Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Does Sf require the extra-textual experience? 2041 ed. by Jane Yolen (New York: Delacourte Press, 1991)

Reading a lot of novels it's often hard to see the patterns--it's going to require me to stand back from my notes--but an anthology wears its pattern on its sleeve, or at least on the contents page. Jane Yolen's anthology 2041 has if not crystalised some thoughts, at least got them lining up against each other.

2041 Does not say it's for the young, but all the stories have teen protagonists,and Yolen's own YA credentials are flaunted on the back cover.

We are so used to thinking that one of the many hearts of science fiction is story and adventure, but reading the sf selected for the young--as opposed to that written for the young--I am struck by how many of the short stories and the novels are episodes in a life. This might be what gives them the feeling of open-ness, of consequence, missing from the purpose writ YA sf.

Let's take a look at this anthology to see what I mean.

A small number of the stories are sf by grace and favour: what I mean by this is that they may be set in the future, in a changed world, but it truly doesn't really matter. In this category are: "A Quiet One" by Anne McCaffrey in which a girl wins the right to train horses in a world where there aren't many left; "Moby James" by Patricia McKillip in which a boy compares his now teenage elder brother to the White Whale, and "Free Day" by Peg Kerr, where a girl in a war torn world goes to visit an elderly woman who turns out to be her grandmother.

What struck me about these stories were three things.
i) as I've already mentioned there is no need for them to be in the future: the first story could be in a stable anywhere, the second the only "futuristic" item is a viewer instead of a book and in the third, apart from the food shortage, the story could be set in any inner city.

ii) and I think in direct relationship to this, each of these three stories is about personal growth, not in terms of learning about one's own society and how to operate within it, but entirely and absolutely about one's feelings towards another.

iii) and also I think as a direct correlation, these are the three stories with the most absolute endings. Having reached that moment of inner recognition, there is a small moment of celebration and the sense of an ending. The "issue" has been resolved, and there is nothing left to jog the reader's mind into an extra-textual experience.

Now to turn quickly to the other stories. Notice how one of the things they (almost) all have in common) is the sense of being part of a larger story, just a moment in a life lived in the future.

Connie Willls "Much Ado About [Censored]"--two school friends help a teacher to prepare a Shakespeare text, sorting through all the litigation and protests directed at the material. At the end, one of the protesters is seen defacing her own poster, because someone has protested against it. She rails at her friends about the loss of free speech.

Nancy Springer, "Who's Gonna Rock Us Home"- a kid runs away from home to play guitar in a world too drugged to enjoy music. His Dad rescues him. But the joyous moment is not the realisation that his Dad loves him really, but Dad's decision to cut back on the drugs, to try and change the world around him.

Carol Farley, "Lose Now, Pay Later". One day free candy is available at the mall. It's so delicious that weight obsessed teens can't resist it. Then stores open up offering to take your excess pounds for 25c a pound. Only a small boy thinks there might be a catch--maybe someone is farming humans?

Joe Haldeman, "If I had the Wings of an Angel"--a girl's last flight before she becomes too heavy for the equipment. Elegiac.

Kara Dalkey, "You Want it When" -- a very funny story in which a young woman intern subverts a facsimile machine and enables it to time travel documents.

Jane Yolen, "Ear"--young people plug directly into sound, everyone else is deaf.

Resa Nelson and David Alexander Smith, "The Last Out"-- sorry, someone who understands baseball needs to explain this one to me.

Susan Shwartz, "Beggarman"--a good exploration of what it might be like to be born in a space habitat, but not fit in.

Bruce Colville, "Old Glory", a boy arranges for his grandfather's arrest in a police state.


In each of these stories, any issue of personal growth is tied directly to the condition of the world in which the children live. Unlike the first three, it simply cannot be separated from the context.

Each of these stories ends with a very strong sense that something is going to happen next, just off the screen, around the corner. It isn't just that they are set in the future, but that they look to the future for their conclusions.

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