclear plants, to tell them to stop trying to save the reactors and to let them go critical because the Orchid can absorb the harmful radiation. The question is how to do this.

Leilani's father, mother, her seven year old brother Kai and her Grandpa are safely hidden in their little valley. Her family celebrates Lei's seventeenth birthday along with Keali'l who is Hawaiian and whose parents died in the first tsunami wave. Keali`l worked for Lei's mother, a biologist at University of Hawai`i and now she's taken him in.

During one of her contacts with the Orchid, Lei finds the Orchid hinting at releasing something which Lei doesn't really understand. At her birthday party, which is attended by Tammy, Keali`l and Buzz, Lei feels ill and her parents worry that she might have appendicitis. However Lei experiences a seizure and realizes that the Orchid is releasing a meteor (Lei refers to this as a pearl) which she wants to send into the ocean. Lei asks the Orchid to send the meteor into the mountain on Hawai`i, Mauna Loa because if the meteor hits the ocean it will cause a tsunami. When she awakens there is an earthquake and a meteor shoots across the sky and into the shield volcano's flank.

Witnessing this, Tami Simpson who is Lei's best friend, realizes that Lei is able to communicate with the Orchid. Lei tells Buzz that she calls the meteor "the pearl". Buzz tells the Milton's he will hike up the volcano to check out the impact site and sample the pearl.

At night Tami and Lei meet Keali`l at the breakwater on Hilo Bay. The bay is filled with tsunami debris and the hills around Hilo are dark. Keali'l brings a dive light and the three go diving for slippahs (lobsters). However their diving is interrupted by Hanamen, the sheriff's men,  who fire shots at them and demand their dive light and their bag of lobsters. Lei leads her friends through a hole in the breakwater. One of the Hanamen is a  guy named Two Dog. Two Dog and the other Hanamen notice a sailboat passing the bay and decide they are going to attack. Leaving a man behind to watch for Lei and her friends, Two Dog and two men head out after the sailboat. Lei leads Tami and Keali`l through the breakwater but Tami cuts herself badly on a piece of concrete. Fearing she will draw sharks as she is bleeding and having been seen by the Hanaman on the breakwater, Tami begins swimming for the sailboat. The three teens manage to convince the man and woman on the sailboat to pick them up, warning them that people are planning to take their boat.

Marcus who is a doctor and Rachel agree to sail to Onomea Bay where Lei's house is located. Lei tells them her family will help them if they treat Tami's serious leg wound. On the sailboat while talking with Keali`l, Lei has an important revelation that she could use the Orchid to send a message via Morse Code by causing the Orchid to dim and brighten. To test the possibility that this might work, she asks the Orchid first to fade then to go back to her normal brilliance. It is successful.

Keali`l stays with Rachel on the sailboat while Lei, Marcus and Tami hike to Lei's home where they fill her parents in on what happened. Marcus tells Lei that Tami must have antibiotics for her leg which has a deep cut that must heal open. The next day Marcus relates his story of escape from Phoenix Arizona to San Carlos, Mexico. Lei and her family stock up Marcus and take him back to Onomea Bay and then she and Keali`l head into Hilo to search for the IV antibiotics Marcus has told them to search for. Finding nothing at the clinic they head to the hospital where the doctor, Dr. Madsen, after learning how she was injured tells them that they must bring Tami in. Tami is brought in and receives the antibiotics she needs because of Keali`l. Lei knows Keali`l has gotten the antibiotics at a great personal price. Meanwhile Lei runs into Aukina, the soldier from the military camp on O`ahu. He agrees to teach her Morse code, although he doesn't know her reason for wanting to learn.

In an attempt to relax, Lei goes swimming at Rainbow Falls and suffers a grand mal seizure during which her contact with the Star Flowers is interrupted by an unknown person telling the Orchid to leave Earth. Shocked, Lei has no idea what to make of this. As Tami's leg heals, Lei begins to learn Morse Code from Aukina and struggles to learn who might be contacting the Orchid. Against the backdrop of the growing tension between the tribes, Lei begins practicing dimming and brightening the Orchid so she can eventually send her message out about the nuclear reactors. But will her efforts be thwarted by the unknown person attempting to convince the Orchids to leave?


Discussion

The Girl At The Center of The World is an exciting sequel that focuses on Leilani's attempt to save her planet and on the survival of her family and friends. There are plenty of descriptions about how the Milton family is working on building a sustainable lifestyle.

However Lei's focus is on a much larger and grander scale. Through her contact with the Orchids she experiences first hand the melt down of nuclear reactors in different areas of the world. "A silent pop of white flashes off the coast of New York. A ball of water crowned with radioactive mist swells along the morning's edge. The atomic poison of this explosion mixes with the fallout of other nuclear disasters that blanket the globe. But my Orchid draws up the venom, neutralizes it." Lei knows the longer the world remains without the ability to make electricity the harder it will be to recover. But her discovery that the Orchids have saved the planet from nuclear fallout means she must eliminate all of the danger from the nuclear reactors before she can let the Orchids leave. She must get the message out to the rest of the world to allow their nuclear reactors to go critical so the Orchid can finish the job of absorbing the excess radiation and then be released. An unexpected development is the introduction of an unknown person who attempts to get the Star Flowers to leave. Lei doesn't know the identity of this person but attempts to block his communication with the mother Orchid and to form a strong bond with her baby.  All her attempts to communicate and reason with this person fail. This sets up a mystery and also a source of conflict that complicates Lei's mission. The resolution to this conflict in the novel is really anticlimactic partly because once the identity of the other contact is revealed, Lei seems to quickly and rather easily convince him to leave and partly because the second storyline is more exciting.

That second storyline continues the conflict hinted at in the first novel between Lei's Tutu who was once a police officer and the sheriff of Hilo who has taken control of the island. Lei's grandfather and the sheriff have a complicated past which comes back to haunt them both. Bands of gangs called Tribes are fighting for control of Puna and Hilo. The sheriff of Hana from Maui who put a gun to Lei's father's head in the first novel is in control in Puna. His Hanamen control the plantations and agriculture. When the sheriff learns about Lei's ability to connect with the Star Flowers he begins to search for her family's farm. This leads to a deadly confrontation which provides the main source of tension for the novel.

Aslan's storyline is unique as is his setting - the exotic islands of Hawai`i. He touches on some of the native Hawaiian culture and beliefs, and of the islands' annexation by America and the desire of Hawaiians to exercise self government. This is main reason for the sheriff's desire to have the Orchids stay. "What we're building here is too important. These Flowers leave, the occupiers --the tourist droves --return. I won't allow that to happen."

Unlike the first novel which focused on survival during the crisis, The Girl At The Center Of The World focuses more on relationships; Lei's relationship with her beloved grandpa who reveals his connection to the sheriff of Hana, her friendship with Tami who is her best friend and the blossoming romance between Lei and Aukina. Aslan ties up all the loose end neatly - and perhaps too conveniently leading the novel to end in a hopefuly way.  Power is gradually being restored and civilization is beginning to return to the world.

The Girl At The Center Of The World is a solid conclusion to the novel and will appeal to those who enjoy a unique science fiction story set in an exotic location. Austin Aslan was inspired to write these two novels while doing his masters in tropical biology in Hawaii.

Book Details:

The Girl At The Center Of The World by Austin Aslan
New York: Wendy Lamb Books     2015
337 pp. 

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