Friday, January 28, 2005

The Future on the Toss of a Coin: Wendy Orr, A Light In Space (Toronto, New York: Annick Press, 1994), illustrated by Ruth Ohi.

Wendy Orr's A Light In Space is one of the better children's sf stories from the 1990s. Unlike many of the others I've looked at in the past year, it achieves what I think are some of the basic requirements of science fiction: the novum and cognitive estrangement.

A Light In Space begins with Ysdran, a space explorer, approaching a planet overflowing with hydrogen and oxygen. This is a bit like humans finding a planet made of gold. Ysdran's instruments blow up in the face of this largesse (it is never clear whether this is a chemical reaction to water, or a cognitive overload) , but she does manage to fly through the atmosphere and "spook" an eleven year old boy, Andrew. Then she decides to head home, without instrumentation and flying "blind" (but in fact by sight) all the way--there are some very nice descriptions of this. She leaves behind, however, a mental link with Andrew.

Andrew runs home gibbering where his parents think he is having a nervous breakdown and haul him off to a psychiastrist, who seems even more obtuse than such fictional representations usually are. Overnight Ysdran gets in touch with him and starts teaching him telekinesis.

Over the next week, Andrew gets more powerful, and we learn a lot more about Ysdran. She has a companion, Caneesh, she comes from a world where telepathy is the only way to communicate but fills the air, and where ownership of oxygen and hydrogen confers status. Because we can see the story fro Ysdran's point of view as well as Andrew's, we learn faster than Andrew that Ysdran is on an expedition of conquest. Orr also--rather cleverly--uses Ysdran's viewpoint to show the corruption of Andrew.

In fact throughout, what makes this book exceptional among children's sf, is that it is not humanocentric. I don't think I've come across another book yet in which the alien was both obviously alien (Ysdran looks like a jellyfish with tentacles and has a very different set of values) and the viewpoint character. Orr exploits this. Ysdran's people are born amorphous and shrink into maturity, eventually shrivelling up. Ysdran's attempt to get an explanation of human reproduction out of a deeply embarrassed pre-teen is very funny.

Eventually, Andrew figures out the score--there are some nice comparisons here with the way he trains his dog and the way Ysdran has been training him. This is where the book rather falls apart. In the original article I wrote, I suggest that we can use John Clute's construction of Full Fantasy (WRONGNESS, THINNING, RECOGNITION, HEALING), and reconfigure it to something we can call Full Science Fiction: DISSONANCE, RUPTURE, RESOLUTION, CONSEQUENCE.

A Light in Space has the first two, and it does have a resolution, Ysdran eventually agrees to leave the Earth alone. The problem (for me) is that she appears to do so out of sentiment for Andrew.

We are back here to that issue of suspension of disbelief.

If we read this book as a social novel, in which the issue of emotional development is at stake, then it is a satisfactory book. Through various occurances Andrew learns that he has no right to control others. Ysdran, having met a potential slave face to face, has learned to question the humanity of her species. It's all very plausible.

But in sf terms, it doesn't feel plausible at all.

The Resolution is one based in feelings, not in all the politics of Ysdran's home planet that we've learned about. We know that she can't be pumped dry for information--that is forbidden--but she is still going to have to provide an explanation. We know her planet has a lot of explorers. What one has done, another might do again (Orr has hedged the culture with lots of rules about there being nothing left to explore, but sf readers know that this kind of rule always falls). And the way in which this is written, in which Ysdran bets Caneesh that Andrew can be persuaded to surrender his planet is extremely ineffective: it actually took me three reads to work out what had happened because I couldn't make sense of it. One moment Ysdran is using a neural whip, the next she announces, “You’ve won, I’ve lost; you've got the world, I’ve got a spaceship with no instrument panel.” (187) I think Orr realised this because she writes Andrew as rather surprised, but it doesn't make it any more convincing.

And then there is the issue of consequence. There isn't any. Again, there is the matter of personal growth, but that makes the entire story read as a parable--it reminds me of someone who once told me in the middle of a crisis that I'd value the learning experience once day. At the end of this book Ysdran goes back to being a junior explorer, and Andrew goes back to his school life. Neither worlds are changed. Ysdran doesn't even go back as a revolutionary.

This return to the status quo is common in children's fiction--Maria Nikolajeva calls it recursion. Adventures are closed off and we all go back home to a supper of ham, tomatoes and lashings of ginger beer. The problem, is that modern science fiction pretty much demands consequences: at the end of the story something about the world should have changed.


Blogger Wendy Orr said...

Hi Farah,
I just wanted to thank you for the depth of analysis in this critique - as you know, it's ten years since I wrote the book, and it was fascinating to revisit it now..Of course I enjoyed the nice things you said but it was your criticism that touched a real chord - how I wish you'd read the ms before it was published!

Wendy Orr

1:52 PM  

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