A few months ago I reviewed Jeff Miller’s debut novel, The Nerdy Dozen. I enjoyed the concept: a dozen top-notch video gamers are recruited by the military for a top-secret mission. But I was disappointed in the mission itself. In Close Encounters of the Nerd Kind, Jeff Miller creates an exciting quest for our gamers, and focuses on a handful of main characters to the exclusion of most of the crew.
Here’s the mission: persons unknown have stolen a top-secret, ultra-high-tech space shuttle and launched into space. The team must blast-off into space to search for the missing shuttle. Oh, and there’s a huge asteroid on collision course with Earth, and the purloined shuttle contains the only weapon that can obliterate it.
At the conclusion of The Nerdy Dozen, ace-gamer Neil Andertol returns home from his first mission to find an envelope from NASA on his doorstep. In Close Encounters…, we learn that the envelope contained a video game disc. In the game, Shuttle Fury, the player pilots a souped-up space shuttle through the solar system.
Finding the game difficult and tedious, Neil plays for only a few minutes before returning to his more familiar games. So, when NASA comes calling, Neil is painfully unprepared for the mission. Neil hasn’t done his homework. He turns on the charm and tells a few lies to avoid admitting his lack of preparation. He’s named commander of the new mission, and his crew – the Nerdy Dozen – quickly discovers his incompetence. It’s up to Neil to learn the piloting skills, regain the confidence of his crew, and of course save the world from total destruction.
And at this point we have to suspend a lot of disbelief. A. Lot. Of. Disbelief. Why are the middle-schoolers piloting the space shuttle? Because the only space shuttle left was built to be flown by chimpanzees, and the adult astronauts are too big. How can the team fly to the moon in a matter of minutes? Warp speed. How about Mars? Double-warp speed!
As you’ve probably guessed, Miller makes no attempt at even remotely touching the science of space flight. If you’re looking for an adventure based in reality, you’re in the wrong place. But readers who enjoy comical escapades will like the fast-paced plot and the silly jokes. (Example: the secret moon base is called the New District Colony – abbreviated by everyone as the New Dist Colony. Say that out loud a few times, and you’ll get it.)
Unfortunately, the camaraderie built in the first book is missing from Close Encounters…. While reading The Nerdy Dozen, I felt like I knew each team member. In this book, most of the interaction is carried by four or five kids – the others pop-in a line of dialog every now and then. To be honest, there’s really no reason for all 12 kids (and a chimp) to be on a space shuttle anyway.
But maybe I’m missing the point. Close Encounters of the Nerd Kind is most enjoyable when you’re not asking too many questions. Readers who can ignore the coincidences, absurdity and scientific craziness will be rewarded with a fun, fast-paced read. For that reason, I would recommend Close Encounters of the Nerd Kind to readers in grades 4 and 5. Buy a copy for your elementary library media center, and add it to your upper-elementary classroom collection. (Note: the third book in the series, 20,000 Nerds Under the Sea, is also available.)