Retro Book Review: Interstellar Pig by William Sleator.

interstellar pig 1

Although I’m reading several books with summer (like this one and this one), right before I went to the coast not long ago something possessed me to pick up my well-worn copy of a book I’ve loved for years, Interstellar Pig by William Sleator. This was a young adult science fiction novel originally published in 1984, and I remembered it as a quick and delightful read. Oddly I did not discover this book in the 80s when I was the age of its target audience, but somehow did not stumble upon it until 2005, when I was well into my 30s! But, as you know from my lengthy series of reviews of Choose Your Own Adventure books, a trifling condition like adulthood definitely doesn’t stop me from enjoying a good kids’ book. After I finished my umpteenth read of Interstellar Pig I decided it would make a pretty good blog post. Thus, here we go on yet another tangent in my “Literary Summer”!

Reading it over again, the setup of Interstellar Pig reminds me a bit of the movie The Way, Way Back. Like that film, the main protagonist, Barney, is a bored teenager who’s been taken along by his parents to a New England coastal town–presumably Cape Cod or Martha’s Vineyard–for summer vacation. They’ve rented a big old Victorian house, but to maximize the profit the property owners have also built a modern cinder block cottage next door, also as a rental. The tenants of this smaller house immediately attract Barney’s attention. An attractive young woman, Zena, is renting the cottage with two glamorous surfer-dude types, Manny and Joe. It’s not clear where they’re from or what they do for a living, but they’re quite interested in the house Barney and his family have rented, and quickly ingratiate themselves with him in order to get inside. Barney, who’s 16, wonders what they see in him, but also notices that his parents seem to view the strangers in a totally different way, almost as if they appear to be different people depending on who’s looking at them.

beach houses on plum island by jose estrella

I imagine Interstellar Pig taking place in a locale like this (Plum Island, Massachusetts). Nice cribs, eh?

The principal activity of Zelma, Joe and Manny is playing a strange board game called Interstellar Pig, which they say isn’t even on the market yet. The board features various planets and is basically a chase across outer space for a token called the Piggy, which could be hidden on any number of planets. No one knows why the Piggy is desirable, but the players are willing to destroy each other (and entire planets) to possess it. The strangers rope Barney into playing with them. He’s intrigued by the game, but even more so when he finds in the strangers’ house a copy of an old ship’s log describing a curious event back in 1864 where the ship captain’s brother went insane trying to hold on to some strange object. It turns out the captain’s insane brother was imprisoned for 20 years in the very house that Barney and his parents are now renting. By deciphering various clues in the house, Barney realizes the captain’s brother may have hidden an object of great value on an island visible from the house’s windows. Barney goes to the island and finds the Piggy…for real. Thus, he realizes that the board game is actually real, and Zelma, Joe and Manny are space travelers.

This is a terrific premise, and despite the great deal of exposition that Sleator has to do in order to pull it off, the pace of the book never slackens. It’s really like a two-act play, the first act setting up the-game-is-real surprise, and the second act is the inevitable cat-and-mouse game between Barney and the space travelers–whose real names are Zulma, Moyna and Jrlb–to see who will wind up with the real Piggy. Sleator populates this small universe with a surprisingly rich array of alien characters. Although they can take human form when they want to (of course), Zulma is an insectoid spider creature, Moyna a floating octopus-like thing that breathes hydrogen and Jrlb a vicious aquatic alien with a razor-sharp sword for a nose. The supporting cast includes a reptilian creature with an intelligent slug that lives in his mouth, a colony of sentient lichen that can eat through any organic material, and the Piggy itself, which may be some sort of computer. All of these creatures have specific limitations as to where they can exist, breathe and move around, which provides the tension in the game Interstellar Pig, and also the real scenario at the end.

interstellar pig 2

I love how the alien creature “Jrlb” is depicted on the 1986 version of the Interstellar Pig cover.

In addition to being an imaginative science fiction book, Interstellar Pig is a fun nautical adventure. The salty New England coastal setting is very atmospheric, and the antics of the book involve at various times a windsurfing session, a treasure hunt across a deserted island and even a Nor’easter that sets the stage for the showdown. Sleator’s prose is catchy and economical. He was known for writing very imaginative stories that moved quickly and that kids loved. Sadly Sleator is no longer around; he died in 2011.

Interstellar Pig is a wonderful book that’s just a lot of good clean fun. After I discovered this one I read a couple of other William Sleator books, including the sequel to this one, Parasite Pig, which wasn’t as good. Still, as YA science fiction goes, this one is tops. It’s been a perennial favorite among kids for over 30 years now. A film adaptation, if done well and kept faithful to the book, would be epic. I would definitely go see it!

Grade: A
The photo of Plum Island beach houses was taken by Flickr user Jose Estrella and is used under Creative Commons 2.0 (Attribution) license. The header photo was taken by me, but the covers of Interstellar Pig are copyrighted (Bantam Books edition) (c) 1986 by Victoria Poyser and (Puffin Books edition) (c) 1995 by Broeck Steadman.
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