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Marie-Helene Bertino is the author of ‘Beautyland,’ a speculative science-fiction novel about a teenage girl who realizes she is actually an alien disguised as a person.

Marie-Helene Bertino’s ‘Beautyland’ is one of the best novels of the year

🎧 Click on the red listen button to hear Nerdette’s full conversation with Marie-Helene Bertino.

Nerdette Book Club’s April selection is Marie-Helene Bertino’s gorgeous and entrancing novel Beautyland. The speculative science-fiction novel has a seemingly small scope, but through its narrow lens, readers will experience an expansive exploration of humanity in all of its beautiful and painful iterations.

The book’s central character is Adina, a girl born in Philadelphia at the same moment in 1977 that the Voyager 1 spacecraft leaves earth. When Adina is a young girl, she realizes she is actually an alien disguised as a person. Her task is to send reports about humanity back to her home planet, the name of which cannot be translated to a human language, but the word sounds like a cricket hopping onto a plate of rice. The novel is tender, full of heart and weird in the best possible way.

The first Tuesday of each month, Nerdette host Greta Johnsen has a spoiler-free conversation with the author of that month’s Book Club pick. On the last Tuesday of the month, Greta discusses the book in detail with two fellow expert readers. Here’s an excerpt from the April conversation with Bertino, condensed and edited for clarity.

Greta Johnsen: You were born in ‘77, right?

Marie-Helene Bertino: I was. In Northeast Philadelphia, like our heroine.

Do you remember the point at which you first learned about Voyager?

Yeah, I think it was maybe 10 or 15 years ago when I discovered that they had sent a Golden Record into space, and it immediately captured my imagination. [Editor’s note: The Golden Record was a time capsule of Earthly culture carried on Voyagers 1 and 2 via a phonograph record disk. Curated by a committee led by Carl Sagan, the disk included animal sounds, songs from around the world and greetings in 55 languages.]

I mean, that Golden Record. It’s magical.

It really is. The idea that we can put a collection of sounds and images and music, like Chuck Berry, onto a little time capsule and send it into space with the hope that extraterrestrial life will listen to it and know something about us. It's so precious and adorable and potentially doomed and never going to work. But the hope is there. And that's all that matters.

There's an earnest naivete to it. Like, “Let's not talk about any of the horrible things we do. Let’s talk about the fun, nice stuff.”

In researching Beautyland, I came to discover that there had been a critique of that Golden Record of not including the messy bits of being human. The more I read about it, the more I began to develop my own opinions about and ideas about what I would send if it had been up to me.

Well, it's interesting to hear you use the word “messiness” when it comes to humanity, because I do think that's something Beautyland does really well. It's such a full embrace of what it means to be human, in mess and all.

As you can imagine, the project of the book was deciding what to include and what to leave out. I really wanted to present a broad spectrum. I think I erred on the side of including more of what I would call the profound mundane. You know, the hours and days in which we really do spend our lives. Like the errands and the regular quotidian conversations, I wondered/hoped that if I turned my attention onto those parts of life, they would begin to shimmer, and they would begin to attain significance. Beautyland does have a focus that is mostly on the quotidian and I hoped that that was more realistic in the way of presenting what life is like.

View this post on Instagram A post shared by Marie-Helene Bertino (@marie.helenebertino)

One of the things that I loved most about this book is partly what I love about all good sci-fi. You could certainly argue this book definitely skews more literary than genre fiction, but you still really embrace that idea that by taking one step away from the idea of humanity, you actually end up being able to tell the most utterly human story.

One of the neat surprises about the reception so far of Beautyland has been that expansive embrace from the genre folks, from science-fiction folks, which has been unexpected and really lovely because those folks are persnickety. They are appropriately picky, and I would have assumed they can find a lot of fault in Beautyland. And I've been delighted that so far, the science fiction folks have embraced the novel — really an unexpected delight.

There's such a universal truth to the idea of being a teenage girl and just feeling like you can't possibly be from the same planet as everyone around you.

One thousand percent. And the idea that all of your embarrassments are as big as the galaxy and are being viewed by every single person on Earth. There's a moment in the book where Adina is walking home from probably her biggest embarrassment that also is tinged with a little trauma. She's being walked home by her best friend, her older brother. And she feels like even the Hubble telescope hovering above her can feel how big her embarrassment is. And I was like, “Yeah, that's how it feels as a teenager, when you have the social gap, that you're like, ‘I will never recover from this. This is as big as the moon.’ ”

We never learn the name of Adina's home planet, but we know it sounds like a cricket hopping onto a plate of rice, which is so exquisitely perfect. You talked about how like, you don't think of this as genre necessarily, but you definitely have some sci-fi flavor in here. How much fun was it to come up with that?

It’s so funny because I tend to write in the speculative realm. This is my fourth book in a conversation with supernatural elements. And I have been asked, “Why is your work so weird? Why are your characters so weird?” And I promise you, I am trying to write as realistically as I can!

I'm trying to render what it really feels like to walk around noticing the world and how difficult it can be to try to keep one's heart open to the world. I think that I share that with some of my heroes in the genre, like Gabriel García Márquez and Toni Morrison and Yōko Ogawa. I think that they also were always saying, like, “This is not strange to me. This is not outside the realm of realism. This is very much realism to me.”

Did you spend much time thinking about the backstory of the planet? Did you build that out, and it just didn't end up in the text? Or was it exactly what it needed to be?

It's funny, I would try to think about it and then I would get really confused. I would remind myself, just keep it simple, you only have to know as much as [Adina] would know. Her people are sound based, so at one point in Beautyland she says, “If you were to attend the concert on Planet Cricket Rice, it would look like people on a stage making no noise whatsoever, only there wouldn't be people, there wouldn't be a stage and there wouldn't be instruments.” Silence and sound are such important concepts in Beautyland, concepts that I was really trying to turn inside out.

I read a quote in my reading that said people think that space is silent, but it's not. It's actually really loud. I was thinking about that when I imagined that planet, how it could be at once made out of sound and also a physical object and if that was possible. Then I would get kind of wrapped around the mental axle and have to have a cup of tea and walk around a little bit and maybe, you know, go have a glass of wine and forget about it for a little.

So would you go to outer space if you could?

Oh gosh, no. I don’t think so.

Greta Johnsen hosts and produces WBEZ’s Nerdette podcast, which Anna Bauman produces. Sofie Hernandez-Simeonidis is a digital producer.

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