Thursday, June 02, 2005

Liminal Science Fiction: Written by Helen Ward and illustrated by Wayne Anderson, The Dragon Machine (London, Templar Publishing, 2003).

Back in February I talked about John Parke's The Moon Ship in which boys played at going into space.

At the time Jeff VanderMeer hit the nail on the head when he said the reason the book worked was that the boys believed in their activities absolutely.

In the book I'm actually writing at the moment (as opposed to this one for which I am "preparing"--like those cookery classes at school which always started "first lay out your equipment") I am discussing ways of creating belief in the fantastic. The group of texts which most fascinate me are those which I've dubbed "liminal fantasy".

The liminal fantasy hovers on the edge of the fantastic, inviting belief by balancing what it shows on the expectations of the reader. One way of doing this is through irony--having the protagonist and the reader with very different ideas of what might be the fantasy in the text. The example I always use is Joan Aiken's "But it's Tuesday" in which the Armitage family look out of the window and see unicorns on the lawn. The reader responds "wow, unicorns". The family respond "but things like unicorns only happen on Mondays!".

I don't see this form of fantasy in books for small children very much. Play and pretend remain play and pretend. Even something like Where the Wild Things Are is essentially a dream. Occasionally though there is something special. In Diana Wynne Jones's picture book, Yes Dear Kay finds a magic leaf. The illustrator. Graham Philpot, has drawn pictures in which wherever Kay is, things become magical. When Kay is not there, the magic fades. But we see a cat licking at the party foods Kay has made in the sandpit, so when Grandma admits she, too, found a magic leaf when she was young, we aren't quite so sure that she is playing.

Back to the subject text: `George--unseen and overlooked--starts seeing dragons everywhere. They are pictured. The dragons multiply and begin to cause problems. George looks up dragons in the library and decides to take them home. He builds a metal dragon and we see plans and tools everywhere. George flies them home to the wilderness and crashes. He is eventually brought home and is no longer overlooked.

He is given a dog, who is secretly a dragon.

So here I have an example of liminal science fiction. Does George build that iron dragon? Who knows. I suspect that a child will read this book as either sf or fantasy, with a solid sense of the realness of George's dragons. What the adult reader will do will depend on their own reader orientation: many will, I suspect, present the book as an example of "let'spretend"


Works Cited:
Yes, Dear, illustrated by Graham Philpot. London: HarperCollins, 1992.

6 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rather reminds me of a book I recall reading some twenty-five odd years ago, called "The Monster's Room" IIRC. A boy is obsessed with monsters, the old fashioned kind from the 30's like Dracula, The Mummy, ect. collecting models and comics and the like. The obsession starts becomiing more pathalogical as the monsters start appearing to the kid in his room, and eventually begin invisibly following him to school and talking to him, disrupting his life.

He manages to convince his friends of his problem, and they come up with a unique solution. First they clear out his room of all monster related material, and then they construct a final model, a kludged together 'angel' made out of a barrel, a mop, a bucket, and an umbrella for wings.

They take the angel up onto the roof of the boy's apartment biulding, with the idea of bringing it to 'life' through the traditional lightning strike. A wild storm hits, snatching the angel into the air, and the boy gets a vision of his model transforming into the Archangel Michael, which blasts the 'monsters' into nothingness (with complete ease it's noted, since he's more used to blasting "real" monsters like dragons.)

6:57 AM  
Anonymous Rosepixie said...

The idea of a fantasy that is "real" within the book is common in classic children's literature, although less common now (adults often have trouble with it, so they explain the fantasies away in modern books as dreams or play). There are, of course, books like "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" by Lewis Carroll that make it very clear that the child dreamed their adventure, but if you look at the other major children's fantasy classics that is not the norm. "Peter and Wendy" by J. M. Barrie and "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" by L. Frank Baum are the two major works that come to mind. Movie versions of these stories tend to make the adventures either a dream or only real to the children, but the books themselves make it very clear that the events really happen. Dorothy returns to Kansas to find her aunt and uncle had thought she was dead. The Darling children's parents sit and worry for weeks wondering where their children are after the children disappear from their bedroom and then the parents are overjoyed when the children return. In "Peter and Wendy" the parents even go slightly insane thinking that the children's disappearance is their fault. Both are great books. There are many others as well. The works of George MacDonald are set in fairy-tale like worlds, but the idea of the adventures being very real, but still possibly partially dreams, is often there. The classics are much better at allowing fantastic adventures to be real than many of the modern works for children, although there are some wonderful exceptions.

I plan to check out "Yes, Dear" now, it sounds interesting. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

1:29 PM  
Blogger Britta said...

Have you run across Palmer Brown's book Beyond the PawPaw Trees? I'm not sure if it quite fits your definition of liminal fantasy, but the Aiken book that you described reminded me of it, since, like the expectation that you should only see unicorns on Monday, it contains an internal rule by which the characters accept the fantastic. The protagonist, a girl called Anna Lavinia, heads off to visit an aunt who lives in the desert on a mirage, and a variety of strange things happen along the way. Anna Lavinia isn't surprised, because the sky is a particular shade of lavender blue, and in her experience strange things always happen on lavender-blue days.

5:54 AM  
Blogger Farah said...

Rosepixie, you are absolutely right. I was interested in this picture book because confidence in the fantastic is rare in books for *small* children, ie under seven. Once we get to children between 7 and 12 there seems to be no problem.

Anonymous--could you try and find more details for me? I can't track the book.

britta, I don't know Beyond the PawPaw Trees but have added it to my list to consider.

8:54 AM  
Blogger Farah said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

9:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello people, I live in Europe, I have this wonderfull little book: Beyond the paw paw trees
It is fantastic, I loved it ever since I was a little girl.

8:03 AM  

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