Saturday, October 29, 2005


A friend has pointed me to this article by Moira Redmond on "dreadlit". It makes many of the points I've been making, but I have one serious quibble:

"How to account for the neo-gothic shift of so much children's literature? The most obvious explanation is that the world is simply a grimmer place now than it was when Harriet [the spy] was published."

Really? In 1964 poverty was endemic, children left school anything between the ages of 15 and 17, it was ok to hit your kid, wife battering was considered a family affair, child sexual abuse was considered the child's fault, and a young middle class woman couldn't earn enough to support herself independently and if she was raped it was because she was out of bounds and therefore brought it upon herself.

Gosh. The past was *so* much safer wasn't it?

Friday, October 28, 2005

Pink Polka Dotted Jumping Frogs! Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu, Zahrah the Windseeker (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005).

Zahrah the Windseeker is probably aimed at 12-13 yr olds. It's a bit chicklet-lit for my tastes (lots of stuff about looks and mirrors, a diary format, and written in the first person almost as a "problem" book) but it is very interesting.

Zahrah has dadalocks, heavily dreaded hair in which green vines grow. The rest of her people, whether they come from the North, the South or the West, grow Afros. Zahrah is teased and a little bit isolated, but she has one friend, Dari, a boy fascinated by the Greeny Forbidden Jungle which lies beyond the town. He has been reading an electronic book all about the Jungle, and written by a group of explorers, many of whom died getting the information, but the book is largely ignored by a society that prefers to believe the jungle barely exists.

When Zahrah discovers she can fly, Dari takes her off to the jungle to practice, and there he is bitten by a war-snake. To save him, Zahrah goes off into the jungle to find the unfertilised egg of an elgort, the most fearsome beast in the jungle. On this journey she encounters a pink polka-dot toad who keeps asking her what she wants, and the wise gorillas who refuse the "tech" of humans and lead there own lives. I'm not a huge fan of encounter-narratives but all of this is done well and the characters Okorafor-Mbachu thinks up are interesting. The Guide to the Jungle tho is the most intensely irritating book since The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. It's written in an intensely jovial tone which may be supposed to remind us of the faux boyishness of colonial explorers. I just wanted to smash it. But as Zahrah clearly did too, that's ok.

Lurking behind this novel is a simple question: where are we? Zahrah's people don't seem very numerous. They are surrounded by forest. They use plant-life technology (ie living light bulbs and computers that grow from seed). There is an odd reference to Alice's adventures in Wonderearth. Earth is a mythical wonderland. What I particularly like about this book is that very, very slowly, Okorafor-Mbachu takes us from a fantasy land into a science fictional world, without ever having a moment of "revelation. She also resists the idea of a stranded people "regressing" seeing instead a complex interaction of lost culture replaced with a new, creole culture as the colonists adapt. There is extraordinary vibrancy here as Okorafor-Mbachu constructs the sense of a culture which is actually changing. This is a very rare thing in "lost colony" novels.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Footprints in the moondust: Lesley Sims, Puzzle Journey into Space (London; Usborne Puzzles Ltd, 2003).

I think this book is probably designed for car journeys. Nat and Joe go on a school trip to the museum. The girl (Nat) is keen, but the boy (Joe) is not. Together they sneak onto a space ship and when Nat starts playing with the controls, they take off.. They go to the moon, and then to Mars. They meet aliens, and also a space man crashed on the moon many years ago and abandoned. They get home, they seem to have been away only twenty minutes [pause for blogger to gnash teeth].

The book is constructed around puzzles but every puzzle is cognitively the same (or similar): look at the picture for what is missing or important. Remember another picture because it tells you something. The biggest puzzle--how the spaceman spent 20 years on the moon--is never addressed.

I have very mixed feelings about this book: it is deathly dull, but that's the writing, not the story which has potential.I didn't like the "girl interested, boy not interested" beginning, it seemed unnecesary and off putting to male readers (later the boy gets enthusiastic too) and the samenesss of the puzzles made the book even duller, but it was trying very hard to get children to observe, and to work things out.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Kaleidoscope Eyes: Glynne MacLean, Roivan: Book One of the A'nzarian Chronicle (Auckland; New Zealand, 2003)

Roivan is an alien child hiding out on an Earth Spaceship. All she knows/remembers is that she is to head to human space, she isn't to tell anyone what she is is (not that she remembers), she is never to take the Test and that she is to keep moving, no more than fifteen days on any ship. But this time, with no ships in the area, she is stuck, unable to teleport from ship to ship. This will turn out to be a massive inconsistency which an editor should have caught, because Roivan is incredibly powerful and can teleport across the Galaxy.

But Roivan is caught, and adopted by the captain and also by the chief engineer in a less formal way. She turns out to be terribly important--her race once made contact with the Jeng, another telepathic race--and her kind, the superpowered Arktrese, accidentally killed everyone over 25 with their broadcast. Now her people kill Arktrese at the age of six. She is the first (but not the last) to survive.

I enjoyed this very much; Roivan is engaging, her new father upright, strong, admirable, in the way of all fathers of adoring elementary school age children. But the story is very slow--the space opera elements creep up only in the last third--a great deal of it is spent with Captain Carter teaching her to be a good little girl, and I did feel that MacLean needed to decide who the protagonist was, Carter or Roivan. If she had chosen Carter then the readership would I think be teenage as we saw someone looking after a pesky kid. But if it's Roivan, then I wonder if the book is attractive to a teen market (and it's pitched too high for anything but a very bright 8 yr old).

Final complaint: at the end Roivan is told she is destined to be a Sulis, who will lead her people to a new age.

Yuck. Let's get over the destinarian thing chaps. The problem with pre-destined leaders is that they can turn out to be President Bush.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Let's Ride That Hobby Horse: Charles Sheffield and Jerry Pournelle, Higher Education (New York: Tor: 1996)

A Jupiter Novel.

We know the drill by now (although this is the first of the series, and was first published as an adult serial in Asimov). Rick Luban gets kicked out of school and recruited by Vanguard Mining Corps who teach him what school is really like. At the end of the book he is taught some real skills and sent on up into the company.

But there are a couple of differences that make this book stand out, the first of which is due to it's early life as an adult serial: the kids in this book have sex. And what I really liked about it is that they have sex because they feel horny, not because they are in lurve. At the same time, a nice little lecture is dealt out about sexual harrassment and it's origin in arrogance. Sheffield (like Heinlein before him) solves the problem by giving women more self-defense teaching than is given to the boys. What's amusing about this is that feminists have been recommending this as an approach for decades, but men on the left prefer to argue that they've changed. Sheffield and Pournell prefer to ask "why wait?". Sometimes the "look after yourself" arguments of the right make much more sense to me.

The other issue is that in this book we, too, get to learn what the protagonist learns. This is what is absent from so many modern YA sf novels. Reading this book reminded me of the joys of reading the Chalet school books by Eilinor M. Brent Dyer in which it was just assumed that you'd pick up the French and German, just like the girls in the school. Here it's the science and engineering.

Higher Education is a polemical book, and here it's target is the education system. This is dear to my heart: on Saturday I had to listen to a presentation in which the transfer of knowledge from the knowledgeable to the ignorant was labelled "Deficit teaching". Not exactly inspiring is it? But then we weren't supposed to be inspired because sometime in the 1970s UK University Arts teaching (in its broadest sense) became infatuated with the notion that "Students know more than they think, and we can encourage them to share that knowledge and teach each other". People who I otherwise like and respect float this argument. It's a load of tosh. Yes, students do learn best from exploration and experiment, but they do so when the said exploration and experiment is of new and exciting information. If you don't offer that, if you leave them to "learn from each other" instead of Standing on the Shoulders of Giants, each generation would have to develop the lessons of the past from scratch. Science would recreate itself in each age. This clearly doesn't happen: what does happen is that children who experience "deficit teaching" do much better when encouraged to experiment with what they know, to develop critical faculties than do children who experience "peer sharing". After all, it's so much easier to think when you have something to think about.

I find myself wondering to what extent sf novelists for children have abdicated this duty to teach knowledge as well as critical faculties.

I'll end it there. Don't get me started on Sheffield's other target, "self-esteem" teaching. There are times when I can sound so right of centre that I'm meeting myself coming back.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

The Dust of Ages: Hugh Scott, Why Weeps the Brogan (London; Walker Books, 1989).

Winner of the Children's Whitbread in 1989.

This is a very strange book: the protagonists are two children, but they don't know enough to know they are children. They live in a place dusty and gloomy with signs such as ARCHEOLOGY and EGYPTOLOGY to tell them where they are. They dress in skins and use spears to kill the spiders until they discover the EXTINGUISHER, and they feed and fear the Brogan.

A sign on the wall tells them that it is four years and 81 days since the hostilities started.

At the end of the book the two work their way to the outside world, and the older of them, the girl, recovers some of the memory she lost on the traumatic day when her mother yelled at her to get into the museum and to stay there, never to come out, before she dragged herself in with crippled legs.

None of this quite explains why it's so good. I think it's because Scott stays rigorously with the ignorance of the girl (Saxon) and because he eschewed first person narrative he combines this with our puzzled observation. I had a good idea what was going on, but Scott made me occupy the world view of an explorer. Awfully good: get it if you can.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

A planet pink and yellow: Charles Sheffield, Putting Up Roots (New York: Tor, 1997).

A very similar sort of theme: unwanted children get sent to a colony planet to be trained to work for Foodlines, an interplanetary agribusiness. But when they arrive there is only one technician and he seems a little odd. His actions don't make sense and Josh (the pov, and son of an actress) thinks he's faking. The children include Josh's cousin, Dawn. Autistic but a talented draughtswoman (artist is the wrong word--she reproduces exactly what she sees, without interpretation). Dawn is the first to make contact with an apparently intelligent species and it starts to become clear that the technician (Sol Brewster) has sold the planet to Unimine who practise planetary strip mining, but that he has been aided (ironically) by Foodlines who have worked at hiding the presence of the intelligent species.

At the end the children--aided by Winnie Carlson who masquerades as a technician but is actually a government agent--defeat Sol, Unimine and Foodlines, but--and I realise this is hard to believe--it's all rather plausible. The children are bright and work things out, Winnie is there to help, and when she defeats Sol Brewster with a combination of chilli whipped cream and some judo, she demonstrates the power of intelligence, guile and technique over brute strength.

There are some good (and not too mawkish) discussions of genocide, and there is a strong sense that human beings come in many moralities. We have the usual little scene about delaying sex which I'm coming to expect from this line of juveniles (and they are juveniles in the old style, not YAs), but interestingly, these kids aren't particularly competent and none of them turns out to be brilliant at anything. They are just people, and I liked them very much.

One more Sheffield on my shelf to go, and then I'll move onto someone else.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Not a Harraway in Sight: Charles Sheffield, The Cyborg from Earth (New York: Tor, 1998)

Prizes go to this one for a misleading title, but I did like it, which one would expect as this is Charles Sheffield, a good writer and part of the thoughtful, liberal right. This book is part of the same Jupiter series as James P. Hogan's Outward Bound. It's strongly reminiscent of Heinlein's Citizen of the Galaxy

This time Jeff Kopal, son of an incredibly important ship building family, screws up his entry competition into the space navy. This competition consists of horseriding and archery.

Despite this, he is admitted, and his uncle (his father is probably dead) contrives to get him sent to the border patrol where he finds himself on a ship whose purpose is to trigger a war with the Confluence settlement.

Lots of classic sf politics here: the Kopal family is corrupt and wants the new Adenam field drive. The Navy is a relic of the First World War, with officers selected for their dancing and riding abilities, and the jinners (the engineers) coming from the Pool of unemployed who are really in charge. Unsurprisingly, Jeff (like his long lost uncle Drake) shows every sign of becoming a jinner.

There is a confrontation between the Confluence and Earth and the Confluence comes off best thanks to the ingenuity of the inventor Simon Macafee. Jeff confronts his family and Simon turns out to be the long lost brother. All's well in the sf universe--the government is defeated and a blow is struck for the superiority of the engineer.

But there are some other interesting markers here: lots of science and maths are explained, complete with diagrammes -- we haven't seen much of that elsewhere; as in Outward Bound this book is about a misfit being given the chance to fit into a better society (although Sheffield cheats a bit because Jeff as his reflexes sorted by nanotechnology); but the one that really struck me, that struck me in Outward Bound as well, is that Jeff and his friend Lilian deliberately decide to hold off from (for want of a better word) courtship.

If I go back to earlier comments about dating and love being a hallmark of the YA sf of the 1980s, then it seems that Sheffield and his colleages are consciously repudiating this, gently reminding kids that dating is a distraction from intellectual life, that in effect, he who dates last, is first.

Burble, burble......

Oh my God. Do you remember I blogged Kate Thompson's Origins series very positively?

Well, according to The Guardian she is the daughter of Dorothy and E.P. Thompson.

Now, I know that this will mean nothing to most of you, but I trained as a historian in the 1980s at the University of York. This was a time when, scratch any enthusiastic modern-history student, particularly if they wanted to do social history (which was why one went to York anyway) and they had read E.P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class. This is the classic social history book (ok, so there is also Christopher Hill's The World Turned Upside Down, but that's more of a political history). The book is about a thousand pages of dense material about the construction of a sense of class through ballads, pubs, working men's educational organisations, unions, and all sort of other things. And it's utterly rivetting.

I received my copy for my twelfth birthday. About a year later, I got to hear Dorothy and E.P. Thompson both speak at a May Day rally in Birmingham (which once had a very fine labour tradition).

Anyway, you get the picture. Over the years of course I've changed, and part of my "university disaster story" is that I turned out to be terrible at social history (I have no eye for detail) which was a genuine grief to me. As far as I was concerned, social history was the only really viable type of history. This attitude blinded me for years to the fact that I have a knack for intellectual history (it was very passe when I was a student).

So, back to 2005 and the word spins around and I find myself listing the daughter of one of my favourite historians as one of my favourite science fiction writers.


Friday, October 07, 2005

Odd eyes but all five fingers: Cherry Wilder, The Luck of Brin's Five (originally Angus & Robertson Publishers, 1979--I'm using the Harper Coll

The sequels are The Nearest Fire (1980) and TheTapestry Warriors.

In The Luck of Brin's Five , Dorn, child of a rural Five, finds a stranger in the lake. The Family adopt the stranger (Scott Gale) and absorb him into their society.

The book is very political. Most of the story is just about Gale and the Five as they run from a threat and as Gale finds out that these people are developing heavier than air flight. But there are hints at the ripples Gale causes in this early-modern society. Wilder, as might be expected, does an excellent job of depicting alienness, but her aliens are a bit too humanoid to be convincing (although that's necessary to her plot) and she makes the mistake of having Dorn continually tell us what words mean. We'd be better off clueless, or without the fake language in the first place as the explanations wreck the immersion.

At the end of the book Gale leads the family to find his party of scientists, and they are pursued by conservative elements. I felt dissatisfied because Wilder never really makes her readers work. All those ripples are left mostly unexplored. I was interested to see the default assumption that change is good, laid against also a default assumption that rural people are more authentic that city people. Sooner or later those two ideas will clash.

I started the sequel, The Nearest Fire but the early parts are just too similar: this time it's a female earther who is found. I gave up half way through. The books are good, but the sequel should probably be read on its own. I don't actually own the third in the series but will keep an eye out for it.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Another Mad Scientist: Nancy Werlin, Double Helix (London: Puffin Sleuth, 2004)

There is a big difference between the thriller and the sf novel. As more than one person has pointed out, the thriller is generally hostile about science, the sf novel is positively tiggerish.

When Eli Samuels (a name which I think may be meant to resonate biblically—I think it was the priest Eli who brought up Samuel after his mother gave him to G-d in return for getting pregnant in the first place—one of the more bizarre bible stories), goes to work at Wyatt Transgenics his father is furious. But Eli's pretty angry because Dad has only just owned up to the fact there is is no money for college, months after it's too late for Eli to apply for scholarships. Eli is also pretty unhappy because his mother is dying of Huntington's Chorea and there is an even chance he may have it also.

Werlin does a superb job of explaining DNA, and having Eli act like a kid fascinated with science. Her mistake – from an sf point of view –is to complicate it with possible superpowers. This is really unnecessary. When Eli discovers he is the result of early gene manipulation experiments, that's enough of a shock. When he finds out that the beautiful Kayla came from an earlier egg, one his mother "paid" for him with, but one which both failed the chromosome test (ie she has HC) and also lived to be a baby when it was not expected to, he reacts with revulsion. He and Kayla destroy the laboratory and Dr. Wyatt is arrested.

All of this is written well. Eli is a convincing 18 yr old, his relationship with his girlfriend, Viv, particularly well done. But I felt at the end that Werlin coerced her reader's response.

If you read the book without the last chapter, it's all nicely ambivalent. Kayla wasn't meant to reach term, she did and Wyatt made sure she was raised. In this scenario it is Eli's mother who is the real villain being so determined not to raise an HC child. But then Werlin adds in the genetic manipulation (which is why Wyatt used Kayla's embryo and kept it alive) which starts to move him into the "nasty scientist" role. And finally we get a little bit of preaching about how awful it would be wipe out people with genetic disablements—specifically Down's Syndrome.

Now pardon me for a little bit of spleen here: but it is quite possible to have a debate here without counting all disabilities as the same, or insisting that every set of parents would make the same choice. I, for example, carry genes for a painful digestive disease. If given the chance at embryo selection I'd select a child who neither had it nor carried it. However, I wouldn't abort that embryo if it were later discovered to have the defect. Huntington's Chorea? Too damn right I'd abort. It's a vile disease. Downs? Given enough assistance, a Down's child can have a very happy life. Each and every decision is personal and can be left as personal. And finally: I refuse to accept that it matters whether I or the child my mother miscarried (thus leaving the following trimester free for me to be conceived) was born, really matters. You all wouldn't have missed me. Maybe it would be my alter-sibling you would be reading now. Or maybe s/he would be the scientist I longed to be.

This kind of book annoys me because it claims to promote free thought but right at the end closes down the ending. Note also the way that the book is brought back to the personal: Eli begins the book by moving away from the influence of father and high school sweetheart. He will end the book reviving both relationships and with the idea that external influences are dangerous and misleading. It's an odd trajectory for an sf book, one that I think has more to do with the current worry over parental influence and the idea that the well adjusted child is the one for whom the family unit is the most important element of his or her life, even when he or she enters into the workplace. It's oddly regressive for sf, if quite normal in domestic fiction.

One final point: technically this book isn't published as sf but as Puffin Sleuth. Neither Puffin nor Point now do labelled sf lines. Instead they seem to be trying to capture the sf market by the corners (Sharyn November at Firebrand books, also a branch of Penguin, is the notable exception.

[Spammers---grrrrrr.. Not sure what I can do about them. Any ideas?]