Friday, April 28, 2006

The universe as a roundabout: William Sleator, The Green Futures of Tycho. New York: Tor, 2006. First published in 1981.

Tycho is the youngest of four children. His parents have decided what each of them should be, and the eldest three have enthusiastically acquiesced. Tycho has rebelled and is disliked by his parents and bullied by his siblings. Then one day he finds a shiny object which allows him to travel in time. His first experiment with the past disturbs his present and he decides to stick to the future but discovers that he doesn't like the futures he sees--each one, he figures out, is a possible future and in each he is unpleasant and his siblings are his victims. He also discovers that changing the future seems to change the present also.

The tale ends when Tycho realises that what each future has in common is the presence of the gadget. He goes far back in time and makes sure it isn't planted in the first place. Then he winks out. The final picture is of him digging his garden with his sister--with whom he is now friends--and finding .... a lipstick case.

The tale is typical Sleator in that it forces the reader to think about mathematics and possible worlds, but it lacks the substance of his other books. The ending is too pat, to perfect. It fails even to be a "happy" ending in the conventional structure of those.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

A Dome of One's Own: Oisin McGann, Small Minded Giants. London: Doubleday & Co. Inc., 2007

I'll come to the title at the end.

Sol lives in a domed community. It may be the last community in the world. The dome keeps out the ice and the snow, and once it kept out people when the climate changed and the rich scurried to survive. The dome is somewhere in the Phillipines but the Phillipines now only exists as the workers in the slums, and the gang leaders in the lower parts of the city. Sol, descendant of skilled workers, is relatively privileged, but the emphasis is on relatively, He has school, and food, but its all pretty meagre and his dad is a Daylighter, one of the men who replace the now broken machinery which was meant to keep the dome clear of snow and let the sun in.

The story opens after approximately one hundred and fifty years has passed and people know that there are probably another six hundred or so to go. Sol is on a school trip when he sees one of the crane cars crash. Then he hears his father has murdered someone and disappeared. Suddenly people are looking for him, assuming that he will know where his father is.

What follows is a classic sf/thriller in which Sol and his friend .... are pulled into the working of the city. At times this story reminded me of Heinlein's "The Roads Must Roll" even for a moment arguing that the unions are corrupt and want to bring the city down to prove their own importance. But eventually McGann--as one might expect with his previous credentials--draws us into a more complex argument about the effects of capitalism and competition on a closed society that is utterly interdependent. There are also a few pointed suggestions that we might want to think about who owns our world.

The story ends with information being released into the open. What people will do with that is left open to question and there's a hint that the crusading policeman might be a threat in the long term--that the Dome is about to swap a plutocracy for a tyranny.

But how does it work as science fiction? As usual with McGann, the politico-social aspect of sf is handled deftly. At no point can we relax and think of it as a world "just like ours". Similarly, the engineering of the world is visible: the Dome keeps going with the Heart Engine, a system by which the movement of people keeps complex dynamos generating energy (proving in a very literal sense that unity is strength). I was also pleased that Sol is very working class; his future is in boxing and manual labour. But what struck me is that with the exception of a very distant adult (Julio, boyfriend of Sol's teacher) we met no engineers. Sol and his friends engage with the surface of the world, not with its workings. Julio felt like a homage to the distant past, a man who could sound romantic about ventilation systems. I know men like that. I'd like to see a few more of them in sf for kids.

And the small minded giants? A reference to capitalists, whose tails continue to thrash long after their heads and purpose are cut off.

Monday, April 24, 2006

J.B. Stephens: Egg on My Face

OK, I couldn't find J.B. Stephens on the net, so I contacted Sharyn November at Firebird (a Penguin Imprint) and she put me in touch with Liesa Abrams (Razorbill, Penguin) and this is what she said. No names are given.

I'm happy to give you more info about how these books were written and by whom, but I wasn't sure if you were using this for something you're publishing? If so, I'd probably need to check with the packager and the authors to confirm before releasing their names, since it was all ghostwritten under the J.B. Stephens pseudonym

and, after I declined the actual names, this was followed with:

Book 1: Author A
Book 2: Author B
Book 3: Author C
Book 4: Author B

It was actually packaged by a packager, and the packager editor and myself did the plotting, so the story/character arcs were generated by us, and what these authors brought in was voice and of course little twists and turns in the stories .


And as I firmly believe the author is *not* dead but is alive, kicking and sitting in the front row, you can expect some kind of reconsideration of The Big Empty in the near-ish future.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Dinosaur Crazy; Astrosaurs: the Seas of Doomby Steve Cole. London: Red Fox/Random House, 2005.

Rather competent space opera/space adverture story, part of a series, with all of the parts taken by dinosaurs of different species. These dinosaurs descended from dinosaurs who left Earth before the meteorite and who have settled the galaxy.

It's a classic case of a book that will work up to about the teenage years when a reader might start asking questions about why all the dinosaurs can communicate, why *all* dinosaurs seem to have evolved (as opposed to only one or two species) and how one of the species can cope without opposable thumbs. It's delicious hokum frankly. But it is science fiction, with lots of exploration and monsters that have to be thought about until you've figured out their ecological niche. I particularly liked the well thought out star map at the beginning of the book.

Ideal for your dinosaur and space crazy six year old.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

J. B. Stephens, The Big Empty. Penguin; Razorbill, 2004.

This consists of four volumes: The Big Empty (2004), Paradise City (2004), Desolation Angels (2004) and No Exit (2005), but they should be considered as one book with four chapters.

The book (and I will continue to refer to it as one book) begins a few years after Strain 8 has devastated America (the rest of the world is never referred to, a curious, but not unusual American trope). In the emergency a man (Gerard MacAuley) has risen to power and organised the evacuation of the American interior (the Big Empty of the title) to the two coasts. Why he has done this is never quite clear, an aspect of the tale which leaves Stephens head and shoulders over most of his/her competitors (I suspect her, because of the interest in emotional angst. Not all women do it, but very few men do.). MacAuley may be an opportunistic tyrant, but there are many more hints suggesting that he is a man in a panic, desperate to save America and taking decisions that seem right in an emergency. This—the wrong things we do in a state of emergency—will prove to be one of the thin silver threads of the novel’s political weave.

But the story isn’t about MacAuley. Instead it’s about living in disaster and under a repressive state. In the first part, The Big Empty, Keely is recruited to a secret commune, Novo Mundum, via her email. On the way she is joined by Michael and his airhead girlfriend Maggie (with whom he was about to split up and who he rescued from a robbery gone wrong), Diego who has lived in the Big Empty, Irene—on the way to Novo Mundum with her father and brother and separated when she tries to help Diego, Jonah, also a tag along and Amber, a pregnant teenager whose boyfriend has decamped to Novo Mundum. The first part is all about getting there.

The second part, Paradise City introduces us to Novo Mundum where Dr. Slattery rules with the help of his brother Frank. NM is a commune set on a college campus and all is idyllic. Each teen finds a place: Amber’s pregnancy is seen as a boon, Jonah becomes a plumber, Michael rises to the top of the tree as a security expert and boyfriend of Dr. Slattery’s daughter. Then it all starts to go pear-shaped. Irene starts to realise that Diego (who has been injured) is being kept sedated. Keely and Liza discover documents that suggests Slattery is making viruses, and Michael’s friend Gabe is killed by electric wire which Michael designed and installed. When they find experimental subjects of the virus all of them but Jonah flee with Liza in tow.

Desolation Angels tells of the struggle to cross the Big Empty—meeting up with Maggie and her gang of barbarian killers and rapists on the way—and to get to Houston where the meet up with Keel’s mother. No Exit takes them back to Novo Mundum where they bring down Slattery. In the distance, we can also see MacAuley’s regime beginning to crumble.

Structure of the book as a whole

There are a number of things that interested me about this book. Superficially it has the “there and back again” of many YA problem books which take us away from adult care, into wrong adult care, and back out again towards adult secured safety. In actuality however, the adults who have been left behind have already (for various reasons) abandoned their caretaking role, and its an irony that Dr. Slattery’s megalomania actually originates in his desire to care for his community. The argument that Stephens pursues here is about the nature and expression of caring, not who is doing it.

The use and subversion of avatars

This takes us to something I’ve been considering more and more both in terms of YA fiction and science fiction in general. It stems from that whole “sf doesn’t do character” argument. I’m not, here, going to give you a list of the sf writers who do write effective characters, nor am I going to pursue the idea I used in the Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, that the “character” in sf may be the planet or the “what if”. Instead, lets accept that sf characters are often pretty bland. I think there is a reason for this: they aren’t “characters” in the proscenium arch, let’s watch someone develop sense at all, nor are they intended to be. Instead, they are avatars.

Now, let’s not all jump on me at once. I am in no sense using this as a derogatory dismissal. From my point of view, there is no such thing as a bad technique, only a technique used inappropriately/without understanding its power.

The avatar in science fiction (and they exist in plenty of other genres too by the way) is there to be steered through problems and give us the excitement of thinking we are clever—a waldo for the brain. My favourite avatar, Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan, is precisely this kind of intellectual extension. I’m not half as bright as Miles, but for a few hundred pages I get to clothe myself in his intellect.

Sometimes tho’ an author will play with us, let us get inside an avatar and then force us to question that relationship. Here’s an example of subversion of avatars: in Karen Traviss’s first Star Wars novel, Hard Contact she uses four presumed avatars. Four clone warriors, identical in every fashion. They should, by the conventions of the adventure genre, be blanks, tabula rasa for readers to steer. But in the process of dissecting the evil that is good men creating clones and then pretending they aren’t really people, Traviss forces us to accept that these aren’t avatars. By the end of the book we recognise these men’s individuality because they insist to themselves that they are individuals.

I’ve said avatars function in other genres: in series romance for example, the heroine is often drawn in fairly faint brush strokes precisely so that we can don her form. Too clear a heroine and we are watching her, not being her, and the whole point is that she should be an aid and enhancement to our emotional response.

But I suppose I should get back to YA fiction and this text in particular. In very many of the YA fictions I’ve read there is a “group avatar” structure. Think of this as Beverly Hills, 90210 ensemble fiction. Rather than one character we want to watch, there are several characters we are encouraged to want to be. And just to make sure the reading demographic is right, there will be “someone for everyone”. Again, I caution against reading my words as necessarily derogatory; I’ve never wanted to be any of the characters in Beverly Hills, 90210 but I spent much of my childhood wanting to be Sabrina Duncan in Charlie’s Angels.

Too often these ensemble characters are by the numbers. Even K. A. Applegate’s Everworld sequence, which in all other ways I rate very highly, resorted to four kids, three boys and a girl, each of whom has defined character traits and even when they turn out to have hidden secrets somehow they stay much the blanks they began.

JB Stephens isn’t having any of that. Each time we think we’ve got the player attributes figured out, s/he gives them a little twist. Let’s take Michael’s girlfriend Maggie for example. A total flake, incapable of looking after herself and worse, incapable of realising that, she suddenly turns around to the others and says she’s had enough. She walks off into the bush. What threw me about this is that it was totally in character yet broke the “we have to follow her and see her grow” structure that I usually see in these books. When we meet her again, she’s shacked up with a gang leader, is still utterly dependent but has made her life in manipulation of the male. Not only aren’t we being asked to identify any more but we are being asked to feel a bit repelled. Elsewhere there is an interesting scene where Keely thinks how much she likes being snuggled by two boys at once (Stephens later kills off one of the boys, but s/he did have to sell the book) and again, suddenly this avatar isn’t quite so comfortable.

One by one, Stephens has the initial ensemble develop in ways that aren’t terribly comfortable. If we wanted to see these characters as skins to don, then frankly, they’ve got itching powder inside. One consequence is that although Keely hooks up with her Mom, there is none of the “we have learned the world is dangerous and we want to go home” narrative I’ve seen too much of. Nor does Keely take her new lessons to improve her relationship with her Mom. Instead, it’s Mom who has to do the changing, and Keely goes home because the military drags her there, and she goes with a whole load of new ideas about politics. This discomfort helped me through what I would usually regard as an overemphasis on relationships (which I note some of the Amazon comments have complained about). There is too much, but it never actually became the centre of the story, more just what was happening as the real issues – how to stop a plague—were sorted out. Which is quite realistic really.
In the final book Stephens has also begun to show us glimpses of a restive population. The emotional development of the characters has been paralleled by their political development—an aspect missing from many YA books—and paralleled again by the political restiveness of the country. I’d also say that leaving so much hanging is rather effective. This is a fully built world in which the characters only get to see (and take part in) one part of the story.

The book is actually quite simple, it’s science fiction mostly in terms of its survivor narrative, but it ignores many of the “we are all going to hell in a handbasket” structures of dystopian fiction for YA—in many ways its actually rather utopian. In the end “highly recommended”.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Boyishness: It's a Boy: Women Writers on Raising their Sons edited by Andrea J. Buchanan. Emeryville, CA: Seal Press, 2005.

One of the issues which I'm reaching out to try and understand is "boyishness" as separated from the notion of both male-genitalia and "masculinity" (the first is obvious, but the second is because I know of many women who seem to be "tomboys" but what they express are qualities shared by their "un-masculine" geeky male friends: the urge to build, to collect, to know. If they are sharing a model of manhood, it's most definitely of the gamma (non-competitive) variety).

So I picked up this book out of curiosity: it's no use as a research resource. The samples are arbitrary of the "talking to my friends over coffee" variety and one or two of the writers miss the point (the best two pieces are Karen E. Bender "The Bully's Mother" and Katie Kaput, "The Things You Can't Teach" on being a Transsexual Mother of a boy). But what runs through this book is a thread of energy and curiosity. Boyishness, as it is described here, is wanting to poke at things, to work things out, to do things to things. It is active and provocative and it doesn't look backwards too often (the one exception is the woman whose eldest boy is a storyteller--at night his imagination is the family curse). My favourite is the story of the boy who, unable to get his tower block to stand up, resorted to duct tape. Isn't that just a wonderfully Heinleinian image?

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Still here, honest.

I know I'm not blogging much, and I apologise. I've got Eastercon coming up (see ww.eastercon2006) and of the books I've picked up lately, there hasn't been a lot too say. From May 1st however, you can expect a sudden gearing up of posts, lots more on fiction and increasingly more on childhood studies (as I now know it's called).

I hope you'll bear with me until then.

Meanwhile; one recommendation, one "what happened to honesty in labelling"?

Rhiannon Lassiter's 2002 Waking Dream (MacMillan). Fantasy not sf but too good not to mention. Three cousins are forced into examining their own inheritance while their parents are forced to confront their own parenting skills. I see hints of Coleridge and Diana Wynne Jones (particularly Hexwood,) But that Lassiter can draw from such different writers is one of the things I like about her work.

Jane Yolen and Patrick Neilsen Hayden's Year's Best Fantasy and Science Fiction for Young Adults (Tor, 2004) contains a story from the last century (Kipling) and one solitary, lonely sf story. Nothing wrong with the fantasy selection, but don't try giving this to a proto sf reader.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Guest Blog: Charles Butler

... it's interesting to see the ways that changes in technology close down (or open up) the conventional possibilities of children's lit. Computers and virtual reality have obviously generated some possibilities for new plots; but I also remember Philip Pullman (I think it was - sorry if I'm misattributing this, Philip) bemoaning the ubiquity of mobile phones, which make it so much harder to get modern child protagonists alone and incommunicado. Gone are the days when you could have your eleven-year-old stroll unencumbered into adventure: now you have separate them from their parents *and* have them fumble their phone into the grating of a nearby drain before you can get the story properly underway.