Saturday, January 28, 2006

Alien-ness is relative: Susan Rennie, Kat and Doug on Planet Fankle. Scotland, Itchykooo: 2002.

"Fankle" is the Scots word for crooked or twisted, and this entire book is written in Scots (a dialect of English but don't say that in Scotland).

Kat wakes on her birthday to find a cyberdog by the bed, but Dug is much smarter and more interesting than most cyberdogs. When he goes looking for space worm holes she follows him, and he shows her a map. It turns out that her bedroom is a worm hole roundabout.

What follows is a short exploratory adventure to the Planet Fankle (by accident--Dug is as good at navigating as The Tardis).

The tale is warm, funny, not terribly demanding but is told with a casual air that puts to shame many of the more complicated tales I've read.

A glittery red cover, Superheroes. Prophecy. Destiny: Michael Carroll, The Quantum Prophecy. London. Harper Collins, 2006.

Danny and Colin get sent home from school to write about "The Superhero I would want to be." This is a history assignment, not fantasy: ten years before, almost all of the world's superheroes disappeared in a cataclysmic battle against supervillainy.

But on the way home, Danny dashes into the street to rescue Colin's little sister from a truck, and his dawning super-powers are revealed.

From here we are on a path of kidnap and torture, supervillainy and excess. Danny's father turns out to be the supervillain facade, trapped in an impersonation at the moment his superpowers were undone. Colin turns out to be the child of two ex-heroes, and begins to develop his own powers of strength and hearing. As his powers ebb and fade however, many funny scenes ensue.

The plot is sort of irrelevant. It's the execution of the plot that grabbed my attention. At one point Colin and Danny are kidnapped. Colin escapes and from then on, our attention is drawn to Colin's intelligence. He evades his captors, succeeds in gaining help from another child who we never see again, makes use of a charitable service, persuades/co-erces a rather unpleasant character called Razor to assist him, acquiesces in a con-trick and generally makes the word work for him without ever being "rescued" by anyone. It's extremely well written and very plausible.

Similarly very well done is the entire denouement which rests on a prophecy made by Danny's real father which sees Danny, many years later leading an army in a destroyed world, his arm replaced with bionics. Everything that is happening is part of Joseph's attempt to prevent Danny from developing super-powers. In the end, it's Joseph's actions that bring to fruition the first part of the dream. To stop an explosion Danny is almost killed. Although he survives he loses his arm, and to show us he means business the author adds an extra twist: bitterly Danny curses his stupidity. Had he thought for a moment, he would have used his left hand.

All the way through I had the sharp sensation of reading a science fiction novel. Carroll thinks through implications for both character and world. The book is the opening salvo in a series and I'm looking forward to where this one goes. It's a while since I've read this kind of intelligence in a boy's adventure story. The last was Sandy Landsman's The Gadget Factor (1984).

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Once Upon a Time a Princess Was Uploaded: Roderick Townley, Into the Labyrinth. London: Simon and Schuster, 2003.

I dread sequels. I particularly dread sequels to brilliant books. Too often in my [not very] humble opinion, the sequel merely reveals that the author didn't realise what they had achieved.

The Great Good Thing, in which Princess Sylvie gets bored with not living her story very often, and rescues her family until their book can be narrated anew, is my nomination for a children's classic. John Clute and I raved to each other about this brilliant book we'd found and it was only when I brought my "find" to him that we realised we were talking about the same book. There is so much to discuss about that book.

So it was with enormous trepidation that I opened Into the Labyrinth. I was worried on all sorts of counts. The Great Good Thing is about to be made into a hyper-text. Would Townley make this more than just a gimmick? What about this great evil Princess Sylvie would have to face? Would this be the kind of anaemic villain which has populated children's fantasy since He Who Is Too Boring to Be Named came on the scene?

No and no.

When The Great Good Thing is republished it becomes so popular that Sylvie and her family are rushed off their feet. When the book is translated into Japanese they have to face the fact that even the midnight hours will not be their own. They rush around so much that they all lose weight and Sylvie has to go into Lily's dreams to ask for new clothes. When they are republished in a second edition Sylvie is very pleased to see her outfits have less frills.

But they are all suffering from Stress so Lily also writes in Rosetta Stein, her own stress counsellor, as a shepherdess. This has mixed results. The palace takes well to yoga (although Prince Rigeloff declines the classes on the grounds that he is supposed to be an angry character), but Rosetta Stein does not take well to being treated as a servant and later, when the story is under attack, she is the first suspect.

Then the story goes on-line and into hypertext. Here is where Townley justifies every bit of faith in him. The characters have to cope with moving both in book form (linearly through the pages) and up and down the escalators of hypertext. They also have to cope with children who open up the text and move within chapter (this had been a problem in the book, but not so much).

When the text is attacked (first bits disappear creating scary bogs, then they transmute so that the Mere of Remind into which she jumps becomes the Mirror of Remind and Sylvie's donkey is badly hurt). Sylvie must go into the world of net space and with the help of Rosetta, the drippy Prince Cedric (who like all transmuted characters in fairy tales is so much more interesting to Sylvie when he is under a curse), defeat the invader.

As with The Great Good Thing Sylvie wins through, but it is the reader, not Sylvie, who understands what's happened. To Sylvie, a virus looks like a small rodent, a cookie is lemon coloured and tempting but ultimately flavourless and unsatisfying and all she really knows is that Clare's grandnephew (Clare was the Reader in the first book) hates the story. Eventually she realises that her first Reader, the girl with the dark blue eyes, was also once the Author. It's nicely handled, not too revelatory.

The book is witty and makes game of words and the practicalites of fiction.

And no, this book isn't science fiction (despite its cyberpunk touches) but I thought I'd allow myself an indulgence.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Exploring the Skies: Kenneth Oppel, Skybreaker. Hodder Children's Books, 2005.

In Airborn Matt Cruse and his friend Kate discovered an island of pirates, Matt Cruse made enough money to enrol as a Cadet in the Airship Academy in Paris and Kate persuaded her parents to let her study Natural History--heavily chaperoned--to the Sorbonne.

In Skybreaker Oppel continues their adventures in this alternate world where zeppelins and gaseous squid plough the skies, the Sherpas are the world's best high altitude wind-navigators and an insane genius has built a zeppelin to live in and has discovered the secret to creating hydrogen from water. The mood is of Robert A .Heinlein crossed with Colin Greenland at his most whimsical.

Matt Cruse and Kate set out in search of the missing zeppelin on the basis of a single sighting. To get there they will have to fly higher than anyone has done before, risking altitude sickness and decompression. They have Matt's co-ordinates, Kate's Money, a rascally ship owner called Hal Slater and the gypsy Nadira with the key to the ship's vaults. One of the elements that makes the book so successful is that all four have distinct motivations for their journey. Sal wants to be wealthy.Nadira just wants enough money to start a business. Matt needs money to get through the Academy and support his mother and sisters. Kate wants the taxidermy collection on the ship.

The other key element is that each character is fascinated with a different aspect of their world, and through their distinct perspectives Oppel builds his world. Matt enthuses about the dirigibles and in getting an engine to work shows us one corner of the world. Kate reveals that this is a world where the Yeti really exists and snowcats inhabit the upper skys. Nadira introduces us to a world where Roma are the daredevil construction workers on sky scrapers across the world. The world of Skybreaker accretes in a proper sf-nal way.

To beat yet one more of my many drums, one of the reasons the book is so satisfying is that anything Oppel needs for his denoument is planted early; the reader has the opportunity to be as smart as the characters. The book is a romp, and it is an intelligent romp. It's a rare quality in this genre

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Jan Mark Dies

There is an obituary here.

The Ennead may be one of the best YA sf novels ever written.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Absence makes the heart grow melancholy: Hazel Marshall, Troublesome Angels and Flying Machines. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2004.

It's very rare that a book leaves me baffled, but I really am not too sure what I think of this book. I can't find any reviews (there is only one on and no other commentary.

First of all, I decided to read this book because, even though it has angels and magic, it's about Blanco Polo, great nephew of Marco Polo, and his desire to build flying machines. But there is a curious absence at the heart of this book and it's the flying machines themselves (of which more in a moment).

Blanco Polo goes off to join the absurdly named Count Maleficio who wants to build flying machines and on the way picks up Eva who is being sent to marry an old man because she is clearly mad. She talks to angels. Except the angels exist and clearly have plans which involve Eva and Blanco defeating the Count as part of an on going conflict with heaven in which they have been punished for involvement with human beings. These angels are sexed: the female is white, blonde, beautiful and was punished for falling in love with a human; the male is black and beautiful and punished for assisting human curiosity. Well done on the race presentation, five demerits for the sexism.

There is something about the angelic business which bothers me. Eva's angels are in conflict with other angels who want to interfere to help humans become destructive. God seems to be a bystander who doesn't want aliens to be involved at all. The second book is available but I haven't read it yet, and a third may be coming (then Marshall says the story will be complete) but I have a nasty feeling that lurking in here somewhere is evangelical fantasy a la Shadowmancer (G.P. Taylor) only a bit more subtle.

But back to the Flying Machines. On the back of the book the blurb recommends this novel to children who liked Mortal Engines and as I've never believed that magic precludes a book from being science fiction (that's not what my "rigid division" is about, you can have sf in a magical universe if the attitude is sf) I gave it a go.

I don't know if anyone reading remembers the Flambards series? You couldn't publish them today: in the first book Christina goes to Flambards, gets on a horse and spends most of the rest of the book chasing foxes. We learn everything there is to know about bit and tackle, and the finer points of riding to hounds. Then in the second book, The Edge of the Cloud, Christina marries the younger, aeroplane mad brother Will. And in this book we learn about engines, aerodynamics and what to with your hat when you're in a bi-plane.

In Marshall's book we learn nothing. We are constantly told Blanco is obsessed with the problem of flying machines but apart from one description of the 'plane he and the Count build, that's it.

Compare Marshall's book to Geraldine McCaughrean's Kite Rider to see what I mean: that's a book set in the past, in which science and engineering are considered interesting enough to talk about.

So in the end, Troublesome Angels and Flying Machines, which could have been a hybrid sf/fantasy becomes a fantasy only, not because of its content as such, but because of a worldview that regards angels as more interesting than engineering. I am not surprised that it is the flying machines which disappear from the title of the next book, not the angels,

I enjoyed this book, but in a puzzled, expectant sort of way.

Author bio

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Short and Sweet: SF in Sixty Pages.

Barrington Stoke Ltd. This is a series of Easy Readers aimed at maybe the 8-10yr old market although some of them, as you'll see, seem to be aimed at teens. The quaility is variable. The best were by Eric Brown and James Lovegrove who are very well respected sf writers. That said, I think Barrington Stoke could do better. If you agree, they invite comments. Too many of the endings are either flippant or neat.

Alan Duran, .Gameboy Reloaded (Edinburgh: Barrington Stoke Ltd., 2005).

Mia doesn't like her little brother Zak much--he pinches her toys after she has expressly said he can't play with them, and particularly her Gameboy. On day Zak spots a game cartridge in the river. Mia retrieves it and takes it home, but before she can play it, Zak gets there first and disappears into the game. Mia goes in to play the game, and also to get him back.

The mawkish moralism of this book is irritating but in sf-nal terms I was more bothered at the ways in which the reader's get excluded from the cognitive challenges which the book presents. Readers are invited into Mia's emotional world, but excluded from her cognitive world:

the last puzzle in the game is to rearrange letters to make a well known phrase. (United We Stand, Divided We Fall--told you it was mawkish). The reader isn't provided with the letters. It created an odd sense of empty space in the story and on the page.

Theresa Breslin, Mutant ,(Edinburgh: Barrington Stoke Ltd., 2005).

This book should really have several exclamations in the titles. I think I've come across Theresa Breslin before but I can't think where.

Brad works in a lab. He likes Jade who doesn't smile much. His co-worker is Mark and there is also Professor Mace. They are all working on a growth fornula that will enable humans to grow spare parts. In one part of the lab are "mistakes".

Brad knew that the mutant organs could never get out of the tanks, but he always felt unhappy when he was near the room where they were kept." (5)

That pretty much sums up the standard of science. They do all wear white suits, and when Jade's hard drive is wiped she does have back up disks, but Mark offers to test the formula on himself and when they do, it's by shaving skin and watching the hair grow back (and we are later told that it is naturally "bigger and stronger").

Anyway, it turns out to be the Professor sabotaging the lab because he wants to use the growth formula on his "mistakes".

"Mistakes!" Professor Mace gave an evil grin. "These are mine. My early work. They should not be kept trapped in here. I can use this... " He held the bottle with the Culture high above his head. "I can use this to make them strong. They will grow. Then no-one one will be able to keep them shut away." (60)

As Rob says, he's gone crazy but not, apparently, because the idea is ludicrous. The final chapter ends.....

Hours later, the arm, thicker now and stronger, reached out and up.

It pushed against the top of the tank, and slowly, slowly the lid began to open.

Don'tcha just love a good B movie?

Eric Brown, British Front (Edinburgh: Barrington Stoke Ltd., 2005)..

Two teenagers, Al and Jenny, are thrown forward to 2055 where they discover an all white, Fascist Britain, As Jenny and Al are an item, and Al is brown and Muslim, this is not good. Al is nearly lynched.

They get caught, their story is believed because the terrorists are known to be developing time travel, and they are rescued by the "terrorists". There is a touching moment where Al discovers his father's grave has been destroyed.

The terrorists send them back to one year after they left, with lots of documents about the "fascists" and who they are to give to the police and the government. Apparently sending them back a year after they left would help prove the truth of their argument--someone hasn't been listening to Professor Kirke. A year before they left would have been more convincing.

But anyway, everyone believes them and the story ends there.

Completely ignoring the fact that the description of what happens to make this future sounds a lot like Blair's anti-terrorism laws. Or maybe that's the point?

The story never really takes off, but it's ok and there is a sense that Al and Jenny may have changed their world.

One last thing...

Mr. Publisher? Calling a book British Front and sticking a bloody great Union Jack on the front will probably put off a whole load of Asian and Black teenagers.* Without thinking it through, I packed it in my bag to read on the Underground, and spent most of the trip being glowered at.

*For non US readers, the largest Fascist Party in the UK in the 1970s was the National Front who marched under the Union Jack.

Eric Brown, Space Ace (Edinburgh: Barrington Stoke Ltd., 2005).

Billy dreams of flying with his ex-space ace Grandpa through the solar system. When the navigational computer of a junked Space Tourist bus takes over their cobbled together ship Billy finds himself on a tour of the solar system. To be honest, this is not much more than a lightly fictionalised way to teach kids about the Solar System, but speaking as a once and future nerd, that's fine by me.

James Lovegrove Antgod (Edinburgh: Barrington Stoke Ltd., 2005).

Dan's best friend Jason likes weird ideas and doesn't have much empathy. He tortures ants. fantasies/philosophises himself as their god, and invents Truth Glasses. When Jason is killed Dan sees through the glasses the very macrocosmic god that Jason had envisioned treating men like ants.

If your child likes this book, try the real thing. it's a short story by Theodore Sturgeon called, funnily enough, "Macrocosmic God".

Saturday, January 07, 2006

If you can keep your head.....: Andrew Norriss, The Touchstone (London: Puffin, 2004).

When Douglas Patterson is contacted by an alien in trouble it's because he is an unusually calm, methodical person. The kind of person who can be trusted not to panic and who tends to believe what he sees and hears until evidence is presented to the contrary. In other words, at the age of (I surmise) 11, Douglas is well on his way to becoming a Heinleinian hero. He reminds me a lot in fact of the hero of Tunnel in the Sky.

But Douglas isn't a fool and doesn't believe the warrior herself, but rather Gedrus, an avatar of the Library to which he can link through a Touchstone the warrior has given him. Gedrus confirms the warrior's story--that her planet is suffering a terrible tyranny and that she is on the way to liberate it--and he decides to help her, hiding her body while it regenerates and soliciting the friendship of Ivo, a rather lonely Hungarian boy at school who wants to build a winning robot for Robot Wars and who eats onion sandwiches and yoghurt.

The warrior leaves and Douglas begins to use his Touchstone. it gives him the answers to his tests, lets him help (cheat) on behalf of Hannah, the lonely and rebellious daughter of the headmaster, and aids him and Ivo in building an utterly lethal robot. And it sets up a plan for him to bring his divorced parents back together.

By the time a Guardian arrives to reclaim the Touchstone Douglas has already figured out that maybe he is using it wrong. One of the reasons I liked this book so much is that the Guardian nudges Douglas but neither explains nor rescues. The epiphany arrives when Douglas celebrates the idea that his parents will soon be back together again and happy. Gedrus is nonplussed. What Douglas had asked for was that they be back together "and everything would be like it was before". Not at all the same thing, as Douglas realises.

What Douglas eventually figures out is that what people want is not what they need. After he and the Guardian have got back the Warrior and the missing Touchstones (which together would have triggered a war*) Douglas finds himself appointed a Guardian. Douglas has learned to ask the right questions, the ones that begin by thinking of long term consequences and causal chains. As we leave him, he is serving his apprenticeship as a number of aliens troop by to ask their questions of Gerdus. Calm and methodical, the epitome of the librarian--which he now is--he is unphased by the weird conformation of his clientele.

*Norriss makes it clear that there is a tyrant on the warrior's planet, and that something Will Be Done, but that WMD is not the way to go.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Schedule of postings

I have approximately two months' work left on my other book. Until the end of February I will try to keep up a regular schedule of posting on Sunday and Wednesday eery week. After that, I hope to go back up to every day.

No post today (relatives are visiting and reading is rgarded as anti-social [sniff]) but I'll be here on Sunday.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Food for Thought (and maybe worms): Mary Amato.The Word Eater. New York: Holiday House, 2000.

Mary Amato demonstrates how to turn fantasy into science fiction.

There are threestories here: Fib, the worm rejected because he can't eat dirt, Lerner Chanse, a new girl in school who doesn't want to end up in the out group (SLUGs) but isn't too keen in the in-group (MPOOE) either and Lucia, a Bellitan child forced into factory labour.

When Lerner finds Fib she discovers that he eats words. If he eats a word, its referent disappears. This could be a wish fulfillment fantasy, but Lerner isn't that kind of child. Instead, she embarks on an experiment in which she records on paper what she has asked Fib to eat, and what the consquences were. With this she learns to be very, very specific--to become sensitive to the fact that single words are not phrases, and that accurate description is important. But Lerner does change the world: she frees Bobby Nitz from his bullying father by having Fib eat "Mr. Nitzes' meanness". She gets rid of Attackaterriers (dogs trained to be vicious by having thumbtacks pushed into their paws) by getting Fib to eat the first part of the word. As a consequence which she never sees* Lucia is liberated, the dogs having become quite cute.

Towards the end the leader of the MPOOE, Reba, gets hold of Fib and tries to get him to erase the school, so teaching us all a lesson about irresponsibility. Lerner gets Fib back and instead erases her teacher's trousers, so he is embarrassed enough to leave profession in which he has little interest. Finally, Fib asks to have his magic erased and Lerner arranges it.

The book is moralistic but stays interesting and fun because it isn't about morality per se, pr not morality as an absolute, but morality as something that has to be continously thought about and reconsidered. The book won a stack of awards and deserves them all. I liked it because the nerd gets all the prizes by showing how nerdiness is a valuable attribute.

*it is this kind of consequence which is missing from most children's sf.