Friday, June 29, 2007

Weird shit hard sf: Margaret Simpson, Strange Orbit. Scholastic (AdLib), London: 1992.

Jessica Baron, daughter of a Physicist father and a New Age mother, wins a trip on a rocket ship along with four other kids. It's led and paid for by an eccentric female millionaire.

Part one of the book has Jessica explaining lots of cool science to us and siding with her Dad.

Part two of the book the ship slips out of the universe into Eternity where they meet Schroedinger's Camel, an Eastern mystic and send telepathic messages to loved ones (Mom recieves it, Dad doesn't) Jessica begins to side with Mom and brother Steve.

Part three, they land on Titan where they meet the Shantih Yogi Baba (Steve has given Jessica his photo to carry) and who has made his presence felt first as an Eastern Metatron.

They get home. It's all true.

Never before have I seen someone try to combine hard sf with hippy shit. It almost works.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Rejection of learning: Andrew Clements, Things Not Seen. New York: Puffin, 2002

It quickly becomes clear that this is not an sf book. Although Bobby Phillips wakes up to find himself invisible, and this is eventually tracked to his electric blanket, partly through the knowledge of his brilliant physicist father, these are all merely devices. The book is actually about social invisibility and Bobby uses his physical invisibility to lose his own feelings of inferiority to his brilliant parents by befriending Alicia, who woke up blind one day after a knock on the head.

All this is well and tedious, but what rendered me irate is the way Bobby despises the knowledge of his father and remains in that state even as he grows in confidence. I don't mind him not being interested in physics. I mind that even when he proves rather good at research and analysis, he does not ever connect that to the acquisition of long term (rather than one time) information. This book is ostensibly about Bobby growing into maturity but it is a very specific definition of maturity, one which is oriented to self and intimate relationships. It's outward trajectory is to a new inner self, not out to the world. By *my* values, at the very moment Bobby and others are acknowledging Bobby's growing adulthood, I want to shake him, tell him to grow up, and stop dissing the smart kids.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Laser Guns and Old Lace: Sean McMullen, Before the Storm. Ford Street Publishing, Hybrid Publishers: Melbourne, Victoria, AU. 2007.

Emily and Daniel are well brought up young people living in Melbourne in 1901. Emily is sixteen, Daniel is a little younger. But while Daniel chafes openly at the strictures of Australian Victorian society, his brighter older sister arms herself with rigid good manners and the arts of manipulation in an effort to open some kind of intellectual space for herself.

Into their lives drop BC and Fox, soldiers from the a future British Empire which is consuming itself and its children in total and almost continuous war. Their mission: prevent the opening of the new Australian Parliament from being destroyed by German terrorists, and starting the next world war.

McMullen offers a rich depiction of life in Victorian Melbourne, and nicely balances the need for plausibility of period with the development of character: Emily is well on her way to becoming one of Australia's early feminists, but this novel lets her stand as simply a determined young woman pushing at boundaries. The portrayal of social class and foreignness is also nicely done, and is an essential part of the plot, not simply background. McMullen demonstrates an interaction between the protagonists that is about skills and competence and weaves this too into an essential element of the plot.

Perhaps the most satisfying element of the plot is the time travel and Emily and Daniel's attempts to get it straight in their heads. Too many authors gloss over this or wave a magic wand to turn time travel into a portal fantasy. McMullen joins Sleator and James Valentine (see review of the Jumpman books) as one of the few modern writers of sf for teens who does not assume that his readers will be bored by science and philosophy.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Blue polytunnels, violet eyes: Lesley Howarth, Ultraviolet. Penguin: London, 2001.

In most ways an awfully good book. Violet lives in an underground compound protected from the worsening ozone levels by super-blue plastic invented by the company her father works for--is one of the chief scientists for. Most of the novel is about her every day life with her friends, unable to go out without risking their "rad count" and with it their acess to life's necessities. The way in which "advice" can turn into law and enforced compliance is very well played out, and particularly convincing are the friendships as each teen chafes in their own way about the restrictions. Much of the time they spend absorbed in a cypergame and part of the novel is about the ways in which that both is, and isn't satisfactory. I was particularly impressed by the writing itself which is simultaneously sparse and playful: the dialogue, more than anything else, gives the impression of people exhausted by heat.

What I should have remembered is that while Lesley Howarth is responsible for the brilliant Maphead (1994, alien father and son on earth looking for son's human mother, drink a cat milkshake while they wait for something to happen) she is also responsible for Mister Spaceman (1999), a metaphor book. So I regret to say that at the end of this rather splendid construction of a plausible future, it all turns out to be a cyberspace game.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Bleeding Edge: Malorie Blackman's Noughts and Crosses sequence (2001-2005).

I'm not sure what to do with these books: if I miss them out of the bibliography, or even the discussion, I'm going to get it in the neck because Malorie Blackman's series is one of the very few texts advertised as sf for younger readers by a Black woman.

The snag is that they aren't sf. They aren't even remotely science fiction. They barely even classify as allegory.

Noughts and Crosses (2001), Knife Edge (2004) and Checkmate (2005) are, when all is said and done, very straightforward, very well written stories of teens attempting to construct a life across an Apartheid divide. Noughts and Crosses is Romeo and Juliet, Knife Edge reminds me of Joan Lingard's 1970s Irish Protestant/Catholic sequence. Checkmate is a rather tense thriller.

I need to say the next bit, but before anyone's hackles go up, make sure you read the paragraph afterwards: in most ways it matters not one bit that the oppression of colour is reversed. Yes, there are nice asides about elastoplast only coming in brown, and Callie Rose (mixed race) having "lank hair" but almost all of the time these books simply replicate the situation in South Africa, although actually it's a country where the oppressed group is in the minority, and the immigration politics are those of the UK, which makes the role of the Nought Liberation Front a bit weird at times as they are acting like the ANC in a country where they represent the minority.

But there is one way in which the role reversal mattered enormously: it forced me to confront the casual "racism of assumptive vision" (someone give me a better term!) I found it enormously difficult to keep people's colour the right way round in my head. I have non-white step mom for heaven's sakes. My own siblings are the colour of cafe au lait. I work in one of the most multicultural universities in the UK. I live in an area where most of my neighbours are immigrants. And *still* unless I was careful I automatically "saw" the wealthy people in this book as white, and the poor as black.

If sf is fundamentally about cognitive estrangement, then despite everything else I said above, they are science fiction.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Leprous in Utopia: T. E. Berry-Hart, Escape from Geneopolis. London: Scholastic, 2007.

A well written dystopia that loses in interest as we move away from the city.

Arlo is a Natural living in a world of Citizens genetically engineered to feel no pain. He discovers he is a Natural just before he turns eleven years olf and at the same time as a new regent takes control of the city of Genopolis. Quite quickly he becomes the subject of conspiracy as the Regis seeks to control the city and the intellectual classes. Arlo is forced to run but is sent off with a book containing information about his birth and a map to the regions.

Usha is a Gemini. genetically engineered as a servant to work for a Citizen, she discovers that she is actually a clone of her mistress and is wanted for transplanted organs. She kills the surgeon and her mistress and runs.

The interesting material is all in the world building. Berry-Hart depicts well a socety that feels no pain and so, ironically, becomes susceptible to inury and infection. The collapsing economy of Genetopia is also well drawn and so are many of the poltiical conflicts.

Where the book falls down is that there are too many easy answers on the horizon: the Citizens will prove susceptible to emotion because proximity to a Natural provokes it (even if it is hatred), and while the book doesn't end in this volume you just know that the villains will die and there will be an emotional and emotive solution at the end--this is not a book in which, say, engineering will make a difference. The other problem is simply that this book is ongoing. Once Usha and Arlo start running, we lose the depth of the city and are into action adventure territory. It's written well, is reasonably excting but there is nothing new here, and very little reason for the adventure except to increase the pace--we know, after all, that neither main character will die.

Overall, a competent post-disaster story with an interesting dystopia, that falls into too many cliches of futuristic post-technological dystopias written for children. I've read a lot of them.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Gravity Wells and Flower Clocks: William Sleator, Marco's Millions and The Boxes

Marco's Millions. New York: Dutton Children's Books, Penguin, 2001.
The Boxes. New York: Duttons, Penguin, 1998.

(NB: these dates can't be correct as Marco's Millions comes first, but they are what I seem to have),

Marco's Millions
A science fantasy around time mathematics, but nothing terribly complicated.
Marco's sister is small, slight and frail, When she finds a time tunnel in the basement and dreams beckon her through, she sends her brave brother Marco instead, Marco is fascinated by distances and he discovers another world on the other side where bugs want him to travel on a mission for him to stop a black hole from collapsing. Although Marco's first three trips tell him that time runs faster on the other side, he doesn't get his calculations right and when he comes back after three weeks he discovers that the further in he went, the faster time has sped by. When he gets home his parents are dead, his sister is grown up but died in an accident leaving a small baby--Annie--and his youngest sister, always a pain in the neck, has become very unpleasant. He leaves on his travels and promises to check in on Annie.

The Boxes

Annie has grown up with Ruth, Marco's younger sister. Ruth is a stereoptypical lazy slob. Marco leaves Ruth two boxes and tells her not to open them. She does and one of the little bugs from Marco's Milions comes out The other turns out to hod a time clock--an organic mechanism. Annie and her friend Henry get caught up in the bugs' plans, in slow downs and speed ups, and that in turn becomes the object of desire of a construction company tryng to buy up the area.

The clock gets stolen, Annie and Henry get the bugs to ask for a slow down and get it back and Marco explains all. It starts well but this is not as good as most of Sleator's books: the science of time and gravity barely gets a look in and the explanation at the end is classic "I will now tell you who the murderer is."

In Between the Worlds: Joan Lennon, Questors. London: Puffin, 2007.

Three children are plucked from their every day lives and take to The House in London. They find it's a "house between the worlds", and each of them has grown up in one of the worlds, but their mother is actually an agent of the house, although they have three different fathers. The three discover they were genetically engineered for a quest to save the universe (don't groan, it isn't written like that at all, and the quest has been engineered as well) but unknown to them their genetic engineering has been tampered with. The quest sends them back to each world in turn to find an object of power, and on the way they learn to see their own worlds through the eyes of others: the six nostrilled dragon is a delight and I couldn't resist a world in which "feral" warfare has been rejected in favour of "domesticated" warfare shaped by experience with crop rotation.

Oh yes, and while Bryn is a boy, and Madlen a girl, Cam is an it. On its world gender happens at puberty. What's the point of having gender earlier......?

It's well written in parts with the occassional clunky line. If I had to link it to any other books I'd say that Joan Lennon has been reading Isaac Asimov The End of Eternity and Diana Wynne Jones's Tale of Time City. Lennon is inventive rather than imaginative and she is very good at delivering some quite profound scientific ideas in among the jokes.

Not too sure of the age range for this book--maybe early teens with a lot for adult readers.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Teaching Baby Science: Jostein Gaarder, Hello? Is Anybody There? . London: Orion 1996.

Translated by Sally Gardner.

One for the parents.

Narrator tells a little girl about how, when he was waiting for his baby brother to be born, an alien landed who looked just like a baby and who had to be taught all about Earth. Essentially, this is a marshmallowy, gooey book which is not even redeemed by the rather good science about evolution and speculation it tries to impart.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Survival the American Way: Susan Beth Pfeffer, Life as We Knew It. New York: Harcourt Inc., 2006.

In this post-disaster story the moon is hit by an asteroid and knocked off its course. This results in tsunamis. volcanoes and fallout winter.

All of this is seen through the diary of one sixteen year old girl, Lisa, whose mother manages to be super-competent. The theme of this book is Family Comes First. This is the handbook for the good familialist survivalist.

The moment things look bad Mom takes the kids shopping and pretty much clears the supermarket. There is lots of advice on what to buy in these eventualities--canned food and vitamins take precedence, rice didn't show up, but it's what I'd buy. Then they retreat to their house and ignore pretty much the whole world except their neighbour, an elderly lady. The rest of the book shows us the infrastructure breaking down--no church, the hospitals collapse etc. etc. And over and over again the message is not to tell anyone else that one has food, to hunker down, look after the family, and prioritise which child will survive. Up to a point this is plausible: America is an individualist society, but it is rather useful that they are never attacked and so never have to think in terms of communitarian defense, and even more useful that they don't know their neigbours so never have to think of a close neighbour in trouble, and the schools close so they don't see their friends getting hungrier and hungrier (with the exception of the evangelical Christian who chooses to starve to death). In fact, they don't lose anyone important in all of this: they all get flu but live. And although Mom's boyfriend dies--he is a doctor in the local hospital-- somehow, while he is spoken of as a hero what comes over is two things: first that Mom was right not to move him into the house and make him family, because that would have jeopardised their own survival, and second that somehow, he was a bit of a fool in not putting himself first. Pfeffer would be hurt about this last bit it's not what she intends, but it is the subliminal message because over and over again, altruism is punished (and I mean that literally as Lisa is told off for every kind action she makes that reaches beyond "blood").

And the big joke?

At the very end they are rescued by the government and government food aid. Think about that... someone, somewhere, was thining about the community, thinking beyond their family, thinking about others. Had everyone in the the USA behaved the way this family behaves, there wouldn't have been anyone riding to the rescue.

A couple of small things about the book: if Mom had brought the plants in to the solar room *before* they died it might have helped. And I was interested to see at casaubonblog in the entry, "The Revolution Will Not Be Blogged, Either" (Sunday June 10, 2007, this comment;

A recent Ohio educational study suggests that the average American 10th grader runs educationally behind the average Amish 15 year old - and the Amish kid left school two years before and no only doesn't have a computer in her classroom, she doesn't have electric lights. Poor adults in Kerala who get their news not by television or computer (don't have 'em) but by weekly newspaper are overwhelmingly better informed than average American adults, according to Bill McKibben. An political research firm in the Netherlands found that Brazilian 10 year olds in favelas had a slightly better understanding of globalization than middle class Americans with computers.

This book bears out this kind of lost literacy: although there are sweeping comments about other nations already being harmed, and some even destroyed, after the intial stocktaking these countries disappear from the mental map. New York and San Francisco remain constant, but otherwise the world has shrunk to the home town and the United States. There are no places either between or beyond. This is so extreme that when Mom is trying to explain why volcanoes are a threat even when far away, she struggles to do so without reference to the 1883 Krakatoa explosion--presumably the readers can't be expected either to know about it, or to care--it's not in the USA after all, it's not family

On the last note: I have to deliver the book by December. I will start writing again next week, and reading has begun already. From today I'll try to blog at least every second day.