Sunday, January 02, 2005

Norton, Cat’s Eye, (Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1961) Bertagna, Exodus (2002), McGann, The Gods and Their Machines, (2004).

Spoiler Alert: You should not be reading this blog if you don’t like spoilers

More on Oisin McGann this morning but this time to consider The Gods and Their Machines in the light of the subheading for this blog, “free range children”, and comparing it to a couple of other sf novels I really like.

I’m going to be distinguishing between classic juvenile science fiction--sf for teens before about 1980s—from YA science fiction (mostly written after that date because it’s around then that I see much of the social change taking place within sf marketed for children. For me, it’s that earlier fiction that, at its best, sets the gold standard, notably Robert A. Heinlein and Andre Norton. Both these names will crop up a lot here.

One of the characteristics of children’s fiction before the 1980s was the fictional delusion that the world out there was safe, give or take the odd villain or two. It’s this consensus that seems to have been ruptured by social realism. I don’t have a problem with this by the way, the issues I want to address later are more about a feeling that the wrong approach has been taken to dealing with this in much YA sf.

But there are always exceptions to this rule, and a pre-1980s author who was willing to introduce social realism into her novels, and still let her child protagonist roam free was Andre Norton. Cat’s Eye is a remarkably modern book.

In Cat’s Eye the protagonist is a child refugee in the middle of a very large planet. Since I first read Cat’s Eye I wrote a PhD on refugee relief work and Norton is spot on with the list of restrictions and double binds imposed on a settled refugee population: her hero Troy can only leave the camp if he has work. He can only get work if he has permits. He can only get permits if he can leave the camp and find someone to guarantee him work, The easiest way for him to get all this is illegally, and that means his employer is likely to be a criminal. …. Troy is incredibly vulnerable.

What is impressive about Cat’s Eye, is the way in which Norton makes the vulnerability of her protagonist an essential part of the cognitive estrangement of the novel and at the end of the novel refuses to make any compromises. A refugee can receive kindness and charity, but his very status means he cannot be granted security: that is something he can only find for himself. There are no adults to ride to the rescue, and at the end of the novel, he is left with his companions (telepathic animals) having moved away from the “safety” of the refugee camp but as yet unsure where he will be going. Norton rejects recursion, rejects the idea that wherever you come from is the best place to be, and embraces uncertainty and fear as the only route to a better future.

Julie Bertagna’s recent novel, Exodus has a similar if more communal strategy. Like The Gods and Their Machines this book is vulnerable to the label allegory, as it seeks to reverse our world view. Our protagonist is a refugee from a drowned British Island, who finds herself a boat person in a world of walled island-city states. Mara leaves her island, and during the journey is forced to abandon those she loves. Although some of her family will reappear, others won’t, and the places to whom they appeal for help prove ungenerous. Like Norton, Bertagna offers no quarter. The world out there is scary, and sometimes there isn’t a home to go to.

Oisin McGann’s The Gods and Their Machines is superficially the least threatening of the novels I’ve just outlined. On the surface there is recursion. Both Chamus and Riadni get to go home, but a closer look reveals that their home is no longer the same place; Chamus has discovered that evil wears a loving face—somebody’s father, somebody’s son. Riadni may be in an even worse position: the thing she wants most (freedom for her people) might only be secured through morally repugnant strategies. Both children have learned the same lessons that Bertgana and Norton’s protagonists learn, but McGann’s novel is closer to horror in that it domesticises the fear.

But scary doesn’t mean pessimistic, and this is where I think some of my comments elsewhere have been misunderstood. It isn’t that I think science fiction has to be downbeat, but that that we need to consider where the pessimism or the optimism is located. In all three of these books, the world is in a terrible shape, but the authors have absolutely faith that the human being is essentially ingenious. Over and over again in these books, children are shown to be smart, clever and to survive.

My next post will be on a book which utterly betrays this idea. It is relentlessly optimistic about the world, but appallingly pessimistic about the humans who inhabit it.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am hoping you will share your story.
fruit of kindness

6:44 PM  

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