Ok, let's get this out of the way up front... I hate Aussie Rules Football. HATE it. I have slightly less violent emotions about rugby, mostly because rugby boys have the bodies of gods and you don't need to like the game to enjoy the view. Then there's soccer with its swan-diving cry-babies, and cricket... is cricket even a sport? I've seen more exciting games of Duck-Duck-Goose. Put quite simply, I would rather gouge my own eyes out with a teaspoon than watch any form of sport.
THE ROOKIE focuses quite heavily on American Football. As you would expect, given my low tolerance for all things sports, my knowledge and understanding of American Football amounts to precisely zero. The fact that I'm Australian doesn't help. I have to be honest and admit that I struggled with this aspect of the book. The football jargon and slang went straight over my head, and it was impossible to summon an accurate mental image of the scenes playing out before me, because I had no concept of things like field markers, player positioning, or...you know...the rules.
So what possessed someone like me to pick up a book like this? Basically, I would travel cross-country to read graffiti on a toilet wall if it was written by Scott Sigler. That's all. If I wasn't such a fan, I would never have read this book. And that, my friends, would have been a crying shame.
Set 700 years in the future, the story follows Quentin Barnes, quarterback extraordinaire, on his quest to hit the big time as a Tier One starter in the Galactic Football League. There's a whole lot of football. We watch each game in detail (complete with stats charts and radio interviews) as every play he makes takes him closer to realising his dream. The games are fast and furious and written with such attention to detail that even I, with no real idea of what the hell was going on, could feel the tension and excitement and pain and elation. I may not have been picturing the game in the 'correct' way, but it was still highly entertaining.
There's also a whole lot of stuff going on off-field. During a brief stint of prohibition, organised crime moved into the GFL and they never moved out. Players are bought and sold by 'the mob' and team ownership includes privileges like smuggling and drug running with impunity. Depending on the mood of the boss, non-performing or misbehaving players may be sacked...or whacked. Corruption is rife.
Oh, and did I mention there’s aliens? Two of the big ticket issues addressed in this book are class and racism. You see, 700 years in the future, humans have settled on other planets and are trading with alien nations. Galactic Football League teams are made up of many different beings, each playing positions suited to their particular physiology (in one race the females are bigger and faster than the males, so the women play on the teams). The League itself serves as a tool to maintain race relations, giving beings from different planets a common interest and an opportunity to learn to work together.
Quentin Barnes comes from the Purist Nation, a human colony with hardcore religious foundations. The Church controls most aspects of daily life and a raft of things (including, it seems, freedom of thought) are condemned as sins and banned. Church members and their families have access to education and power, while the underclasses are condemned to a life of shame and destitution, with little chance of ever rising above their station. Quentin, an indentured mine worker, defied those odds when he was signed to the local football team, but his privileged team members never let him forget where he came from.
Fundamental to the Church's belief system is the conviction that the human race is superior to all others - people from the Purist Nation are instilled, from a young age, with an unadulterated hatred for all things alien. On top of that, they live with the constant military presence of an occupying alien force. Fear and disgust are the only feelings Quentin has ever had for non-humans...and now these monsters are his team mates.
Quentin's internal struggle with his racism and religious beliefs is central to this story. He finds out quickly that, far from being seen as blessed and perfect, his countrymen are despised and ridiculed by beings from other planets (including other human planets) for their treatment of alien races and their blind faith in their Church. As time goes on, he is forced to see things through a different lens and begin the process of re-assessing everything he's ever known to be true. It’s obvious from the start where Quentin’s soul-searching is going to take him, but the journey is beautifully described.
Aside from racism, one of the things that stood out for me was the deconstruction of religion. I’m not going to go on a church-bashing rampage, but the book exposes and examines what I believe to be the more sinister aspects of organised religion – social control, social exclusion, nepotism, guilt, bigotry, selective application of values and biased interpretations of history, to name just a few. Some of the observations are quite overt, other times they’re hidden in subtext. I don’t know if it was the author’s intention (and I apologise for this comment if it wasn’t) but the analysis, while remaining respectful of individual beliefs, raises a well-deserved middle finger to those institutions that thrive on perpetuating fear and hatred amongst their followers.
Anyhoo...I could waffle on for hours about other topics touched on in this book, but I’ll spare you the torment. I have waffled enough! Suffice to say; to describe this book as a story about aliens playing football would be to severely underestimate its strength and depth.
THE ROOKIE is totally YA-friendly, with no bad language and only fleeting references to sex and drugs. Sigler’s alien worlds and the creatures that inhabit them are rich and vibrant; each with its own unique culture and language and history. The social and political commentary is obvious, but not preachy. People of all ages and genders can enjoy this book, but I would especially recommend it for teenage boys, as a fast-paced sports/alien adventure with really positive messages of equality, self-respect and ‘mateship’.
THE ROOKIE is the first book in a series. The second book, THE STARTER, went on sale just a few weeks ago and is available from www.scottsigler.com/thestarter . I’m looking forward to devouring my copy shortly.