Give History A Chance: Kenneth Oppel, The Live Forever Machine (Toronto: Kids Can Press Ltd, 1990).
Despite Kenneth Oppel's Airborne I still tend to associate the man with talking bats, so turning this book up in a second hand shop was great. The Live Forever Machine is one of the best of the sf books I've read because it's one of the very few that forces the child to question binary dichotomies, and which ties the wider philosophical issues at stake to the protagonist's family problems without simply making one a metaphor for the other or an easy solution. What Eric experiences allows him to see his family differently, but it doesn't offer any solutions.
Eric's father is a subway driver, an autodidact and writes fantasy fiction in his spare time, none of which he sends out for publication. In each of these fictions, somewhere there appears a dark haired young woman, Eric's mother who was killed when he was a baby. Eric's father won't talk about her and tell's Eric that he doesn't need to know--that the pictures of her would mean nothing to Eric. He hoards her.
But Eric's father has also inspired Eric with a passion for history, and this is where Oppel begins to impose demands on the reader, because this passion is a two edged sword. Eric loves history and the past, but less because it sparks his curiousity than because "dates are stable", artefacts are stable. They are something to cling to.
In the museum one day Eric sees two men fighting. He picks up a locket one of them has dropped, and is drawn into a centuries old struggle between a Greek scholar (Alexander) and his student (Coil). Two thousand years before Alexander invented a way of living forever, Coil took advantage of it (it involved drowning oneself) and obsessed with new inventions, began destroying "the past", old fashioned tools and archives. Alexander also took the steps to become immortal and has been chasing him through time to stop him and preserve the past.
Again Oppel demands more of his readers: Alexander has spent two thousand years with tuberculosis. Eric, much as he loves history and is less than thrilled with the new shopping malls, or his friend Chris's high tech, sterile apartment, is not averse to computers or other aspects of modern life. Coil's passion for the future has led him to forget old languages and old ideas, while Alexander has a private cache of artefacts rotting for lack of care. There is a constant tension in the city between the preservation of its history and the desire for the modern.
It would have been so easy for this to have turned into a preservationist tract, "old is good, new is bad" but Oppel forces Eric to consider not this, but the nature of obsession and the blindness it creates. When Chris and Eric defeat Coil they use both Chris's knowledge of computers and Eric's memory for dates. Eric undermines Coil's stability by forcing him to acknowledge the connection between present and past, leading him back in time through a list of dates of the invention of computers and the thought that led to computers-it's one of the most effective demonstrations of science as a process of thought, of cognitive acts as adventure, that I've come across since I read Sandy Landsmann's The Gadget Factor.
By the end of the novel Eric has also confronted his father over his secrecy and obsession--it turns out that his mother committed suicide. Nothing is resolved, but Eric's tolerance for his father's obsessions has been undermined partially by Eric's experiences, partially simply by his passage into adulthood. The adventure itself has also changed the way Eric understands the world around him. It is no longer divided into old and new, the preserved and the changing. Instead he sees a world in complex dynamic that needs the new to preserve the old, needs the old to underpin the world. The main trajectory of this book is from simple understandings to complex, abstract thought.