Monday, January 31, 2005

In Transit

I'm in Edmonton (Alberta) and I didn't bring enough books with me--the book planned for this morning turned out not to be sf or fantasy however you cut the pie, so no sf blog today.

If you want to go to my livejournal you'll find a post on Hotel Rwanda. It seemed tasteless to post it on an sf blog.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Social Studies 101: Gillian Rubenstein, Space Demons (New York: Pocket Books, 1989).

This is one of the better known children’s sf writers from the 1980s, and deservedly so, as apart from the first few chapters which consist of hamfisted introduction to the characters, far too often in the form of “reverie” (where a character does a quick resume of their life in their head), it’s very well written and tense.

The basic outline: Andrew, a charming and selfish kid, gets a new computer game from his Dad. He and his friend Ben are drawn into the game which seems to be inciting them to hate. When they are actually pulled into the game, Ben reacts with horror, Andrew with exhilaration. In the rest of the book Andrew gets more and more hooked on the game, and persuades Mario, a boy he hates and who hates himself, to play with him, so that both of them can enter the game through a gun which only shoots the target of hate. Ben meanwhile is moving on, developing a friendship with new girl Elaine―whose life is rootless and restless―and John, younger brother of Mario.

The computer game is brilliantly realised, and the mechanism of entry well worked out. When the game starts winning, the space demons begin to leak into the world, and there is a very real sense of threat.

In the end, Andrew works out that the only way to defeat the game is to refuse to hate, and having tricked Ben and Elaine into the game he uses this knowledge to get all of them (including a trapped Mario) out of there. A lot of this involves saying really nice things to Mario and meaning them, in order to defeat Mario’s own self-hatred.

You can see where I’m going I imagine? I liked this book. I liked it a lot. But it’s a parable. The only purpose of the technology is to facilitate a coming of age narrative in which both Andrew and Mario are redeemed from the wicked path which they have chose to tread (one a charming manipulator, the other a violent bully) while Ben and Elaine learn how to be independent of family and friends. You can tell this parable is the purpose of the book, rather than its context, because the final chapter focusses I this, rather than on the game or a discussion of what happened with the game. The last discussion between Ben, Andrew and Elaine is precisely about the metaphors the game gave them for their behaviour.

The other ending of the book was also tricky for me: the game is destroyed but it leaves behind a sticker saying send this game back to this address and you can have the next game in the series. Apart from the disconcerting feeling that I’ve wandered into a Dianetics shop (you’ve achieved level x in your personal development, now send off for the path to level y), I also suddenly realised that we were in an intrusion fantasy. In intrusion fantasies, the key element is that the protagonists must be niave, and the situation the intrusion enters must be stable otherwise you can’t get the proper cycle of surprise, threat, fear and then the move into negotiation/defeat of the intrusion (Elaine, as well as the Space Demons, is an intrusion in this book, but she is negotiated with and absorbed, where the demons are rejected and defeated). One consequence is that if you then want to write a sequel you need to recreate the niavety, and you can do this either with new protagonists or a new threat. There is nothing that says you can’t have an sf intrusion fantasy―China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station manages very well, and most alien invasion stories are essentially intrusion fantasies. But unless they move onto the consequence of invasion, any sequel is going to get trapped into entropic repetition where you need bigger bangs to get the emotional impact. So that far from looking forward to a possible sequel, that little scene caused my heart to sink.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Moriarty Lives: Mel Childen, Blubb and the Amazing Morphing Machine (New York: Pocket Books, 1996).

A self-consciously “humorous” children’s spy/evil death Lord thriller, part of a series: previous books are My Brother Blubb and Blubb and the Chocolate Treasure.

Daphne Trusk and Harv Stavely are relativly ordinary children, but they are friends with Sidney Agenda, a trainee spy at a secret academy, and Daf has adopted as her brother Blubb, a superhero Sidney Agenda has built.

In this episode, Harv has been elected Mayor for the Town’s Youth Day, and Lowell Gravenstein, evil genius from the Town’s Moriarty College is out to foil him. Having stolen Sidney Agenda’s morphing machine, he installs himself as Youth Mayor. Lowell needs an A on his social science project―“Take over a group of people and bend them to your will.” And will stop at nothing.

It’s an enjoyable romp: Blubb gets to change shape a lot, Lowell uses his evil gas, and at the end Lowell discovers that force is not the way to get people to do things―although he doesn’t learn that control is evil.

There was one unsual moment in the book. Daf asks Sidney why he didn’t know about Lowell’s anti-will gas and Sidney shrugs and points out that there have been rumblings on the grapevine for weeks but:

the hero grapevine also circulates rumors about cold fusion, antigravity boots, and cures for acne―just about anything. Most of this stuff turns out to be fairy tales.” (105)

It’s a throwaway line, but suddenly the world felt real and the adventure didn’t feel like an interruption in the day to day, but part of a consistent world that adults were ignoring.

Friday, January 28, 2005

The Future on the Toss of a Coin: Wendy Orr, A Light In Space (Toronto, New York: Annick Press, 1994), illustrated by Ruth Ohi.

Wendy Orr's A Light In Space is one of the better children's sf stories from the 1990s. Unlike many of the others I've looked at in the past year, it achieves what I think are some of the basic requirements of science fiction: the novum and cognitive estrangement.

A Light In Space begins with Ysdran, a space explorer, approaching a planet overflowing with hydrogen and oxygen. This is a bit like humans finding a planet made of gold. Ysdran's instruments blow up in the face of this largesse (it is never clear whether this is a chemical reaction to water, or a cognitive overload) , but she does manage to fly through the atmosphere and "spook" an eleven year old boy, Andrew. Then she decides to head home, without instrumentation and flying "blind" (but in fact by sight) all the way--there are some very nice descriptions of this. She leaves behind, however, a mental link with Andrew.

Andrew runs home gibbering where his parents think he is having a nervous breakdown and haul him off to a psychiastrist, who seems even more obtuse than such fictional representations usually are. Overnight Ysdran gets in touch with him and starts teaching him telekinesis.

Over the next week, Andrew gets more powerful, and we learn a lot more about Ysdran. She has a companion, Caneesh, she comes from a world where telepathy is the only way to communicate but fills the air, and where ownership of oxygen and hydrogen confers status. Because we can see the story fro Ysdran's point of view as well as Andrew's, we learn faster than Andrew that Ysdran is on an expedition of conquest. Orr also--rather cleverly--uses Ysdran's viewpoint to show the corruption of Andrew.

In fact throughout, what makes this book exceptional among children's sf, is that it is not humanocentric. I don't think I've come across another book yet in which the alien was both obviously alien (Ysdran looks like a jellyfish with tentacles and has a very different set of values) and the viewpoint character. Orr exploits this. Ysdran's people are born amorphous and shrink into maturity, eventually shrivelling up. Ysdran's attempt to get an explanation of human reproduction out of a deeply embarrassed pre-teen is very funny.

Eventually, Andrew figures out the score--there are some nice comparisons here with the way he trains his dog and the way Ysdran has been training him. This is where the book rather falls apart. In the original article I wrote, I suggest that we can use John Clute's construction of Full Fantasy (WRONGNESS, THINNING, RECOGNITION, HEALING), and reconfigure it to something we can call Full Science Fiction: DISSONANCE, RUPTURE, RESOLUTION, CONSEQUENCE.

A Light in Space has the first two, and it does have a resolution, Ysdran eventually agrees to leave the Earth alone. The problem (for me) is that she appears to do so out of sentiment for Andrew.

We are back here to that issue of suspension of disbelief.

If we read this book as a social novel, in which the issue of emotional development is at stake, then it is a satisfactory book. Through various occurances Andrew learns that he has no right to control others. Ysdran, having met a potential slave face to face, has learned to question the humanity of her species. It's all very plausible.

But in sf terms, it doesn't feel plausible at all.

The Resolution is one based in feelings, not in all the politics of Ysdran's home planet that we've learned about. We know that she can't be pumped dry for information--that is forbidden--but she is still going to have to provide an explanation. We know her planet has a lot of explorers. What one has done, another might do again (Orr has hedged the culture with lots of rules about there being nothing left to explore, but sf readers know that this kind of rule always falls). And the way in which this is written, in which Ysdran bets Caneesh that Andrew can be persuaded to surrender his planet is extremely ineffective: it actually took me three reads to work out what had happened because I couldn't make sense of it. One moment Ysdran is using a neural whip, the next she announces, “You’ve won, I’ve lost; you've got the world, I’ve got a spaceship with no instrument panel.” (187) I think Orr realised this because she writes Andrew as rather surprised, but it doesn't make it any more convincing.

And then there is the issue of consequence. There isn't any. Again, there is the matter of personal growth, but that makes the entire story read as a parable--it reminds me of someone who once told me in the middle of a crisis that I'd value the learning experience once day. At the end of this book Ysdran goes back to being a junior explorer, and Andrew goes back to his school life. Neither worlds are changed. Ysdran doesn't even go back as a revolutionary.

This return to the status quo is common in children's fiction--Maria Nikolajeva calls it recursion. Adventures are closed off and we all go back home to a supper of ham, tomatoes and lashings of ginger beer. The problem, is that modern science fiction pretty much demands consequences: at the end of the story something about the world should have changed.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Cyc and Sensibility

I don't just read children's science fiction. That way madness lies. Lately my bed-time reading has been The Best American Science And Nature Writing, 2002 edited by Natalie Anger.

I am very impressed: twenty seven articles and only one weak one in the lot.

Last night, Clive Thompson's article "The Know-It-All-Machine" caught my eye. It's a report on Doug Lenat's Cyc project.

Doug Lenat, as many of you probably know, is trying to create an intelligent computer the hard way, teaching it as many bits of "information" about the world in order to create a network of "items" from which the computer will construct a "commonsense" in order to make decisions.

Doug Lenat is bringing up baby. It's a twenty year job--at least.

This article caught my attention because of what it requires: in order to know what a computer/baby needs to know, the "teacher" has to step outside their own world and attempt to describe it without any of the ingrained assumptions that thirty years of living here give us. Any teacher knows this problem: you give the class a set of instructions and half way through it becomes clear that there is something you didn't say, that is so horribly obvious that you thought it was common sense, but the absence of actually saying it means that you suddenly have a classroom of confused students.

I hit this conceptual issue a lot when I'm teaching writing. Getting students to question the conceptual "bible" with which they live is very difficult. Of the students I teach, the older black women tend to find it easiest. Often they find it liberating because many of them have learned how to function in a white, male workplace essentially as if it were a second language, so that they negotiate their way through "compound meanings" on a day to day basis, teasing them apart to work out what is being asked.

I'm interested in this because modern sf is constructed through the formulation of "compound meanings" in order to create consensus space in which there is a shared "commonsense". And at each stage of this--from the bald info-dumps, the complex constructions grounded in seventy years worth of legacy texts by the likes of Charlie Stross,--we the reader are engaged in a subliminal process of shifting through what we "know" of the sf world and what, in this world "commonsense" means.

Now: how do you do this for the child reader? Or is reading science fiction as a child just like becoming bi-lingual? Two sets of "commonsense", two conceptual bibles?

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Value Structures and Feed-back loops

There is an interesting discussion at Mumpsimus on value structures in reading protocols which overlaps with some of what I'm interested in.

So you want to be an Astronaut young man? Donald A. Wollheim and Mike Mars

Does anyone here remember career books? Slightly dull, but terribly pleasant stories about girls who become dress designers or air stewardesses and boys who become engineers or doctors. Well, Donald Wolheim seems to have written a set of them, showing the career path of young astronaut Mike Mars.

The thing about career books wasn't that they didn't have a plot, or exciting adventures or anything like that, it's that their purpose was to show as realistically as possible what it might be like to embark on a particular career. Anything else was a little superfluous and somehow, the writer could never help showing it.

So it is with Donald Wollheim's Mike Mars Around the Moon (Doubleday, 1964). In the series Mike progresses from flying experimental aircraft, to this adventure in which he and two others crew a rocket around the back of the Moon and back. He is part of project Quicksilver, which uses the young and footloose for risky projects on the stated basis that they are expendable. Everyone involved--including the astronauts--agrees this is quite sensible.

Ostensibly the excitement lies in beating the Russians and there is one of those officially "thrilling" scenes where the Russians kidnap the second US crew, and Mike and his friends have to free them, and another in which a rescue craft is sent to blow up Russian laid space mines with an atomic bomb (launched from an anti-aircraft type gun would you believe?)

But the real excitement in this book--and I use the term without irony--is in the descriptions of the incredibly mundane things astronauts and their crafts do:
"Although the best observation positions in the capsule were the viewplates at the control seat, any part of the heavens could be scanned by changing the attitude of the craft. Tiny jets of compressed gas, spurted out from the sides, would alter the position of the huge capsule. Without changing the direction and trajectory of the ship itself, this processcould spin it to observe anything.

Hence, periodically, observations were made of the receding Earth, each time a new and awesome scene."

I loved this book. It's staid, it's slow. It's got far too many info dumps to make a successful novel. The spy thriller/action adventure material is grafted on. Yet it absolutely nailed the wondrousness of human achievement with moments of real poetry. Just listen to this:

“The huge carrier slid out from under the platform base and began its withdrawal to the V.A.B. A mile away the deep-sunk, heavily fortified block-house rested, a full mile away from the launching pad, and there the two teams of boys gathered, while the last hour ticked away for the Saturn’s test.
It stood out there alone, on a man-made prarie of concrete, high up atop the platform, with a thin steel tower holding it, and notihing in the landscape around so big and so wonderful.”

Oh yes, and it has a Native American side kick who doesn't get stereotyped as a tracker or end up dead.

More at Boggs Spacebooks

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

The Freedom of the Skies: Kenneth Oppel, Airborn (New York: Harper Collins, 2004).

is a newish book which (deservedly) won the Governor General’s Award in Canada. I’ve given details away, but it is the kind of book where you can see the plot coming a mile away, and it’s the panache with which it’s written which matters.

Matt Cruse is a cabin boy aboard a luxury zeppelin in a world in which heavier than air flight is still primitive.

Oppel’s book is a lot like a Heinlein. An awful lot like Starman Jones in fact. Not so close as to presume plagiarism or anything tacky like that, but the basic outline of the plot is very similar.

Matt want to be a sailmaker like his father, but since his father held down the job, the job has become professionalized and sailmakers must go through the new Academy. As Matt’s father is now dead, Matt can’t afford this and instead takes the offer made by the Captain of his father’s ship/zepplein to be a cabin boy, with a promise of promotion when a vacancy opens up—the new system hasn’t entirely taken hold as yet. In the event, the Captain can’t keep his promise. The owner places his son in the position instead. One nice thing is that Bruce is rather a nice chap. A bit aimless, doesn’t know what he wants to do, but otherwise decent.

Matt helps save a balloonist (although the man dies) and when his grand-daughter boards the zeppelin – in a rather spectacular scene where she and her paid companion are ferried to the zepplin in an ornithopter—Kate searches him out. Her grandfather saw something special in the skies and she wants to find out what.

We then have a comedy of social manners, an attack by air pirates, the ship is stranded on a desert island and it is Matt’s commonsense and ingenuity that finds methane for them so they can get off, and then helps them escape from the pirates. While this is happening, Kate has dragged him off to hunt for the Cloud Cats they’ve seen. They find the bones of one, and later the crippled one that her grandfather saw fall. Kate wants to go to University and this discovery could be her ticket.

The book is lively, fun, manages to be Victorian without being sexist or presenting Kate as implausibly Amazonian, and all in all is to be highly recommended. I have only one qualm: neither the sense of place or time quite comes over. On the one hand, it is nice to have a lecture about where we are, but it took me a while to figure out that homebase was Canada, and the “period” is vague too—possibly late Victorian, possibly late Edwardian. This, tho’, is also one of the interesting things about the construction of the novel: Oppel hasn’t fallen into the trap of making his alternate history parallel, year for year, the social development of our world.

I think what I really like about it however, takes us right back to my original post: this is a book about free range children. Matt is out in the world because he has to be. It's not fun, but neither is it a nightmare. By twelve he is the main bread winner for his family (he is about fifteen when the book opens). Oppel depicts a boy who is competent, professional, but still a boy (no Wesley Crushers here). Kate is the protected daughter of a wealthy family straining at the leash of decorum and the infantilsation of teens in the middle-class world of the late nineteenth century. In Kate, Oppel gives a brilliant depiction of the inbetween stage which dogged young Victorian women, prevented from going onto Higher Education but not actually offered an other options either (earlier in the century, all but the richest would have worked within family businesses). Kate negotiates her way to greater freedom with the sassiness of Violet Baudelaire..

Research Plans:

I have finally managed to explore most of the library and have pulled out about fifty sf-looking books. I’ve excluded everything I know was originally written for adult sf and fantasy magazines (although I will be looking at them later) and everything I know I can get in the UK. There’s enough here to keep me busy, but not enough to cause panic (I only have another five weeks) and UNBalso has a very large stock of children’s information books, and texts on “teaching science” and “teaching science through literature”, so next week I’m going to start looking at those. I have no idea if they will be relevant, or offer any insights, but if I don’t look, I’ll never know.

I have a literature gap to fill. What I found when I was writing the original article was that there is a very great deal of cognitive development theory and experiment for babies, for small children and for teens, but that the years 9-13 were pretty much absent. Once children learned to read, they seemed to pass from view. I know that this is changing. There is new research coming out on the “pre-teens” which I’ll be following carefully, but it’s ironic that the gap in the research more or less matches the target audience for the information books. I won’t be able to use these books to work out how children read and learn, but I may be able to use them to think about what the adult expectations are.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Well, there had to be one book about cats:

Ruthven Todd, Space Cat, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1952).
Illustrated by Paul Galdone

Space Cat is a delight. A small kitten smuggles himself onto a plane where he is "rescued" by an airforce officer who takes him back to base. Being a cat, he is curious and he sneaks himself on board a test flight. Having survived that, but having been discovered, he is given his very own pressure suit. On the moon he discovers aliens, and save's his man's life.

All of this is told from the cat's point of view--he is very much in charge of his own world--and what makes it special, is that the cat--Flyball--acts just like a cat.

When he meets the floating globes he acts just as a cat would, “Gingerly he put out a paw toward it. As he put out his paw the object moved just that same distance further from him.” (50) after he has tried this several times, “Flyball tucked his podgy paws under him and sat glaring at the blue things. There did not seem to be any way in which he could reach them, and their behavior made them seem even more attractive than the crumpled paper ball had been in the rocket when there was no gravity.”(52).

I also loved the scene where Flyball tries to capture globules of milk.

If I ever work out how to load pictures to LiveJournal (it appears to involve several stages in between) I'll post a picture. Galdone's drawings are perfect.

There are three sequels, but the one I've seen, Space Cat and the Kittens anthropomorphizes to a greater degree and I didn't find it quite so appealing,

A final thought about cognitive estrangement: Todd does quite a good job about making humans seem rather alien.

Todd is an English author (a poet as well) who wrote adult novels as R.T. Cambell, and whose real name was Professor John Stubbs. Any other information would be very much appreciated.

A Sentimental Journey: Alan Chapman, The Radio Boys' First Wireless, Grosset and Dunlap, New York, 1922.

Talking about a book that was published in 1922 (before "genre sf") and is all about wireless, which was far from speculative, may seem a bit odd. But I have three justifications. The first is that Hugo Gernsback was as much (if not more) a hero to radio people as he is to science fiction, and the early years of sf magazine publishing were supported by advertising revenue from the radio industry. The magazines used to be full of adverts to "make a career in the new field of Radio". And I have always been sentimental.

My second reason though is more "on topic". I'm not much for the "Sf is dying" refrain. I bet you could find it in magazines of the 1930s if you looked (certainly there were complaints when the wonder stories began to disappear), but I do think there are changes in the genre (such as the move away from engineering sf) which are about changes in the way in which the west relates to science and technology, and makes me wonder if we are due a boom in science fiction from one of those many countries that fill western Universities' departments of chemistry and engineering. Radio Boys helps explain what I mean.

The plot is terribly simple: four boys go to a lecture on radio, decide to build one, then build one each for a competition, and one of them wins the competition. There is a small crime-mystery threaded through but I don't get the feeling the author is terribly interested in that. I suspect a publisher insisted that you couldn't write story about building a radio.

One of the startling things (to modern eyes) of this book is how visible the technology is. A young man explains to the boys how to build a radio, and, from bits and pieces around the house (and with the kind of tools that would make a modern parent shudder) they do, and without adult supervision. The lecture that is provided (two pages) is clear, concise, and I could follow the instructions. It also managed not to sound boring.

I'm not sure that this kind of physical experimentation is even possible in most western households today. Most households don't have the make-do-and-mend culture that means that bits of wire, silver foil, and wood are hanging around the house. More to the point, how many items around the house can be taken apart? How can children learn how things work when prising apart a watch shows you circuit boards and opening the car up reveals a large lump of plastic? This change has taken place in my life-time. What used to be a matter of child-hood tinkering, has now been withdrawn to the classroom which--to go back to my throwaway line earlier--might explain why Engineering departments in the west are filling up with students from countries where technology is still visible (this isn't a complaint by the way, just an observation). The science museum sells a crystal radio kit, but it's just not the same.

My final reason for keeping this book in my list, is that it exemplifies the sense of wonder, and the romance with the workings of the universe that is such a part of science fiction. There is a point where one of the boys dashes home to get headphones and the other boys start without him. When he gets back he asks if they can get the musicians to wait for him....

"The absurdity of this idea [of asking musicians on the radio to wait for a listener] raised a laugh, which was suddenly cut short as the first notes of a rousing marc came ringing into the ear-phones. Every note was true and distinct as before, with practically no interference, and when the last note had died away the boys rose and as though actuated by one impulse, executed an impromptu war dance.” (133)"

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Genre Boundaries

Children will love Flyball's story--grown-ups, reading it aloud, will see in it a slight take-off on the popular science fiction trend.
The flyleaf blurb for Space Cat by Ruthven Todd, illustrations by Paul Galdone (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1952).

Internal Logic: character

There is a fascinating article on "consistency and character" at The Mumpsimus. I haven't yet figured out how it is relevant to this conversation about science fiction, but I know it is.

Fantasy and SF: Dividing Lines (1) Eleanor Cameron, Time and Mr.Bass (a Mushroom Planet Book), Boston/Toronto,Little, Brown and Company, 1967.

Bear in mind when reading this quick post that I'm currently writing another book as well about the ways in which fantasy is constructed, and that in the process I might change my mind about some of the following completely.

One of the issues that keeps cropping up in the children's sf I'm reading is the issue of education and learning--systems of the two specifically. I've got this tagged as something to explore later, but I'm beginning to wonder if the ubiquity of this theme is not just about children's literature but about the fantasy/sf divide which is a constant issue for critics. It ties into my arguments with City of Ember.

I've decided to categorise Eleanor Cameron's , Time and Mr.Bass as fantasy, even though there is a voyage to a planet. I'd already decided I wasn't thrilled with it: the real adventure belongs to the adult Mr. Tycho’s and the boys (Chuck and David) simply accompany him, and they don’t do even that in the bone/treasure hunt at the end. This in itself rings “fantasy” in my mind because this kind of construction where the protagonist takes part in an older person's quest is quite common to fantasy: Frodo and Aragorn for example. But the real divider for me is how the treasure hunt is solved.

Mr. Tycho's ancestor went missing many generations ago. The missing scroll might tell where he is. In the book. the scroll is discovered, a translation found, and the scroll tells us everything that happened to him. All of this is found knowledge, None of it is, to use an old fashioned phrase, worked out from first principles. If you read the book carefully you'll see that for Chuck and David this is also true of the technological and interplanetary aspects of the book, they are all handed to them on a plate. And in none of these moments does anyone question that they must be true and accurate and perfect (and of course they always are. In the (still to be revised) chapter I have written on Quest fantasies, I've called this (stealing from John Clute here) the Club story.

Going back to the beginning, here is a thought: knowledge in fantasy is fixed, and immutable, It doesn’t change, it can only be lost and refound which is what we saw in City of Ember (I promise to stop talking about this book soon). The idea of “making” knowledge in the sense of finding out new things about the universe is largely unthought of. In science fiction, knowledge is precisely about the working out, the puzzle (hence the long recognized tendency of sf readers to chose mysteries as their “second genre”) and frequently the making of new knowledge to help in new situations At the conclusion of Ben Bova’s
End of Exile
this is precisely what happens as Linc secedes his place as leader to Stav, the farmer, who as he points out, has the right skills and mindset for a pioneer colony.

This is also why we can end up arguing about the status of some books: fantasies which use the concept of "made" knowledge (K. J. Parker's The Colours in the Steel for example, end up feeling like sf. Science fiction novels which end up with someone having a dream and on the basis of this dream dispesnsing with all their carefully acquired evidence, as in Robert Charles Wilson's Blind Lake end up feeling like fantasy.

Some Very Curious Monkeys: Ben Bova, End of Exile (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1975).

OK, I’ve been promising a blog on Ben Bova’s End of Exile for days.

End of Exile is the third in a trilogy which can be read alone—this is good as I can’t find the other two yet.

Many years before, a group of people left Earth to found a colony. In one of the previous books they decide to bypass a passable planet in favour of a perfect planet. This proves to be a mistake when something goes terribly wrong, the hull is breached and the crew, with the exception of Jerlet, is wiped out.

Jerlet decides to make the best of things, and begins raising a batch of one hundred babies, but realises that he is going to die before they are grown. He leaves for the outer hub where the gravity is lower, but before he goes he programmes the machines to look after and to educate the children, and, because they are children leaves a warning that they should not try to fix the machines. The children grow up, the machines begin to break down, and the story opens.

Superficially, this looks a lot like City of Ember but there is one crucial difference: Jerlet knows that what he is doing is a really bad idea. He can’t help but do it, there isn’t an alternative, and he does his best to try to make it work, but he acts within the sum of human knowledge. The founders of the City of Ember didn’t.

Pat wrote Amanda Craig, in The Times of Jan 15th, compares the notion [of City of Ember to Forster’s ‘The Machine Stops’ which also describes ‘a society turned in on itself’. She goes on to talk of how the protagonists have ‘defied the increasingly corrupt and dictatorial authorities,’ and how the book ‘asks moral questions: what if the world as we know it came to an end, and only a few could survive? Who would be chosen? What kind of society would we create, and how?”

But in City of Ember the corruption appears to have no sense. The book functions as if people do bad things because they are bad people, but most of the evidence is that when it comes to politics, most people think they are acting for the best.

In End of Exile everything that happens next happens within the already established continuum of bad decisions made for the best. When the story opens, two young men are beginning to compete for leadership, Monel ostentatiously, Linc without realising that he is doing so. There is a young woman with power too. Magda is the High Priestess, empowered to push the button that brings Jerlet’s voice to them—he always says the same thing, because it is a recording. All of them are ignorant and undereducated because the teaching machines have broken down.

Of the three, Linc seems set out to be the hero, Magda to be the misguided priestess doomed when elightenment dawns, and Monel is the malicious villain. But Bova doesn’t play it that way, instead he shows us how each of the three genuinely wants the best for their colony, but each has reached a different set of decisions as to how that can be achieved. Linc, the technologically curious, wants to fix things, and once he meets Jerlet and discovers that the ship is actually going somewhere, he wants to make sure they make it. Monel thinks that there is nowhere to go, that this is it: given that, he wants to create a moral society, and it is these terms that he starts talking about food rationing as a punishment:

“You know people are always doing wrong things,” Monel said. “Not working hard enough, getting angry, not meditating when they’re supposed..” (31)

Linc gets straight to the heart of things when he asks “And who decides when someone’s done something wrong>” (31)

“Why, the priestess will decide, of course,” Monel said. “Assisted by these chips and those who know how to work them.” (32).

Magda, who seems at first to be a superstitious fly by night, willing to sell herself to the strongest man, turns out to have been playing a very complicated game, balancing Monel and Linc, and later Stav, the farmer, in order to create checks and balances in the system. Although the book opens with easy villains, by the end, every character has acquired a complexity of motive.

They have also gained skills: not knowledge, but skills. There is a big difference and it is one reason why this book works as science fiction and City of Ember didn’t. In City of Ember the children may be curious, but they are mostly lucky, They never think anything through logically or make anything from what they have. In contrast Bova portrays a make do and mend culture, handicapped by education, but basically curious and capable of reason, so when Linc first attempts to mend a machine, he can because he has developed that far through basic human talents:
“Over the years, Linc had gradually figured out that each little light on the screen stood for different rooms of the Living Wheel, and even for different machines within the rooms. Whenever a symbol disappeared from the screen, a machine went dead…
One of the biggest thrills of Linc’s life had been the moment he realized that the straight lines on the screen stood for the wires that stretched long the passageways behind the plastic wall panels. The lines were even colored the same way the wires were…”(39)

Later he will be able to proceed on a much more ambitious project because, although Jerlet had hoped for an educated population, he had understood it might not happen: when the instructional computer Linc uses realises he cannot read, it shows him pictures, repeating them until he can understand. Unlike City of Ember with its job lottery and the end of education at the age of 12, there is no engineered ignorance here, an engineered ignorance which leads me to react to Pat’s comment “what type of society would we create” with incandescent rage at du Prau.

When Linc finally meets Jerlet, Jerlet teaches him electrical engineering, but the most important thing Jerlet teaches him is how to read. This is the skill that will save Linc: when Molen is trying to space him, Jerlet can read “EMERGENCY PROCEDURE”. This is utterly different to the finding of candles and a box of matches in an underground tunnel in City of Ember. The only lesson learned from Jeanne duPrau is that fortune favours the lucky. Bova teaches that fortune favours the prepared and the planner: don’t just make one plan, make several…assume failure and argue with it.

And this is where we come back to Pat’s comment about suspension of belief. Bova requires us to suspend belief in what is currently possible, but he does not expect us to suspend belief in human capabilities. In this, he is an optimist: dump humans on an ice flow, he is saying, and they will work out how to build igloos. Du Prau wants us to believe that humans can only work with what they already have (although I admit now that I haven’t read the sequel, and don’t intend to) or are given.

Pat wrote: “I am fascinated by seeing the children’ learn and grasp solutions in the context of what we, the implied reader, can connect up with the world we know.” But there is a difference between completing jigsaw puzzles and building with mechanno. Du Prau’s book only allows the children to complete the picture that has already been drawn, its simplistic construction of morality teaches children that they can judge people by the ends, not the intentions, it has a moral dualism missing from End of Exile. Maybe Pat is right and this book is a fantasy. I’ve been saying this a lot recently but increasingly one of the ways I see the dividing line between fantasy and sf is that science fiction wants to argue with the universe, and make it succumb to the rational. Fantasy, on the other hand, wants to make the universe moral. In these terms, Bova wrote an sf novel and Du Prau, using the same material wrote fantasy.

Friday, January 21, 2005

One Project Over...

Yesterday I finished my book. All that is left to do is to proof read it (not me thank goodness) argue with the publisher over the title, and then wait for the list of changes to come in. All assuming that they accept the manuscript of course.

The idea was that I would take yesterday afternoon and today off. Yesterday however we had a snowstorm: terribly pretty and utterly claustrophobic. I ended up spending the day watching tv and caught two versions of Louisa May Alcott's Little Men.

The first was dire: I only caught the last twenty minutes but it appears that they had dispensed with Professor Bhaer in order to make way for Jack, handsome and masculine adventurer. And what is it with this "strong, gentle female" stereotype that litters US tv (If you don't know what I mean, think Beverly Crusher). It's not Jo March at all.

The second version was much better: all the colours were brown, I didn't recognise any of the cast and they kept to the script. It was Canadian, not American. Listening to it reminded me how much more intellectual a model of masculinity the Victorian Americans used to espouse. I've recently read a 1922 book, Radio Boys which I'll write up tomorrow when I have some energy again, but reading it, I was really startled how much "boys" were defined by "healthy intellectual interests" as well as wanting to play sport.

Tomorrow I start reading again with a vengeance. Much will be reported.

In the meantime, please do encourage your friends to fill in the questionnaire. The numbers have already gone past my ability to thank you all individually (at least for now) and we are approaching the point where I have a seriously viable sample. Thank you.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Well Equipped

Friends will be pleased to hear that I now own Canadian walking boots, and attachable ice grips.

Fingers crossed.

A Perverse Form of Reality and the Suspension of Disbelief.

I asked Pat to respond to my comments on City of Ember because of my increasing conviction that there is such as thing as an "sf-inclined" mind. I don't want to go any further than that statement as far as categories are concerned however.

Pat's response was illuminating.

I feel that the points made ... seem almost perversely to be reading the book as if it were a work of realism rather than fantasy.

Does anyone else feel a light going off? For those of us who are fans, sf is a work of realism. The reading protocols of sf demand that we take things literally. To probably mis-summarize many critics, if we live in a world were someone can "give" me their hand, then what we are suspending, is not a faith in realism but faith in metaphor.

might allow implausible situations to be accepted for the sake of what they add to the story, or to an aspect which is very important in this book, its symbolic effect (which largely works implicitly, with I hope the young reader not being explicitly conscious of it).

Again, a little light bulb...this is where we get into the issue of escapism, although Pat never mentions the word so this isn't strictly a comment on her words: to an sf reader, "implausibility" doesn't mean quite the same thing. Cheryl and Sturgeonslayer use standard sf understandings of this. You can't have anything that has been proved to be impossible unless you can come up with a reason why it might be. You can't ignore current knowledge. Pat Pinsent doesn't have any problem with this: "all are constructs which therefore obey the rules imposed by their creator, and if this means there is no atomic clock, or gas doesn’t explode in tunnels, then these are presumably the conditions in that world." If this were true tho', it almost immediately moves City of Ember into the category of other world fantasy. This makes it not sf at all. Which was part of what I was saying in my initial rant.

Two other points Pat made struck me:

Among the things I like about the book:
• The book seems to be to some extent a reflection on the danger of stifling childhood abilities by ‘assigning’, and the potential that individuals have for rising out of such a ‘dark’ system. While it’s not an allegory as such, it certainly makes good use of the symbolism, especially of light and dark, and I think the arrival into a ‘light’ world at the end, which we recognise is like ‘our’ world, is a very moving moment.

• We need the conept of ‘blindness’, the lack of ingenuity of the inhabitants, to make us appreciate the quality of the vision of those who get out of there.

Both of these are metaphorical issues, and I have already (tentatively) suggested that sf tends to ask for a supsension of faith in metaphor. They are not issues that count for and of themselves. This is purely personal, but there is to me something problematic about ignoring the idea of genre or form as a rhetorical strategy, as in the continual assumption (again not a comment about Pat) that I see in a lot of children's literature criticism, that fantasy and sf are metaphorical projects. I think we can't dismiss it as an element, but I don't think this is what attracts children to read it.
I'm currently reaching the end of my other project. I expect to complete the book on Diana Wynne Jones that I have been working on for the past eighteen months sometime tomorrow. When I've done that, I am going to blog on two books: Ben Bova's Exiles of Earth and The Radio Boys by Alan Chapman. Between them they say an awful lot about City of Ember. Exiles of Earth has almost the same plot. The differences between the two are, I think, where some of the disputes about the suspension of disbelef lie.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Guest Post (1): Pat Pinsent on City of Ember

Reading this I am struck by the way in which Pat has used the term "suspension of disbelief"--I'll try to explain what I mean later today.

Responses to Farah’s criticisms

I feel that the points made are all, in themselves, valid, but seem almost perversely to be reading the book as if it were a work of realism rather than fantasy. There is no ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ which might allow implausible situations to be accepted for the sake of what they add to the story, or to an aspect which is very important in this book, its symbolic effect (which largely works implicitly, with I hope the young reader not being explicitly conscious of it). Remember that no work of fiction, even an ostensibly realistic one supposedly set in ‘our’ world is in fact so located- all are constructs which therefore obey the rules imposed by their creator, and if this means there is no atomic clock, or gas doesn’t explode in tunnels, then these are presumably the conditions in that world. At the same time, the created world has to be close enough to ‘ours’ for the reader to relate, and I think DuPrau achieves this. Thus, plausibility is an irrelevant criterion for deciding on the book’s merit. Therefore many of the points in the category ‘Things that just annoyed me’ don ‘t really demand discussion. The only point on which I would agree with the criticism is the lack of a mythology for the missing information- an opportunity missed by DuPrau.
Among the things I like about the book:
• I am fascinated by seeing the children’ learn and grasp solutions in the context of what we, the implied reader, can connect up with the world we know.
• The book seems to be to some extent a reflection on the danger of stifling childhood abilities by ‘assigning’, and the potential that individuals have for rising out of such a ‘dark’ system. While it’s not an allegory as such, it certainly makes good use of the symbolism, especially of light and dark, and I think the arrival into a ‘light’ world at the end, which we recognise is like ‘our’ world, is a very moving moment.
• The idea of the community being founded by elderly people and babies may not be plausible but it’s a fascinating hypothetical situation.
• We need the conept of ‘blindness’, the lack of ingenuity of the inhabitants, to make us appreciate the quality of the vision of those who get out of there.
Amanda Craig, in The Times of Jan 15th, compares the notion to Forster’s ‘The Machine Stops’ which also describes ‘a society turned in on itself’. She goes on to talk of how the protagonists have ‘defied the increasingly corrupt and dicatatorial authorities,’ and how the book ‘asks moral questions: what if the world as we know it came to an end, and only a few could survive? Who would be chosen? What kind of society would we create, and how? At its heart City of Ember is about the imagination and passions that artists and scientists bring to their society, and how it is their visions which are our salvation. Its engaging young heroine and hero have adults to give them good advice, but it is their own courage, energy and ingenuity which cracks the mysterious instructions and brings the novel to what is at once a satisfying conclusion and a terrific cliffhanger...’
I think this sums up my feelings quite well, certainly in the context of the youth of the protagonists and how this relates to the implied young reader.
Pat Pinsent

When is a Novel not a Novel?

When it was written for children...

At least according to's "First Novel Award" in wich "Authors who've already had Children's books or short story collections published are also eligible."

Monday, January 17, 2005

Reading Patterns: early feedback

I've had thirty questionnaires so far (that's one an hour!). The one point that is coming up over and over again is that children are choosing most of their books for themselves from the age of eight upwards.

If you haven't filled out the questionnaire please do (the link is to the left) if you have, please pass the link on to your friends or add it to your site. All of this will only be useable if I can generate a large sample.


Science Fiction is in the Eye of the Beholder: Eric Rohmann, Time Flies, Crown Publishers, Inc. New York, 1994.

Science fiction is what we point at. I've tried to reflect that in the questions at SF Questions. But it's more than a joke: this very flippant comment points, I think, to the possibility of an sfnal mind.

One of the issues that I think all sf writers and critics are concerned with is how to write estrangement, but what if part of the issue is the inclination to read estrangement, that there is a kind of mind that wants to feel uncomfortable and a little bit scared and to be left with a sense that there is more to be known.

It's worth taking a look at Eric Rohmann's Time Flies in this regard.

Here is what I wrote in my notes:

A very straightforward picture book which encapsulates the sense of wonder. A small bird flies through the dinosaur collection of the Natural History Museum. The colours are browns to begin with, but as the bird flies on. Greens begin to enter the picture and we see the leg of a dinosaur with what looks like muscle. As we turn over, the left hand of the dinosaur is skeleton but the right has resolves into scales and landscape. The bird now flies through a populated and lush prehistoric world—at one point chased by a pterodactyl. It explores the various dinosaurs until it gets to close and is swallowed (we see a few feathers) and as if flies back through the dinosaur’s throat, the “reader” and the bird see light at the end of the tunnel as the muscle disappears leaving skeleton behind. The final picture is ambivalent, there is a skeleton in the foreground but the background creatures are fleshed—perhaps this is an exhibit?

Then I went on a search for other comments and found this:

Time Flies by Eric Rohmann is a wordless picturebook in which a bird flies around in a dinosaur museum.  The dinosaurs seem to come to life and want to eat the small bird.  The bird was almost eaten but luckily realized that the dinsosaurs were only exhibits and were not real. (

It isn't that one reading is literal and one metaphoric, both are actually pretty literal. But my reading wanted there to be something out there and the second reading wanted comfort.

Wedding Veils

This morning there is a blizzard so fine that it is like walking through swathes of lace. Not that I walked. G-d bless the local taxi service.

Only an archive would get me out of the house on a day like this.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

SF Questionnaire

Having listened to everyone's comments so far, I've compiled a questionnaire which I hope will provide me lots of food for thought and evidence both for and against my current thesis.

Please do go to: and fill it in. Please send as many friends to the site as well. The last time a really comprehensive survey of sf fans reading habits was undertaken was in 1977.

Many thanks in advance,

Friday, January 14, 2005

Wicked Weather

Last night I looked out of my balcony window to see thick snow and even thicker mist. All you could see were the woods and lanterns bringing light to the gloom.

This morning although the mist has lifted, I still can't see the bridge, but I can see the lights of the cars as they cross and the static lights of the street lamps. The earth is wearing a glittering crown.

D'you remember the thaw in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe? Well, it's like that here. In one day the snow is disappearing into icy rivers. Unfortunately the rivers are on the road and the pavement. Lewis never warned me there would be ice *under* the water.

Forgive the absence of coding: I don't *think* I've actually sprained my wrist, there isn't enough swelling, but I don't think I'll be doing any more writing today.

And I have three days left to complete my editing.

Expletives deleted......


Someone persuaded me into The Owl's Nest second hand bookshop yesterday. I told them this was a bad idea. We'd left my leash at home.

At the back of the shop I found three bays of children's fantasy and science fiction (I'd already cleared out the hard back selection the week before). I'll have to go back once I have a list of what I bought, but I filled my Concussion tote bag and now have a collection of about eighty really unprepossessing children's sf novels.

Why is it that any title configured " The X of the Y" is calculated to inspire gloom in the critic's heart?


At the moment I am in the very last days of editing 2004's research project, which is why my postings on children's sf have been sporadic. As from Monday, it will be children's science fiction on a full time basis. Considering the general quality of much of this material I fully expect my brain to have turned to mush by the end of February. In addition to the children's sf, however, I also intend to catch up with my reading on education and cognitive development. I've already come across some interesting material on teaching science which seems to proceed from the interesting premise that children will, ipso facto be unwilling from the start.

Who was it who described children as "natural" scientists?

Thursday, January 13, 2005

" If people .. want to quibble about where my stories fit..." Margo Lanagan, Black Juice (New York: Eos Harper Collins, 2004)

Due out in March 2005. There will be no spoilers in this note.

Black Juice
is a short collection of astonishing, elegant, destabilizing stories aimed by Harper Collins at the teen market. Some of the stories are clearly fantasy, "Yowlinins" seems to be science fiction. Truly it doesn't matter because what strikes this reader is that each one of the stories has captured the essence of being in the world with its constant negotiation with new pains and the sense that the world itself, looked at the right way, itself exudes the stuff of fantasy. All of which sounds terribly pious.

There is nothing preachy about Black Juice . In the first story, "Singing My Sister Down", a boy tells of accompanying his sister to her execution. The tone of the story is lyrically pragmatic, its passion and grief is in the tears not shed. In "My Lord's Man" two people realize that when they cannot find something admirable in each other they can triangulate on another's opinion. The tale is a remix of a folk song but Lanagan never allows the tap root to rise above the surface.. "Red Nose Day" and "Yowlinin's" intensify childhood trauma--Lanagan offers no easy catharsis, while my favourite, "Wooden Bride" explores the idea that what others see does matter.

For more, see the interview with Margo Lanagan at the SF Site.
I'm off to order Lanagan's previous collection, White Time

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Nature's Needlework.

Dammit, I don't have a camera.

Those of you who live in the frozen north will have seen this before, but I never have.

Outside my office window hang screens to keep out the insects in summer.

When I got in this morning, fine crystals of cross stitched fern had formed in the mesh.

The Future Familiar: Jeanette Bresnihan, The Alphabet Network (Dublin: Wolfhound, 2000).

One issue with some children's sf is that one wonders why it's set in the future at all. The Guardians of Time, at least for the first half, could have been set in the nineteenth century--isolated child longs for school. It certainly didn't feel any later than 1950--children's science fiction seems to be the last bastion of the full-time housewife, it's generally much more sexist than non-sf for children.

The Alphabet Network is a particularly pointless example of futurism, although it is pleasantly told.

Two children travel from a destroyed Europe to find refuge with their Grandfather in the west of Ireland, the only country left unspoiled by eco-wreckers. With them they have a box containing something terribly important for their grandfather, but of which they have no knowledge.

On the way, they are passed like parcels (no childish independence or ingenuity here) from hand to hand among the members of the Alphabet Network, a group of now elderly eco-terrorists each of whom carries an animal image from the Book of Kells (animals illustrate a letter on each page of the Book of Kells). They are hunted by a man in a white suit. When they reach their grandfather, the box turns out to contain photographic evidence of an Irish senator’s corruption.

I had expected maybe a formula for reinvigorating European soil, genetically modified seeds that would survive the pollution. Something that mattered in the context of the future which Bresnihan creates (rather effectively it should be said). Instead I found myself wondering why they didn't use the mail.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

That's the Way to Do It! Jerome Beatty Jr., The Tunnel to Yesterday (New York: Avon Books, 1983).

Occasionally I'm just going to have to cheat: this isn't a science fiction book, it's a fantasy time travel. Sam Churchill volunteers for a dig near Plymouth Rock and finds himself back in 1620 just before The Mayflower lands. His presence creates (and three hundred years later clears up) a local mystery. I like the book because the archeology is depicted realistically, nothing comes easily (Sam has to learn Naugawump the hard way) and the adults around him, his employer and the archeologist, treat him like a person. As well as for lines like this:

"It was too late for Sam's parents to say no and to they had agreed to let their boy go off to a strange town for the summer. They gave him advice, warnings, fifteen dollars and a new no-wind battery wristwatch. They put him on a bus to Boston where he changed for the local to Plymouth." (11)

Education is, as Education Does: Peter Baltensperger, Guardians of Time (Three Trees Press: Toronto, 1984)

Finnegan lives in the future in an Earth where everything is controlled by the Chairman and the Ten, and by Politicians. The future is not terribly imaginative, it is essentially Asimovian with walking robots and lives very like ours.

The world relies on computers for planning and the elite are those trained to program and interpret the computers. The elite is hereditary and Finnegan is being trained to follow in his father’s footsteps. He spends his days on his own in his study being drilled by his Wall in mathematics, and using virtual reality to relax. Even these scenes are chosen for him by the computer. Finnegan finds out, and reveals to his mother, that they are all being programmed by a White Room (the vision eye) at the centre of the house. At this point his father and the whole family are dispatched as ambassadors to the planet of Kalimar where humans have grown huge.

Up until now this has been a rather dull dystopian novel which seems designed to make children satisfied with the more rambunctious world in which they live. But threaded through this first part is an argument about education and control of children’s lives and what children are for. Children of Politicians are “educated in isolation and trained for their one great purpose in life” (8) Finnegan’s father has little interest in him “Years ago he had played the role of parent and enjoyed the game—for a while, until the novelty wore off and Finnegan grew from a baby into a boy.” (18)

For a while this works really well, there is a strong sense of Finnegan as a child in a repressive society that claims to operate for his well being. When he gets to Kalimar, he is inducted into their society’s education system. I perked up a bit at this, it sounded promising. Kalimar doesn’t have teaching machines, “We learn from each other…Machines can’t think, and that’s what Kalimarian philosophy is all about—the development of thought.” (68) Then we get to what is taught, “philosophy and psychology and spirituality….Literature, poetry, art, all the important things?” (69). Now, I don’t mind the argument for a well rounded education, but maths and science are dismissed here.

Later we are told that on Kalimar people have moved beyond hard work, that everything’s being looked after “You’ll have to realize that we are not a technological society. We moved beyond that a long time ago.” (71)

At which point Finnegan—a sensible, science trained boy, asks, “Into what?” and his mentor dismisses him with the comment that he will find out in good time. A seeming educational liberation proves just as closed as the prison from which Finnegan has escaped. Eventually, inducted to the planet’s secrets, Finnegan will discover that they do have technology. Telekinesis allows them to work with fundamental particles. Baltensperger, does a good job describing this, making it seem like science rather than magic:

“Day after day, the two worked in the laboratories of the Academy, studying the intricacies of the Kalimarian technology, poring over tapes, and performing complicated experiments. Rammassoon helped Kendor [nee Finnegan] to develop and sharpen his brain, his body, his entire nervous system, until he learned to store and transform energies he had never known existed…
A whole new world opened up for Kendor, aworld of the most intricate processes, involving energy transitions across complicated circuitry connected sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly through Rammassoon to Kendor’s central nervous system and to the very core of his brain. (104)

Ok, so it’s handwaving, but it is recogniseably hard sf hand waving.

At the end of course Finnegan/Kendor decides to stay, his father goes home, transformed by Kalimar society. Mostly, this story confirms to that outward trajectory I have been looking for.

The snag is what Finnegan travels outward to. For in rejecting Earth for Kalimar, it turns out that Finnegan has rejected a petty patriarch for a truly godly father. Kalimar is in the business of civilization rescue. They are a highly technological civilization who have developed their minds as well and appointed themselves Guardians of the Universe (79-81). This is such a common sf trope that I have no right to complain, but the effect in this book is to dampen the sense of adventure. Everything Finnegan/Kendor does is supervised by someone, and this is reinforced by the writing style. Just the one example (above) is enough. The story is told in a voice of mild condescension, hard to pinpoint but one which assures us that Finnegan is on the right path, that any conflict we see will be part of this path. It’s all terribly dull and teacherly. The Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme, or a school exchange, rather than Adventure.

Monday, January 10, 2005

The Right Attitude Towards Books

Count Olaf: By Count Olaf


Tests and Meanings

Mike Levy and Jeff V both talked about the reading child who reads everything, including the back of cereal packets as a response (I think) to my argument that checking understanding may not be the way to encourage reading.

Mike said: I read cereal boxes at breakfast as a child, advertisements, virtually anything that appeared before me (still do). ..., but also those awkward, educator-approved controlled vocabulary reading sets, the kind where each child is tested and assigned a set of readings on some wholesome topic at exactly their reading level. I loved those things in elementary school and was pleased every time I finished a set and moved up to another level.

There are two points here: the children I was referring to at the time (a reminder to myself to clarify this point) are those who are being taught to read by reading aloud to the teacher, who checks as they go that they are understanding what they have read. These are not the Reading Child.

If a child becomes a Reading Child, then those graded readers become only one of many books in the hand (and on the chair, and by the bed) and the whole exercise becomes a game in which the child gets constant ego-boo. (I can imagine a Reading Child tho' who is not a quick reader, for whom they become an obstacle in the way of the books he wants to read).

For the Child Reader, if they become either the only or the majority of the books read, and comprehension tests become permanently associated with reading, then the chances of reading seeming like fun will probably diminish.

Alison said...

My daughter is a seven-year-old of the steer round lamp-posts type...She's highly resistant to the book analysis that the school encourages. They want her to write about every book she reads; I'm not very supportive of this because I know firsthand from people who found that terribly destructive

You'ld think people would learn from their own experiences as adults on this one. As a book reviewer, it's amazing how much less appealing even something I want to read can become when someone says "500 words by Monday".

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Cognitive Dissonance in New Brunswick

The accent sounds Canadian, but is officially "Maritime".
The man next to me just said he was "pissed off".
The houses look like they were built in Maine, but there are people walking.
People drink tea.
The car drivers stop even when it isn't a crossing (once I ended up crossing a road when I didn't want to. I was too embarrassed to do otherwise).
The streets are called things like "Regent", "King", "Queen", "Windsor" and "George".
Letter boxes in Imperial Red...but square.
Those aren't swimming pools in the gardens, they're ice rinks.
The currency has the Queens head on the front; is in US style denominations; and looks like the Euro.

A Bootstrapped World: David Stahler Jr, Truesight (New York: Eos Harper Collins, 2004).

It's always harder to talk about a book that one really likes so it's taken me a couple of days to get my thoughts together about this one. There are issues about the way in which Stahler handles reader position, information retrieval and the overlap between growing as a child and learning something new that I found fascinating. This was a book which overcame enough of the problems which seem to bedevill the YA field that I could begin to pay attention to how the book was written as much as what it was about.

David Stahler's Truesight is set on the planet of Nova Campi. Here, two colonies have been established, one "normal" in that it appears to have no purpose other than to settle and make lives, and the other Utopian. The Utopian colony consists of people who are born blind through deliberate genetic intervention. A hundred or more years before, blind couples had begun to choose elective blindness for their children in order that their children might share their world (in the real world, this is currently an issue among the deaf community for whom the recognition of Sign as a real language and culture is an issue, see Forbidden Signs by Douglas Baynton). By the time the story begins, a movement has emerged of Blinders, people who beieve that to be blind is to find greater inner sight, and the colony is part of this religious impetus.

The first thing I liked is that the way in which this Utopian community is flawed are realistic. Several generations on, hierarchies are emerging. The colony elders choose what children should become, and this is decided as much by the status of the parents as it is by the child's aptitude. There is a hint that marriages are under the influence of the elders and that this influence is getting stronger. Food rationing too, is becoming vulnerable to entrenched hierarchies. Stahler does a very good job of demonstrating that this is not precisely corruption in that it becomes rationalised in an ideology that some responsibilities are more onerous than others. Communitarianism is breaking down.

An adult reader of Truesight will inevitably come to this book with memories of John Varley's astonishing 1978 story, "The Persistence of Vision" ( SF & F 1978) and there are likenesses. This is a world in which sound is minimized because sound is so important and precious a navigational and identificational tool. Everyone carries "sounders" and people move in a susurrus of notes in which the sounders chime on approach. Someone's sounder becomes intimately identified with them. Similarly, there is a very strong emphasis on everything being in its place: the idea that social conformity is necessary for public safety is here made dramatically immediate.

Where I did have problems was Stahler's limited sense of what the Blind could achieve. This community is almost entirely agrarian, children leave school at 13 and all technology is dealt with by outsiders. The colony relies on a computer and robot of some kind for medical attention and many other aspects of life. This could have been justified by ideology but isn't, and seems instead to be justified physical limitations which technology could have solved. I also thought it a little odd that guide dogs were no longer in use, although the Perpetual Mousetrap was breeding happily to keep the vermin down.

But back to the story: Jacob, child of a musician and a farmer, begins to see. At first he experiences painful headaches and flashes of light, then he begins to perceive colours and eventually can full sight. Stahler does a pretty good job of making this work although he does dodge around the issue (which he mentions) that those to whom sight was restored in the old days couldn't always process what they saw. Jacob comes to identify colours without it being clear how given that this is a community for whom any reference to what something looks like has become an obscenity.

What made all of this acceptable and interesting was how Stahler proceeds next. Jacob realises that sight is showing him things he didn't even realise he needed to know. Sight does not just tell him the world is beautiful, it shows him that the world is complex: facial expressions which don't match the words being said; fruit pickers eating a rationed crop; exhaustion and starvation and social inequality written on the body. Jacob does not become dissatisfied because he can see, he becomes unhappy because what he sees forces him to reassess what he believes. One of the points that impressed me most, is that Jacob comes to see how the lack of sight has isolated people and made them vulnerable to manipulation. Although Stahler cannot resist revealing real corruption--the leader of the colony may actually be sighted--the heart of the story remains with Jacob growing into an analytical adult. There is no great self-realisation here, but an application of his intellect to the world around him--the outbound trajectory I (personally) believe is important to sf.

Truesight is the first of a trilogy--something I always find a bit worrying, but so far, so good. It clearly works as adventure, it seems to fit my idea that sf should be about asking questions, and refusing to take things for granted, it doesn't rely on coincidence, fate or stupidity more than it has to, and it explains the relative quiescence of the population. There are some issues though about how the book is written. These aren't absolutely YA issues, but I've noticed that they crop up more commonly in YA and children's sf than in modern adult sf.

David Stahler cannot bring himself to trust the reader.

The craft of cognitive dissonance aims to create an immersion so complete that the reader takes the created world for granted as real, accepting that--like the real world--there may be things not understood. This is never easy to achieve. At its best, the author explains nothing and you can end up with a Cordwainer Smith like text (I am a big fan by the way) in which one can spend years trying to work out what the hell happened and what the world looked like. At its weakest, the author cannot resist explaining things, of the "Joe turned to Jill, 'Yes Jill, in today's society we all have plastic cards which we insert into slots in the wall which read the numbers, and contact our bank through wires to work out if we have money.'" variety.

The opening of Truesight comes perilously close to my parody. Instead of beginning with Jacob, and trusting us to work out from Jacob's movements what the world is like, we begin from the perspective of two outside technicians who describe the world to us. It's a real shame. If you skip the prologue and start at chapter one, Stahler provides the delicious sense of immersion in somewhere strange, and you are already on an independent intellectual adventure. If you start with the Prologue you'll feel you're on a school trip.

The reason I think this is a YA/children's literature issue, is that I see it a lot in sf for young people. The assumption is that because the young don't know much, it has to be laid out for them. But--as I've written elsewhere--children move continually through a world that is both familiar and strange to them, and they negotiate most of it without much explanation: they are biologically programmed to deal with the strange (the linguistic term is "bootstrapping" which I think Heinlein would have liked). If anything, it is when we grow into adulthood that we often lose this ability, something Diana Wynne Jones has remarked on in an interview. Children may be more able to cope with the demands of sf, than are adults coming late to the field. I'd like to see writers take that on board, and most of the time, Stahler does.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

The Reading Child--Call and Response

I'm not going to actually close threads but when--as has happened with this thread--I turn on to find so many comments, I'll try to respond as a post. Please do keep disagreeing with me vociferously. It makes me think harder about my arguments. I expect some will fall by the wayside as I proceed, others need honing and refining.

Zhaneel said...
IME, it is very hard for a Reading Child to have nothing else at hand, as they often have access to libraries and/or relative's collections so always have several books to choose from.

Oh, it happens. I'm a Reading Child who once ran so short of books while staying with my Dad that his friend Gordon came round with a suitcase full that he had collected from someone for Oxfam. On the off chance he is reading this, Gordon, this blog is all your fault. The suitcase was almost entirely sf and as I had nothing else to read, I started in. Several Haldeman's, Stableford's, Joan Vinge's and Heinlein's later I was hooked.

Jeff V pointed out that the Reading Child (as I describe him or her) is often an indiscriminate reader, and that many of those books don't hold up in adult eyes. I think the confusion in the second part of that (not Jeff's but more generally) is between "will read anything" and "reads uncritically". I don't think children do read uncritically, and I think the Reading Child often has very high standards, but that what these standards are varies from child to child. As many of the posts here and also at Over the Sea indicated, there are children who read for the sheer sound of words in their head and go on to become hooked on words and the sound of words (these, I suspect, are the children most likely to become writers); there are children who read for story; and children who read for "relevance" or even for "irrelevance" (I've always thought "Problem Books" to be much more escapist than fantasy--who hasn't fantasized about their death bed, or being orphaned as a child?).

Jeff also wrote; . I like to think of children as piratical rogues who care as little about genre and boundaries as we should as adults, swashbuckling from one adventure to the next, soaking it all up and adding it to the totality of who they are or want to be. Making the imperfect in what they read perfect in their imaginations.

And again, I think this is true of some children, but talking to the children I buy books for, it's astonishing how early they know "the kind of thing" they like. Their genre divisions don't necessarily match up with those of the book shop but try buying a book on trains for a child who likes dinosaurs and see how much thanks you get.

This is where things get interesting, because sometimes we can misunderstand why children like a book (or adults for that matter).
Lazygal said... I agree, there is a *vast* difference between the Reading Child and the Child Reader. In the case of City of Ember, it was Reading Children that loved it (the child that brought it to my attention is severly dyslexic but struggled his way through and then raved about it to friends and classmates).

What I want to know is why that child loved the book, What grabbed him or her? marsha said. of her son's range of reading... t books aren't about the language or style to him, it's about understanding other's points of view from inside their own thought processes. His grief in life is mirrored in Harry Potter's. The understanding of human motivation from the Dune book is astounding This for me is in at the heart of the genre debate, in that a book is categorized as much by how it is read and what the readers take from it as it is by what the writer thinks they are doing. I'm right with you on this one.

One of the issues that came up with Harry Potter is that readers like me/us steeped in fantasy and science fiction, got told off when we pointed out the inconsistencies and the derivativeness. I don't think the "dog in the manger" accusation entirely unfair--lots of us were pissed off on behalf of our favourite children's fantasy writers--but I think at the heart of this was the issue that we were reading these books differently, partially because we were adults, but over and above all because science fiction and fantasy has taught us a Way of Reading: we demand internal logic, we demand that a world could hold together (the epitome of this is the two Science of Discworld books), and the more we read, the more we demand that the people we read be aware of all the other people we read. Science fiction and fantasy is astonishingly inter-textual because that is how the genres built their irony of mimesis

Andy Sawyer brought up Karin Lesnik-Oberstein (Children’s Literature: Criticism and the Fictional Child, 1994) who is a critic I admire a great deal, and asked: " Two questions there: are you are yourself reconstructing "the child reader" here?

To which the answer is "yes" but I am trying to suggest that there are many kinds of child readers, and that in the current critical "child-first" literature, and in many of the books produced between 1970 and 2000 (we may be seeing a change again) the "child reader" was constructed as being socialised to a particular type of society, one which looked inward, spent a lot of time in therapy, and thought aspirations to change the world was Utopian (and used the word in a pejorative sense).

But in terms of which side of the debate am I? It depends on which book I'm writing. My forthcoming book on Diana Wynne Jones is of the "text is all that counts" variety.

And what are the elements which cause the movements towards the kind of sf that we consider "good"? In this particular book the two children are solving a problem which the surrounding world has either forgotten or is actively trying to cover up: very much the pattern of the kind of sf which I grew up with.

My problem was with the sheer stupidity of the premise, and the degree to which everything the children achieved was luck or coincidence. Compare this to the gold standard, Heinlein. In Have Space Suit Will Travel Kip is told very firmly that there is no such thing as luck there is only being prepared for the opportunity. I bet if you turned out the average handbag/backpack in any science fiction convention you will find that there is some reflection of that ethos.

One thing that really puzzles me is the number of children's sf books in which careers are decided by lottery (David Stahler Jr.'s excellent Truesight which I'll talk about tomorrow is another. Is there some deep metaphorical issue here that I'm missing?

I don't mind the protagonists being ignorant. I mind the idea of "found knowledge". In Moore's and Blish's books, knowledge has to be worked at and created.

I'm interested that Zhaneel at least agrees with me that a bad experience with a "labelled" book can put one off the label. For me this happened with horror, hence I have just started reading Stephen King for the very first time.

marsha said.... He likes the Heinlein youth sci fi cause of it's adventure and independence of the children.

This is a point that I think lies at the heart of good sf. And probably a lot of other good children's books as well for that matter, but to write it, you need to believe that leaving home is a good thing. Not all cultures do. I wish I read Italian because I would love to see what their YA fiction looks like, given that a court has just ruled a "child" has the right to parental support until he marries.

And finally:

sturgeonslawyer said...I was a "reading child," and an obsessive one at that....Nonetheless, I was very definitely a fussy reader from an early age who knew what _kind_ of stuff I wanted.

Absolutely, And this is what I am getting at. I think children do know the kind of stuff they want, and what bothers me is when books with a label (sturgeonslawyer's rocket ships, Gollancz sf yellow jackets) which would connect them to the kind of stuff in the adult genre, is actually not that stuff at all. It's like thinking you've bought chocolate and biting into carob. Carob may be nice as carob, but it ain't chocolate.

sturgeonslawyer said In retrospect, though, I moved directly from the weird critters of Doctor Seuss to things that were SFF but didn't say so: what probably made me an SFF reader more than anything else was my discovery in kindergarten of a book called "You Will Go To The Moon," a semi-non-fictional account of what it would be like in a much very hard-stfnal vein, that explained a _lot_ of the difficulties and how they would be overcome at a level a (bright) five- or six-year-old could grasp and grok. /From there to a lot of books about kids with gadgets, and things like Dr Doolittle (though never, oddly, Tom Swift), and then on to the Heinlein juveniles when I finally realized that what I was reading was actually "science fiction" and not those monster thingies.

And onto my next notion. There is a popular idea now about children being "reading ready". I bet we could work out some ideas about how a child is "sf ready". Like sturgeonslawyer, I'd been reading can do books, and collections of myths and legends long before I fell over genre.

And Father Came Too: Nick Wood, The Stone Chameleon (Cape Town, Maskew Miller Longman, 2004

And Father Came Too

  • Nick Wood, The Stone Chameleon (Cape Town, Maskew Miller Longman, 2004).

    Stuck at home yesterday, partially the snowfall -- utterly beautiful-- partially my grading, and rather shocked to see the enthusiasm of the comments list. I'll post about that later today, and in the meantime, thanks for all the food for thought, and here's another issue that ties into one of the comments about Heinlein. The point about the adventure novel is getting away from home...

    Nick Wood's first science fiction novel has a lot going for it as a social novel. When fifteen year old Kerem moves to Cape Town with his parents he discovers a school taken over by bullies. There are some really interesting discussions of the "colour problem" which work well because they are so clearly different from the race issues of the USA or of Britain (not worse or better, just different) and offer a rare political subtlety. As a vision of a future South Africa, the social aspect is conveyed very well.

    Most of the peer pressure is towards body augmentation: mechanical prostheses and plastic surgery which make people look more like animals. Kerem is repelled by this (of which more in a moment) but also worried that he will be bullied. Then he finds a chameleon in the garden which seems to grant him the powers to blend into the background. The snag is that Sid, the chameleon, is diminished by this.

    This is where the first problems begin to start : in this book, new technology, body augmentation, drugs etc, are snares and delusions. Good kids grow up to be like their parents. It's an argument, but I found it depressing. This is more the mentality of the thriller novel, in which science is dangerous. Wood can't even resist describing the magic as "better than drugs".

    Ah yes, the magic: the other difficulty is that the story comes to focus on a found object which seems to grant the holder the power to change the world. First, I find it irritating when sf novels get mystical. The body augmentation is interesting because it's transparent technology. Waving stones around and saying they are magical doesn't satisfy the desire for possibility, for something we can seen to be done. I don't mind if a novel is clearly fantasy, but here it feels like a let down, in part because up until then we were being set up for sf, and also because a made object can be acted on with the intellect, a found object which is magical is demanding an emotional response--in this case it will be kindness and togetherness.

    Next is the little issue that the real conflict here is not external--who gains power in the new South Africa--but internal. How Kerem will grow up. When he momentarily loses the stone he suddenly realises, "There was strength and goodness within me and I had the power to be happy with myself,/The Civil War had been won." (74).

    And finally is the title I gave this review: just what kind of adventure is it when the father of one of the protagonists attends as chaperone?

  • Thursday, January 06, 2005

    The Child Reader V. The Reading Child

    I'm interested to see that it is my post on Jeanne Du Prau's City of Ember which is currently attracting comments. Lazygirl points out that her students loved the book.

    This is always a problem when discussing children's fiction. I've not forgotten a panel on Harry Potter which was demolished when a child stood up to say that they were his favourite books ever. We all resisted pointing out that his "ever" wasn't very long.

    Children's points of view do matter. We can't say a book is a wonderful book for children if children don't like it. Or we can, but you end up with writers like William Mayne who are marketed for children but as far as anyone can tell, enjoyed much more by adults. But there remains that difficulty that children may not have much against which to test a book.

    What I want to do though is to get away from this kind of discussion in a very specific way. I want to challenge this group, "The Child Reader" which crops up in so many texts, because I have begun to think it a very sloppy term which hides a multitude of problems and very many fascinating questions.

    To state the obvious: not all children are the same.

    To begin with, I think it is long past time that children's fiction critics began to distinguish between the Child Reader and the Reading Child.

    The Child Reader is all children who are being "encouraged" to read. These children read artificially in that they read because they are given books. They may do so willingly (and move themselves into my other category) or they may read only the books they are given and never read a book independently after the age of ten. It is these readers who critics discuss when they see children as something different in the market, a group for whom books will be chosen by adults.

    Then there is the Reading Child. You know who this child is. If you are reading this blog you probably were one. You were the child who went from non-reader to reader almost over night (this often happens young but I know of one person for whom it happened at the age of ten). You don't remember the stage where you halted over words, because you were too busy falling over the next one. Francis Spufford writes of this brilliantly in The Child that Books Built and incidentally suggests that checking children understand what they read may destroy the pleasure in the act of reading--that reading is not about content but about form.

    The Reading Child is the child who has to be steered around lamp-posts, who consumes books the way most kids consume candy. The Reading Child is the child who is a market, and who acts like an adult in the marketplace, because for this child, only a fraction of their books come from their parents, from teachers, or from librarians. This can occur in a range of contexts: Diana Wynne Jones frequently recalls her father's mean-ness with books which ensured that if she wanted to read she had to go beyond his choices. For myself, my mother was inordinately generous, pegging my pocket money at the cost of a paperback (if I bought second hand I could buy three), giving me books at birthdays and Christmas, but by the time I was eleven I was a member of three libraries and Saturday was a glorious round of choosing books. I reckon adults chose less than a tenth of what I read. The only adult influence was the same as it is on adult readers, what the librarians or book shop owners had chosen to stock.

    The Reading Child is on the way to being an adult reader and will probably, eventually, make choices about what s/he thinks s/he likes. And it is in this context that I am asking, 'if the first piece of fiction ostentatiously labeled "science fiction" they read does not represent the adult genre, what are the consequences?' What bothers me is less the child who reads this kind of book, reaches for adult sf and discovers it's not for them, but the child who would like sf--often interested in a rational world, a world which can be worked out, a world in which stupidity gets you killed, less interested in sentiment and romance--who might read such a book and not find the elements of sf which interest them.

    Wednesday, January 05, 2005

    Not SF But...:Beverly Wood and Chris Wood, DogStar (Vancouver: Polestar, 2004)

    I did get to the archive today and came across a rather nice book which was waiting for cataloguing. This is one of those books which because it has time travel in it, can slip into annotated bibliographies without comment. It isn't sf, and apart from the actual time travel it's barely fantasy.

    DogStar is a time travel story in which a boy (Jeff) mourning the death of his bull terrier, is taken back in time by Patsy Ann, the famous ship-greeter bull terrier of Juneau, Alaska. There he helps to solve the mystery of a sunken ship and to round up a counterfeiting ring. The time travel is mystical, and the rest of the novel reads like a historical (and a rather good one) but it has a lovely scene in which Captain Harper shows Jeff how to use a sextant and opens up the depth of space to him (255). For that alone I'd be happy to add it to the category of "Not SF but..."/

    It reminds me a bit of Robert Welch’s non-Carey family story, The Gauntlet, and I enjoyed it very much.

    The ending though: Jeff gets back and applies the lessons he has learned to let go of his grief over Buddys death. In the end, the entire novel has been about this one, personal moment. Now that annoyed me. Sentimental tosh (and I speak as someone currently mourning a much loved cat). I realise I need to add a qualification here. I don't mind a boy getting over the loss of his much loved dog during an adventure. Or passing through any other emotional crisis for that matter. But I want the adventure, or the time travel. to matter in and of itself, and at the end of this book (and others I'll talk about eventually), everything is directed towards this emotional movement. The inner life experienced, not the outer life lived is what counts.


    After interesting adventures with airplanes, and a chance to discover the exquisite courtesy and helpfulness of Canadian airline staff I made it to Fredericton. The archive (the Eileen Wallace Collection) is in a light, airy room, there are twenty eight bays of books, and another twenty eight outside in the circulating section.

    Someone pinch me, it all feels like a dream.

    The town is small--about the size of Bethnal Green--and when I first looked at a map I got terribly confused. If there are two blocks of roads, and one is bigger than the other, then the small one is going to be the University? No?


    Fredricton may be one of the most beautiful places I've lived. The shops are small and homely and very close to the river. I've found a great toy store, and three bookstores--one sells new books, one sells second hand paperbacks, new magazines and coffee (and has wi-fi) an the other, The Owl, has to be seen to be believed. I almost didn't go in because it looked like a small, occult bookstore, but it was cold (bitterly) and a book is a book.

    The store stretches back into apparently endless corridors. The structure isn't quite straight, so you keep thinking you've come to the end of the shop. And there are neat little notes on the shelves. "Suspense: it's behind you" (it was). I came away with Walter R. Brooks' Freddy and the Space Ship which I am sure will find shelf space at home somewhere.

    Tuesday, January 04, 2005

    (Un)Reasonable Expectations--The Infantilisation of Bad Behaviour

    Today I arrived in New Brunswick, The town has wi-fi throughout the downtown, but unfortunately I am at the University. Until I can get registered on the University system, my only access will be if I walk into the centre--and as 94 student essays are currently descending on me, that may not be possible.

    So, as they used to say on Blue Peter, after giving you instructions for a Thunderbirds landing stage that will take you a week to construct: "Here's one I made earlier."

    Dennis the Menace and the infantilisation of bad behaviour (or "bad boys are getting younger")

    There is a lot of talk about how youth aren't what they used to be. That boys, in particular, are more violent, more unpleasant. To grace the following point with the word "theory" is probably pushing it a bit, but I'm just not convinced by this argument and I think there are two things going on.

    The first is simply that as the western world gets wealthier, a disaffected child, or even simply a wild and rambunctious child can do an awful lot more damage than they could fifty years ago. Fifty years ago a ball through a window hit an ornament. Today it's quite likely to trash a computer or music centre.

    The second is that as society's values have changed, the age at which it is still acceptable for a child--and especially a boy--to be a tearaway, oblivious of anyone's interests but his own, has diminished. We expect children to be nice, in a way that just wasn't true in the first part of the twentieth century.

    Don't believe me? Take a look at Dennis the Menace over the past sixty years or so. For the North Americans reading this, the British Dennis the Menace is a homophobic bully who preys on William the Softy and passing policemen, and usually ends up getting beaten with a slipper by his Dad. These are moral tales.

    The Old Dennis the Menace
    (you'll need to scroll down to the cartoon on the right hand side) Clearly in his early teens, from a time when British school boys were kept in shorts until they were about fifteen.

    The New Dennis Just as clearly a child.

    I'm not trying to excuse anybody here, but there is a big difference between accepting that boys have lots of energy which needs direction or it's quite likely to get out of hand, and trying to pretend that they should have grown out of it, and that if they haven't then they are "bad". Take a look at this article,
    Brain scans suggest teenagers are children at heart (it will cost you a pound but once registered, it's an easy system to use). I always have mixed feelings about determinism, but this is one of those classic pieces of research which confirms what we basically all know--children are not adults.

    As playground time has been shortened in British schools, and opportunities for teens to play in the streets have disappeared (when was the last time you saw a street football or cricket game?), and as violent sports have been tamed, it isn't just that a kind of child isn't being catered for, it's that s/he is being made to feel wrong.

    Last year the
    Children's Society reported on just how little play space there is left. Britain is becoming an increasingly unfriendly place for children. And with the new
    Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs)> * "Childishness" is rapidly being designated anti-social behaviour and criminalised. I'm not saying all kids are little angels, but the threat of prison for aggravated door knocking?

    Yet the equation is simple: the more we define space as not suitable for children, the more their presence in that space is regarded as ipso facto criminal. Funny, immigration law works a bit like that.

    *ASBOs are granted by magistrates. Breach of an ASBO means possible imprisonment. So that in effect a child can be sent to prison without a full trial.