Saturday, July 30, 2005

Service has been interrupted by Worldcon and will resume on August 10th 2005.

The End of the World (or at least Worldcon): Chris Wooding, Endgame (London: Scholastic, 2000)

There is a sub-genre of children's science fiction which we might call Apocalyptic. These are not the same as disaster novels written for adults: whether written as thrillers or as sf, adult disaster novels are about human endurance, survival, quick wittedness or the ability to rebuilt the world. These novels are eschatalogical. In them, Armageddon is punishment for our sins, we are helpless in the face of them. The story is only ever about our repentance. The same is true even though these stories are essentially secular. Their heyday ran from the 1960s thu the 1980s and with the end of the Cold War I was rather hoping we'd seen the last of them, but from Chris Wooding (whose The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray was utterly brilliant) we have Endgame a novel which has essentially two stories: one, the collapse of the world in the face of an ice age and a nuclear war, and two, the story of five friends and how they face this.

The first story is told in news reports at the beginning of each chapter. The other story has very little to do with the first--the stresses and strains the five friends experience are actually about bullying, the threat of a patriarch, the not-quite-accidental death of a mother, and relationship problems.

The first story--the politics--is just too much kept in the background, and far too much dealt out as reports. I can see that part of what Wooding wants to show is the way the big events of history mostly go on in the corners of our lives, but unfortunately he has a talking head say so, which rather destroys it.

The second story just isn't terribly well written. We are told too much of the angsty stuff, rather than shown it--we get to be in every one of the lads' heads, and one of the girls'. And because the YAs don't actually react much to the threat of nuclear war (with the exception of the girl who goes on the useless demo) the helplessness of all of us is the overwhelming threat. None of this would be a problem--it is after all honest if it weren't so done to death. Truly, this is a type of book that you only need one of. How many times after all, do you need to tell people "repent now or the world ends."

As you may have noticed, I've not had time to blog recently. Or more accurately, to actually sit down and read. This is due to duties relating to the approaching Worldcon in Glasgow for which I was daft enough to volunteer about eighteen months ago. I'm off to the con a couple of days early so I can help with set-up and it seems sensible to take a short break.

I'll be back on August 10th.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Please Miss, an Alien Ate My Homework: Sandra Glover, e-[t] mail (London: Andersen Press, 2002)

This is a terribly obvious book, but it just goes to show that just because a book is obvious, doesn't mean it can't be good science fiction. And just because it's good science fiction doesn't mean it can't take on a few social issues at the same time.

When the summer ends, 9 year old Jason hasn't started (never mind completed) his summer project on the Solar system. So he sets down to do what every lazy student does, and plagiarizes a couple of web sites. But suddenly, in new mail (a distraction he finds hard to ignore) a letter arrives from Ojerek, an alien. Jason, not being actually stupid, realises it's an anagram of Joker and dismisses it, until his homework prints out as an alien quasi crocodile with sneakers on.

The book then spirals, with the alien demanding answers so it can do its homework, and Jason coming up with ever more creative with his excuses. He also pulls in his geeky friend Tariq, and eventually (mostly to prove that she isn't the trickster) the smart girl Lucy, so this is also a story about friendship across the sexual and intellectual divide, but it doesn't make heavy weather of it, and Glover makes sure it makes sense within the sf plot to draw Lucy in.

Eventually, it turns out that the alien is a child and his father has just found out. The men in white coats arrive and sequester the computer and Jason's friends suddenly know nothing. To my relief, they turn out not--as Jason thinks--to be mind wiped, but merely to be pretending, thus preserving the sense that even though the incident is over, there will be consequences to this little bit of alien contact.

ps. We didn't learn a thing about the Solar System.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Update on YA bibliography

I've updated the bibliography page and simultaneously realised that there is no permanent link to it. I'll correct that.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

A Book is an Artefact: Tricia Sullivan, Double Vision (Orbit, 2005)

I had intended to review Tricia Sullivan's new novel, Double Vision here, because although Sullivan doesn't write for teens I'd recommend her very highly for the teen girl market. if you've ever read Enid Blyton, then Sullivan's protagonists are more Anne than George, and as Maureen Lipman once noted, Anne stood up to horrors that would have sent her, and me, running for cover. Sullivan's characters prove that you don't have to be Amazon woman to be brave as hell.

But you'll have to stick to Dreaming in Smoke (a colonization novel) or Maul (mall rats meet cyberpunk) if you want to see what I mean, because Double Vision has been wrecked by a really terrible choice of layout (I don't know whether it was the author's decision, or the publisher's).

I have no idea whether this book is any good. I really and truly can't tell. The book has been printed in three different fonts: arial, courier and times roman. Each font indicates a level of reality. But because this is a convention we all recognise it means that right from the start, we know parts of this book aren't real. The novel might have just about stood up to that except:

arial: conventionally used for otherworld/dream sequences
courier: conventionally used to indicate computer screen type from the "olden days"
times roman: used every day.

So right from the very beginning I knew which layers were "real" and which were not. I recognised the different unrealities. By the end of three chapters I was skimming through the "unreal" levels, the sense of wonder wrecked by the knowledge that they weren't where the story was "at". Yes, they all came together at the end, but I had only been able to keep interested in the times roman sections, because I knew that this was what "mattered" (these sections were rivetting by the way). The other sections, no matter how brilliant (and some of the writing is excellent) bored me because I couldn't suspend belief when I was constantly being told by the layout (not the book) that they weren't real.

A niaive reader would have a very different response to this book so I don't want to write it off, but oh dear, what I would give to be a thirteen year old picking up this book, and not my world weary, cynical self.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

An Irish Rennaisance; Kate Thompson, The Missing Link (London: Red Fox Books, Random House, 2001

If there is a Renaissance in children’s science fiction, it seems to be coming out of Ireland. Eoin Coifer,Oisin McGann, Ann Carroll, Conor Costik and also Kate Thompson. I should have picked up on Thompson sometime ago but her books are packaged and blurbed as cheesy thrillers and they looked dire. I ignored the “winner of the Irish Children’s Book Award, 2002”.

My apologies Ms Thompson, this will teach me to judge a book by its cover and to ignore the taste of judges.

Christie lives with his mother, his stepfather Maurice and his stepbrother Danny. To the reader, Danny seems vaguely autistic and dyspraxic. There is some deep dark secret Maurice won’t talk about, and it starts to leak when Danny’s mother turns up after an absence of fifteen years. Christie learns she is a scientist and untrustworthy.

Then a few mornings later, Danny wakes Christie up and demands to be taken on the bus to Scotland. Christie capitulates for the sake of peace and takes him onto the Dublin bus, expecting to be able to coerce him back, but by this point something that has been a background note to the story starts to rise in volume: there is a war somewhere out there in the Gulf, oil fields are alight and the western world is grinding to a halt. They can’t get back, but they can go forward.

As a twist, they find themselves accompanied by Darling, a talking sparrow, who then hooks them up with Oggy, a talking collie dog, and the homeless girl Tina who Oggy has picked up when he got lost. But this isn’t a fantasy novel: the animals refuse to explain how they can talk, and they keep their essential natures. There is a really superb scene when Oggy kills a sheep so that they don’t starve. It’s brutal, nasty and real and Christie has to come to terms with it.

This is one of the elements of the book that make it so good. We very much ride with Christie, but Thompson doesn’t force Christie’s conclusions on up. There are various points where Christie asks questions (of himself or others) on our behalf—about whether the west can survive without oil, about what homelessness has done to Tina, about Maggie’s research, about Maggie’s decision not to give food to the hungry—but he doesn’t rush to give us the answers. Thompson uses Christie to show us that intelligence is about inquisitiveness, not about knowledge.

Christie and Tina end up taking Dannie all the way back to his mother’s camp in the north of Scotland, a long, slow, vivid journey through ice and snow and a collapsing economy and infrastructure. Thompson has hit on the secret of really good sf, that very often it is about the experience of people in the microcosm when the big stuff is happening—the small people in interesting times.

When they do get to Maggie, they discover the lab of Doctor Moreau, full of failed mutants, and talking animals surrounding the farm. Maggie’s scientific partner has gone, taking with him their third child. Sandy their second child turns out to have frog fibre muscle. At the end we discover what Danny is.

One of the best scenes is when the animals encounter Christie and Tina and want to know what they are, peppering them with questions:

“Have you got any children?”
“Are you house trained yet?”
“How many is three?”
“Can you see colours?” (192)

There is a real sense of alienness there. Similarly there is a sense of consequence: Christie decides that Maurice chickened out of the potentials of the early research. Maggie is a scientist concerned with the future of her research and the world. Her partner turns out to be investigating the one bit of the research that baffled Christie too. As is always the case with good science, Maggie’s results have provoked more questions than they have answered.

Sequels; Only Human, Origins

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Whose Midnight Fear Are We? Scott Westerfeld, Midnighters: The Secret Hour, (New York: Eos, 2004)

Scott Westerfeld is not new to the sf scene, and he is the kind of person (a fan in other words) who we can expect to know how to write sf, which is why he seems to have produced a horror novel with the sensibilities of sf rather than thrill fiction.

Jessica Day moves into the small town of Bixby from Chicago, and although she hits it off with the "in" crowd, she also falls in with a bunch of weirdos who don't like the daylight, wear black a lot and are covered in metal jewelry. In the middle of the night she wakes up and discovers the world asleep with the exception of her weirdo chums and weird black slithery things.

Rex (a Seer), Dess (polymath weapons maker), Melissa (mind scanner) and Jonathan (acrobat) explain to her that these are the Darklings, pushed by humans into creating their own time, a single hour in which time is rolled tight. And guess what? They are all the same age... you just know that by the end of the sequence there will turn out to be a reason for that.

So far so Buffy.

What makes this interesting is that Westerfield uses the techniques of sf to write the book, not the techniques of horror. From the beginning we are embedded in the world of the Midnighters. Dess explains to Jessica why she is using thirteen letter words to name weapons long after we see her use them. It takes us a while to figure out that the acrobat Rex and Melissa are talking about is Jessica, and I didn't figure out quite what it was a Seer did until the very end. Missing is the latency, the over-descriptive drawing out of fear, the sense that the world is thinned of the classic horror genre.

Both the real world and the midnight world feel full, and although one is challenging the other actually, it's the midnight world of the Darklings that is under threat. If any world needs to look for the wolves in its walls, its the poor darklings whose last refuge is threatened by a human who can bring technology into the midnight hour. The Midnighters is a mirror reverse of the intrusion fantasy. Usually in the intrusion fantasy, the threat gets bigger, nastier, more of (think James Herbert's The Rats).... In The Midnighters its actually the humans whose weapons (moving from primitive spears thru to atomic jets) are getting bigger, badder, closer...more intimate....

Thursday, July 14, 2005

All the World in a Library Pt.2: Rhiannon Lassiter, Borderland (Oxford: OUP, 2003), Outland ( 2004); Shadowland (2005).

I blogged the middle book in this sequence on April 07 2005. I said then that while I had little time for trilogies I was going to buy the first and third of these.

Let me amend this: I have little time for ongoing, apparently endless sequences. Up until now, K. A. Applegate was the only writer for whom I was prepared to make an exception. I would now like to add Rhiannon Lassiter to this elite category. That only three have been published so far leaves me biting my nails with frustration.

(Andre Norton judges, note that Shadowland was published in 2005.)

Borderland, Outland and Shadowland , could have been a conventional portal fantasy in which children go through into another world and rescue it. Instead, it's a critique of the portal fantasy. Laura and Alex go through into another world and in their attempts to take it over (Alex thinks of himself as another Alexander the Great, Laura is more subtle) manage to bring the entire political edifice down around their ears, killing several thousand people. Jzhera, desert warrior woman in love with Alex comes to realise that he has feet of clay, and that she can't remember what her tribe were going to do with the wealth of the desert city had they won it anyway. Morgan, goth chick who discovers she is a magician, doesn't actually do very much with her magic until she lashes out and blinds Laura. Zoe is the military brat who tags along and gets caught up in it all. Then there are Ciren and Charm, weapons of the Wheel faction of the Great Library. Charm can read minds, Ciren can read magics. They recruit Morgan and her royal lover Kal, but don't actually tell them very much about the Library and even less about the Wheel.

At the end of Borderland, Morgan and Kal go off to the library with Ciren and Charm while Laura, Alex, Zoe and Jzhera escape through the portal (Door) underneath the city. In Outland the two groups move through their different routes. This should be the usual marking time, but there is so much character development going on, and the two groups are so conflicted (Morgan and Kal get more suspicious of Charm and Ciren; Zoe realises she hates Laura while Laura is plotting what to do next). Both groups meet up in the Justice faction where Laura. the one who is best at understanding strange places, manipulates the courts to get Alex and Morgan exiled to earth.

In Shadowland Morgan and Alex are kidnapped by Ciren and Charm and taken to the Wheel which wants Morgan's magic. In the process of freeing themselves, Morgan and Alex both learn a lot about who and what they are capable of being, but interestingly, Alex remains a prideful idiot. Ciren and Charm realise they too are victims and free themselves from the Wheel. More interestingly, Zoe, Jhezra and Laura come to an accomodation. Zoe and Jezra still loathe Laura, and she still thinks they are fools. but the can work together.

And meanwhile there is the library with its factions, and plots; lessons on imperialist interference, and economic imperialism. The doctrine of non-interference comes under some severe scrutiny, but without offering any easy answers. The library continues to spread its borgesian tentacles through the mind of the universe (and also provides some of the funniest lines). The books continue to hold sf and fantasy in tension, and while they address questions of growing up, they are always and ever in the sf context (there is some nice discussion about the way their "relative" ages shift according to which world they are in).

And dammit, it ends on a cliff hanger. I want the next book.

Lassiter has the coolest website. Go to: Lassiter. The frames site is amazing. One link is to children's literature resources.

I also kept thinking that some of the technique and arguments were vaguely reminiscent of Diana Wynne Jones. Turns out there is a reason for that.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Please Miss! K9 ate my homework.

Nothing I've read this week has turned out to be sf (ie it has mostly ended up with a supernatural explanation). I'm off to Readercon this afternoon and thence to London, so the next post is likely to be Tuesday.

The fannish news from the UK is good: all London sf fans and critics accounted for. If you need to track someone, try brisingamen who has been collating names as people checked in.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Painting the Galaxy Pink: Megan E. Bryant, Space Princess Cosma: Sparkle Surprise Party (with stickers), (New York: Grisset & Dunlap, 2005).

I’m not sure it’s possible to sink lower. Think Pink.

It’s Princess Cosma’s birthday and an invitation to a surprise arrives in a little rocket. She puts on her space dress and goes to find her best friend Princess Nebula. Various opportunities arise for the reader to place a sticker on the rocket, on Princess Nebula’s hand, and on various parts of the galaxy.

But there is something unexpected:

Princess Cosma and Princess Nebula hurried over to the Eclipse Express, where they caught a speeding comet…
Before long, the two princesses reached the very last stop on the Eclipse Express—a tiny asteroid where the moon blocked most of the sun. The glittering ring of sunshine gave Princess Cosma just enough light to find the other star.
Which is –bafflingly—in a cloud.

At odd moments such as that one, the writer has tucked in some factoids. Otherwise the book has one character in a space helmet, the other not. Stars that are both burning energy sources and pretty shapes which can be made into the Princess Cosma Nebula.

A very strange book, but with all that, recognisably science fiction.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

A companion blog

I hope my friend Meredith doesn't mind me describing her new site as a companion blog, but Meredith Reads YA does go awfully well with this one. Meredith writes far better than I do, so I just have to keep my fingers crossed that you'll just add it to your morning's reading, and not desert me.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Thank the Invader Nicely Dear:

Jim Ballantine, The Boy Who Saved Earth (New York: Del, 1979)
Pamela F. Serviss, Under Alien Stars (New York, Ballantine, 1990)

The reason I've paired these two books--apart from them being slim enough to squeeze into an overcrowded suitcase last Wednesday--is that they both posit the same thing; that we should be grateful when an alien race rescues us from a war they brought to our door in the first place.

That said, they are very different books. The Boy Who Saved Earth is, as you might expect with that title, strictly by the numbers and in some ways a hangover from the stiff upper lip of the 1950s. When fourteen year-old Marcou crash lands on earth he does very little crying over his dead uncle and crewmates but sets about learning English and Electronics as fast as he can so he can communicate with home and get help for when the enemy aliens land. It's passable adventure with very little science. Marcou's people are essentially just like us--second heart notwithstanding--and apart from a dig at the unkindness of the military there isn't much political happening here.

Serviss's book is more complex: Earth has been invaded, but we aren't actually important enough to be colonised. No, we are one of those off shore islands that happens to be strategically important in an inter-galactic war. It was a tad annoying that the invading aliens--to whom we will eventually be reconciled--were maroon humanoids with claws, while the nasty alien attackers where jelly blobs with fringes, but that apart Serviss took the opportunity to raise some interesting issues.

The book starts with the death of Rick and his parents while they are at a Resister meeting, and then moves onto Jason who resents his mother's collaboration with the invaders, and to Aryl, daughter of the Commander. There's an interesting conversation in which Aryl points out that they are treating the Earth better than Europeans treated the American natives, and also quite a lot of discussion about what Earth is losing v, what it's gaining, in which we are required to realise that Earth is losing less than the Resisters think (ie mainly pride) but that they are also gaining less in the way of technology than the invaders promise (ie they get to use it but not to learn how to make it).

Jason's mother turns out to be a Resister involved in a plot to capture Aryl's father. It's successful but one of the Resisters invites the other bunch of aliens in, in order to up the ransome stakes and it all goes horribly wrong. Jason and Aryl save the day, blowing up one of the invading ships and showing that humans and aliens can work together if...

... get this...

the Earth is completely colonised instead of only a military base.

Hard to know whether to laugh or cry.

But if you can find it, I would recommend the Serviss: the children are independent, they act like real people with real stresses and tensions (I think some of Serviss's ideas about alternative social structures just don't function but at least they feel odd) and there was a sense that science--and the possible halt to scientific development that comes with the initial invasion--do actually matter.

Friday, July 01, 2005

That Mutant Gene Thing: Rhiannon Lassiter

Hex: Shadows (Basingstoke: MacMillan, 1999).
Hex: Ghosts, (Basingstoke: MacMillan, 2000).

I'm cheating here as I haven't found the first in the sequence (this seems to be a pattern for me with Lassiter, I now have the companion volumes to Outland only to have lost it.)

I suspect these are early novels in Lassiter's career. They contain too much exposition and are very like Margaret Haddix's The Hidden sequence--mutants are hiding out from the European Federation government which distrusts their ability to manipulate the net--but are set in London and the children are older and rather more savvy. There is more than a touch of X-Men here, but one of the things I like is that with the exception of Raven, the children seem talented rather than spectacular.

There are also a few gaffes; by this I mean things that elsewhere Lassiter makes it clear she understands. My favourite was the one hundred year old computer disks that will still be readable, when she has made it clear that the net has grown and developed.

Other things I liked: although there is too much exposition, frequently it is of events which took place between books or which takes place off stage to explain the relationship of apparently unconnected groups. So the issue here is Lassiter still developing technique, rather than an apparent belief that her readership is stupid.

One thought tho that has been bugging me a while: emotional trauma either turns characters catatonic or leaves only the occasional reverie. This isn't just Lassiter: an awful lot of these writers seem to be unsure how to incorporate learning experiences into their young characters lives without actually stating it upfront, so we get told about the effect on them, but not actually shown it.