Monday, February 28, 2005

Bravery in the Snow: Troon Harrison, Eye of the Wolf (Markham, Ontario: Fitzhenry % Whiteside, 2003)

rFirst of all, ignore the truly terrible first paragraph which is unnecessary, gives far too much away, is markwish and contains several glaring obvious grammatical mistakes.

That apart, Troon Harrison’s Eye of the Wolf is about a million times better than the first few chapters imply.

In northern Canada Chandra lives in a village hemmed in by ice and snow. The Ice Age has come and Canada and other northern latitudes are dependent on food Aid.

Chandra’s mother—once an artist—makes a living as the Food Distributor. Chandra is an animal keeper apprentice, helping with the breeding programme to maintain the caribou. Chandra herself is training to join the Spirit Walkers, a First Nations type spirit group which seems to specialise in Martial Arts. This was one reason why I was slightly dreading this book.

Then Chandra’s mother is kidnapped south, to pain murals for an eminent member of a Southern government and Chandra heads in search. From here on in Harrison does a really excellent job of showing what it is like for an illegal immigrant—demonstrating the degree to which it is the illegality that creates the network of criminality around immigration. Once in the south Chandra is assisted by Canadian refugees, who are themselves having a very hard time of it. In helping Chandra they risk everything.

Chandra finds her mother but overhears a plan to “eliminate” 92% of the Northern population. She makes the decision to leave her mother behind and try to get back to the North. With the help of her refugee friends she finds the bio-father she never met at a methane station, and he helps her to reach the Canadian corporate government although by the time she does, the deaths have begun—a mystery virus which Chandra has worked out is passed in the food.

[maybe I’m wrong but that bit sounded bizarre—a virus via food?]

Chandra returns a hero.

Two value addeds; although Chandra’s mother is white with red hair, her father is First Nations. And this seems to be a poly community in which there are bio fathers, sugar-friends and promise fathers of whom the most important and permanent are promise fathers, who promise to share in the upbringing of a child, and to take over if the mother is incapicated. Without two promise parents, women can’t get permission to have a child.

This book got so much better as it went on: its extrapolation of a retreating society worked well, it didn’t fall into the trap of so many post-disaster novels of children of becoming a Tale of Warning, and it balanced the empowerment of a child with that child’s need for adult intervention very nicely. Chandra works things out, although all the real science takes place off stage.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Fredericton Bibliography

You'll find a bibliography at This is a complete list of everything I've read in Fredericton. However, although I split my notes into archive files, I completely forgot to key the list. There are a couple of books there that I own, but most of them are either from UNB or from Fredericton public library.

I'll update this every thirty books or so. The version that goes into the book will be grouped by ideas/topics/level of interest and annotated.

How to Teach Science

My last blog post from UNB archives: I never really did get the time to read much science education, it will have to wait until my next chunk of research time, which will be this summer, but I came across two interesting books that I’ll talk about briefly here, because they are yet more food for thought.

One of the big disputes in education is “the child must be taught” (“behaviourism”) versus “the child must experiment and find out for themselves” (“constructivism”). The first approach tends to be thought of as conservative, the second is associated with liberals.

I hereby out myself as a liberal in all ways but education. I was firmly on the constructivist side of the debate until 1992 when I taught some Japanese students: yes, they were very shy, not used to expressing their opinions, unsure about the experimental approach. And then they got the hang of it, and these students—who were with us because they weren’t considered smart enough for university places at home—streaked ahead of my UK students. The reason was stunningly obvious; they had something to think about.

Reading The Young Child as Scientist (Christine Chaille and Lory Britain, 1997) I can’t help by being struck by the authors’ faith that by experimenting children learn things. Now, I don’t wholly disagree with them. They state:

1. Young children are theory builders
2. Young children need to build a foundation of physical knowledge
3. As they mature, young children become increasingly autonomous and independent, both intellectually and morally. (5)

All good so far. I also agree when they say that education can foster children’s dependence, rather than their independence, arguing against the “blind adherence to arbitrary rules”.
Then they go on to give various examples of young children exploring their surroundings, but they make huge assumptions about what it is children learn when they observe, so that a child observing a pendulum, learned about pendulum arcs.
Finally, they argue that if a child sees something they don’t understand, they should be encouraged to work it out, so children finding a skeleton of a dog should be asked, “How do we work out what this is?” rather than told it’s the skeleton of a dog.

now for my thoughts on this

First, they don’t distinguish between requiring adherence to blind and arbitrary rules with requiring adherence to explained, rational rules (as a child of a mother who was both simultaneously much stricter than the other parents, but whose rules were also utterly different and always explained, I’m sensitive to this one).

Second, they assume that a child who observes and makes a judgement about object a) can extrapolate into a general theory. I suspect that if the child was asked what she had learned, she would report not the theory of pendulum arcs, but that this piece of equipment could only behave in a particular way--small children rarely make generalisations. It is also quite likely that while she could describe what she saw, she couldn’t explain it. We saw this in the experiment I think I reported on a while back: children were asked what happened if you kept water boiling. Many of them explained “it gets hotter”. It makes perfect sense.

Third, the open ended, non-directive questioning these authors are asking for ignores what we know about the accumulation of knowledge in the world: scientists stand on the soldiers of giants. Children get ‘aback’ (a Cheshire term) of their parents. While it might be very interesting to force a child to work out why a skeleton is that of a dog, surely they will get just as much out of being told it is the skeleton of a dog and then being encouraged to compare it with other skeletons. To lead children through every stage to recapitulate what we already know strikes me as unnecessarily laborious. These authors are mistaking a “given” answer for a ”closed” answer. This is why my Japanese students could do so well: they had the knowledge there, and when asked to try a new skill, had lots of material to test it against.

The authors have also forgotten that while experimentation is one of the primary means children learn, so too is mimicry (think sushi chefs, or little sea otters watching their mums crack shellfish with a pet-rock).

When the authors go onto curriculum development—and I didn’t read too far, this is a book I’ll need to order later—one couldn’t help but notice that they never suggest when exactly it is ok for the teacher to just give an answer. As I have observed before, science is not precisely a straight line of logic. If a child gets an interesting but wrong result through the scientific method, what is the teacher to do?

Oh, and one last comment before I move on: many years ago I used to baby sit a little boy whose mother was a firm believer in constructivism. She used to tell me off when I pulled her little boy away from the mains socket into which he would try to poke his fingers. I’ve always wondered if he made it to adulthood.

The other book I found is by Stephen P. Kramer, How to Think Like a Scientist: Answering Questions by the Scientific Method (New York: Thomas Y Cromwell, 1979). To begin with, this book is written for children, not for adults. It straddles the divide between the constructivist and the behaviourist approaches, in that it encourages experimentation, but and this is crucial, it explains the difference between simple observation, and the process by which scientists turn observation into method, so it shows why some observations are simply untested superstition. It leads readers through why the set of facts reported by two people can lead to two different conclusions. It says to children, that if they think an adult has something wrong, they should think about why this might be the case, and ask the questions and make the challenges that could reveal this; the book shows how to develop scientific questions, and warns, “often it is easier to find an answer we like than an answer that is correct” (16). There is a superb section—centered on how to get chickens to lay more eggs—that introduces the children to the idea of control groups, of variables, and staged experiments, And the book concludes by explaining that part of research is communicating, allowing others to test your results, and it involves reading what other people have written and working with the knowledge others offer—“It also gives them ideas about new things to study”. What this book makes very clear is that science is not a “pure” process, it is not entirely constructivist and cannot be taught that way, and that there is no reason to deny knowledge to children in the interests of stimulating enquiry: children can get just as excited building on knowledge given them, as they can about an unexplained sand pit.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Transgendered lit

I've just been asked by someone on LJ to explain what I mean by a transgendered genre. Below is what I wrote. It's awfully muddled, and I hope to sort it out by March 6th when I'm giving a paper on this. Question: do people want me to post the paper? I do intend to write this one.


"Transgendered fiction" ok, this is tentative, but all the comments I;m reading in the child development literature define maturity in terms of empathy. Animal behaviourists define maturity in terms of the closing down of curiousity. What I am interested in is the reading choices of the 10-15 yr old age group. This is the age at wich the child development literature emphaises children looking to problem books, to developing emotional outreach etc, etc, and wanting books that are relevant to them.

All the questionnaires that I have skimmed so far (too many to tackle until I'm home) are saying that they were interested in other things and people, ideas not emotions, objects not relationhips. If you go back to the child development literature this is identified as immature, and more common among science related children.

And it becomes a gender issue because it is associated with boys. So what we are looking at is a bunch of children who have *are*reading, which is mostly identified as a female activity, but have developed a "male" reading protocol.

And I'm still trying to figure out what all this means and how it manifests and how I can demonstrate it.


Movements and research report

I'll be leaving Fredericton on Monday, and from then on will be posting probably every second day, partially because I'll be moving around a lot, but also because I'm taking with me only one children's book for each day, and experience has taught me that only about half of them will be worth blogging

I've found over 70 titles I didn't know existed, and have leads for another twenty. This has been a very successful trip. Yesterday I gave a paper at the Eileen Wallace Collection, and discovered that Eileen Wallace is actually alive and rather wonderful. She told me living in a small town that didn't actually have a library until the 1960s, and her joy in discovering Alice in Wonderland when she was in college.

I'm starting to think about structure and I'm wondering whether, instead of six long chapters which knit together all my ideas on cognition, child development, nationality, reading protocols etc., I wouldn't be better off with twelve (or so) shourt chapters which take these things separately. The idea would be to start each one of the chapters with one of the truisms or generalisations we've disputed, and then to dispute them so that one chapter might be headed: "Children under the age of twelve lack the cognitive ability to read science fiction" or "The Genre Protocols of Sf are learned as one ages and becomes more experienced in the genre: hence all sf for children should aim to sound like it was written in 1950s"and would then argue it, using both the cog dev material, or the linguistic development material and the science fiction.

Feedback would be appreciated.

Neo-Heinleins: D. S.Halacy

D. S. Halacy Rocket Rescue New York W. W Norton 1968
D. S. Halacy Return from Luna New York W. W Norton 1969

Both of these are “career” books.

In Rocket Rescue, Grant Stone loses out by a mere two percentage points on his chance to join the Space Service, and is sent instead to Rocket Rescue while his twin brother is sent into the SS.

Rocket Rescue is popularly known as the Fire Service and hasn’t accomplished a rescue in its fifteen years. It has trouble getting appropriations and its equipment is dated.

Half way through the novel as Grant is becoming accustomed to his fate, an experimental X-ship is damaged by solar flares and a team, including Grant, is sent to the rescue. Grant is chosen because there is evidence he can communicate telepathically with his brother—this is handled poorly, the emergency communication we see implies a lot more confidence in its success than has actually been reported either by parapsyologists or the twins.

Grant and his team manage to rescue half the ships crew, and his boss rides the X-ship into the sun where its anti-matter engine can be safely destroyed. The service gets the money it needs, Grant and his brother Lee with live the rest of their lives under pseudonyms. And Grant gets his place in the Space Service with the implication that he only ended up in Rocket Rescue because they wanted to keep him away from his brother.

The one really touching scene is where Grant’s friend, Harry Harrison (short and red-headed) dies after a mission.


In Return from Luna, Rob Stevens is rejected from the military draft because of a hitherto unsuspected heart murmur. Faced with the Peace Corps he accepts an offer from his Physics professor to go instead to the Lunar Station.

There is a lot of infodump in the beginning of the novel. Halacy seems uncomfortable with the idea that he is, in effect, writing an alternative present.

Part way into the trip. The cold war goes hot, and a small Asian nation bombs the US. Nuclear war breaks out. Interestingly, the book has mentioned that the draft would probably have sent Rob to Asia, and doesn’t come over all injured about the attack, even while it doesn’t come right out and say “the US deserved it”.

Trapped on the moon, Rob’s Professor Munson becomes so unhappy with nuclear power that he destroys one of the reactors and spends the rest of the novel in solitary, until he escapes to commit suicide (he is left where he is found, lying on his back, gazing at the earth.

The Moon techs send home the women and four others and settle down to surviving: there is some really good make do and mend engineering described here (much as Rocket Rescue celebrates tinkerers). Rob helps design and sustain a solar generator which helps provide oxygen, develops a vegetable garden which fails through another’s mistake but, in true Heinlein style, the garden is there to accept the seeds provided by the Russians who, when their moon base is contacted, turn out to have solved the food problem (they even have pigs and chickens) but not to have solved the oxygen problem.

When they are rescued, it is to return to a damaged earth, but knowing that they may have created a moon base that could genuinely sustain itself.

One thing I spotted in this book that few adult writers of colonisation novels remember: that the Old World kept the US colonies alive with re-supply for many generations before they became self-sufficient.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

University of New Brunswick, Saint John (Yesterday)

Apologies for my absence on Wednesday, I went over to Saint John (a town settled by Loyalists escaping the terror of the American Republicans) to give a paper on children's literature. It's very strange giving a paper when this embedded in research. My brain still feels a lot like a chemistry experiment: ideas bond, divide in disgust, bond on other lines and are generally still pretty confused about which argument-molecules they wish to become. Mostly, I discussed the questions I was trying to ask, and how I was hoping to ask them. My audience didn't fall asleep.

There is a very kind report on the event posted by Scribblingwoman.

A proper little thought experiment: Sandy Landsman, The Gadget Factor (New York: Atheneum, 1984)

Michael Goldman is a thirteen year old Freshman at Franklin college. Roomed with older, but still precocious, Worm, he is introduced by Worm to computer gaming. With Michael’s math skills and Worm’s interest in computers they realise they can build their own game and they become fascinated with producing a total universe simulation. “Playing” it, Worm becomes entropy, while Michael is G-d.

As the game moves on Michael realises he is losing. As Worm injects technology Michael injects morals and philosophy and the beings still keep blowing each other up. In a desperate attempt to help them out, he uses some suggestions he has seen in a science magazine to invent time travel, and then realises that if his universe parallels the real one, he may have solved the time travel problem for real.

He finds the author of the original equations, Dr. Terry Miller, in Ohio, and is gratified that he is being treated as an equal, but when they model the full set of equations on his game programme, they see life die. What seems to be happening is that the beings are dumping their toxic waste in the future and mining the past for resources. Eventually this ends up removing the means by which life was generated and everything collapses and never was.

Michael wants not to publish, but despite Terry’s assurances, he announces he is going to give an important paper at a conference in Chicago. Michael (with Worm now in tow) races after him. Worm manages to change some of the equations in the paper (Terry is not good at algebra) but Terry manages to work through the changes. In desperation, Michael turns to Worm and asks for possible challenges. Worm runs through a list and hits on anti-matter. Michael packs him off to the library to get an article on it and prepares to ask his question. Worm arrives just in time and Michael challenges Terry to add anti-matter into the equation. Terry does and the model falls.

What has happened, Michael explains later, is that he originally had three equations in his model. On the way to Ohio he had reduced them for two “for elegance” forgetting why he had three in the first place, and Terry Miller had only seen the two.

One of the reasons this book is so good is its characterisation: both Worm and Michael are super-bright, but they are super-bright in very different ways. For Worm, the game is never more than a game which he desperately wants to win. And when he has won he’d like to play it again. When Michael needs his help, he needs to convince Worm that this is another aspect of the game. For Michael the game was only ever a model, to see if the things he was fascinated by could be modelled mathematically. Although he wants to win, it’s much more tied up with his maths. Playing the game again is only interesting if he can test new ideas each time.

At the end the great idea is buried, but Michael is very clear in his understanding that this is not for ever. Someone else in the audience that day will be inspired to take up the research. The moment will come, all he can do is hope that the models of human behaviour will look rather different by that time.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

What the Crab Saw: Margaret Bechard, The Star Hatchling (New York: Viking 1995).

I had a feeling I might be in luck when I read the back flap of this book:

Margaret Bechard says: “When my son finished reading this book he said. ’Mom, my teacher says you’re supposed to write what you know.’
“’Oh yeah,’ I said. ‘Teachers told me that, too. What about it?’”

Basic story: boy meets alien when alien crash lands.
Expected twist: the “boy” has claws and the “alien” is human.
Semi-expected twist: the “boy” lives in a matriarchal culture in which males are the gatherers and carers; the girl has pretty much ignored all the survival lessons she was ever given and now has to dredge up what little she knows from her hindbrain.

Main plot: children learn to communicate, human child gets off planet where her emergency pod has stranded her.
Sub plot: the Indigenes are experiencing a population crash.

And of course it’s all in the execution.

If you are a fan of Karen Traviss's City of Pearl then the best way to imagine this story is Shan Franklind meets Arras when both are just on the edge of puberty. The two children never really learn to communicate fluently, but they do get some of the basics across once they stop treating each other like pets, or at least enough to make sense within each species’ cultural framework—and Bechard does a really good job of showing how muddled the result is. Shem (the alien “boy”) has a sister, Cheko, and Bechard uses Cheko to show how cultural arrogance can explain away any indications of sentience.

In the process of getting Hanna (the human girl) to the Clearing where a great meeting is taking place, all three of them acquire mutual respect—Cheko stops thinking all males are dumb, and finally Hanna gets to go home, rescued by the ship’s doctor who has come looking for her.

And no one solves the population crash.

This is where it really gets interesting and what lifts Bechard’s book head and shoulders above so many of the books I’ve read this past two months. In the course of the adventure, we learn a lot about how the People live in Territories, one territory per family, and protect them ferociously. We learn that the Families are endogamous, and when Shem meets Mika, a female from another—hostile—family, Cheko is less than amused, she has regarded Shem as her property. In the Gathering, the Families, mix, briefly, and Shem asks whether it was true that once families lived together. His Grandmother replies in the affirmative, and the book ends with his grandmother looking at Mika and introducing them to an old, forgotten word, “Friend” am Outsider who is like Family.

A bright, thoughtful kid should be able to read what this book never actually says: exogamy is good. Keep mixing,

Monday, February 21, 2005

Warning: A very long post. Jill Paton Walsh, The Green Book (Basingstoke: MacMillan, 1981). Later republished as Shine.

One of the things I’ve said in the course of this blog is that few of the authors seem to have much awareness of science fiction as a complex form: most of the books are very linear, they support only one reading, and there is little in the way of subtext. I very much want to talk about the language of science fiction for the young, but most of what I’ve read doesn’t support much in the way of interesting discussion. The Green Book is very different.

Jill Paton Walsh doesn’t, as far as I know, have a reputation as an sf writer, but I’ve read quite a bit of her work over the years, and I was utterly delighted to find that when she set out to write sf, she didn’t assume that she had to dumb down her own writing. The Green Book is a real find, one of the best books for kids I’ve found, and easily the best book for the pre-teen category.

At the beginning of The Green Book someone starts off, “Father said, ‘We can take very little with us.’” And we open up into the rushed preparations of a small group of people about to leave the earth forever. A very simple description of this book is that they colonise, find the planet inhospitable, find aliens, discover they should have brought a more thoughtful range of books, and eventually find a crop that will grow, but as ever with sf, the point is how Walsh writes this, and as ever with sf for children, how she writes the children.

Although there are implausibilities in the book, they are all of the sf-handwaving type. When the corn grows, tainted by the new planet, it’s tough to believe that it really does turn out to be safe, and the problem of the failure of the vegetable crop is never really discussed as a long term issue, but I’ll accept these because they are precisely the kind of cheats that sf writers make. To go back to a much earlier topic, they are symptom of a belief in one’s world, not a disbelief.

The book is made plausible by the absolute confidence Walsh has in both people’s abilities and their shortcomings.

The first part of the book talks about what the humans take and the constraints on them—this is probably one of the best colonisation novels I’ve ever read in terms of the care it takes thinking through necessary population densities, and also considering just how much rests on everything going right. All of this is an ongoing theme. Walsh doesn’t drop in information and then abandon it. The Father takes with him Intermediate Technology which turns out to be both a commonsense choice—much more useful in many ways than the people experts who go—but also a choice that is rooted in social politics. Much later, Father explains that on earth he was just manual labour, and here he was seen as population fodder, but that his stewardship of this book will make him and his children very important.

In turn, Father’s actions are determined by the exchange systems that start to emerge. While everything goes well, co-operation is the theme, but the moment a shortage appears (of books) coercive barter rears its ugly head. Father—who still refuses to share his book—puts in a great deal of manual labour to secure two hours with the Illiad.

Elsewhere, the children experience what it is to be children in an agricultural society. All the children work, even if it is just clearing stones. They have their own concerns: meetings take place out of sight and the children just vaguely know they are happening. They develop their own concerns, and slowly, we see that the children are adapting to the planet better than the parents. And here is where one of the “twice read” clues come in. If you read the book carefully, and think about how the narrator perceived the planet and what s/he remembers of Earth and identifies as different, Walsh gives you enough clues to work out who the narrator is, even though s/he includes herself as one of the people s/he describes in the third person (actually, at some point one ought to notice that we seem to be a child “short” except that Walsh manipulates the convention of the omnisicient narrator to manipulate us).

Over the course of the book, Walsh also shows us the way difference means doing things differently. If a tree grows outward in long poles (like fasces) then the consequence is that it will be hard to chop down but easy to split. She is prepared to leave interesting loose ends for the colonists to come back to later: the children find glass in the sand after fires have been laid, but the adults are in too much of a hurry to do the things that need to be done. It will be the next generation that explores this.

Frequently it is the increased leisure time of children that leads to discovery, just as it is frequently leisure that permits science in our world. It is the children who discover that the boulders are moth-cocoons, who have already discovered candy sugar trees with which they make friends with the moths, and who learn how to communicate with the moths—something Walsh never once confuses with “conversation”. It is also the children who take risks because it is their sense of danger which is muted enough for the leap, so that when the risk is finally taken to eat the corn which has grown crystalline, it’s a child who does it. In some ways, The Green Book is an argument that far from keeping children away from danger, their willingness to take risks is what helps the species to survive.

When the book ends, with the first of the corn harvests and the knowledge it can survive, it also ends with the revelation that what we have been reading is what the youngest child, Pattie, has been writing in the green commonplace book she brought with us. Although the colonists—thanks to their failure to co-operate over what literature they brought with them to the new world—have lost Earth’s culture, they are reminded by Pattie that culture is a future thing, not just a thing of the past.

Re-reading the book (the first of all the books I’ve looked at this semester where I just plain couldn’t help myself) I realised what an incredible job Walsh had done. I’ll only mention one example: Pattie is laying out a picnic. “Pattie liked playing fathers.” (82) And I completely missed the fact that this sentence had to be written by a small child who had never been on a picnic with her mother or seen anyone else go on a picnic with their mother, which means it had to be written by the youngest child. Every time you are given information in this book, Walsh has thought very carefully about what Pattie might know.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Cloning Australian Sheep: Alfred Slote, Clone Catcher New York (J. P. Lippincote, 1982).

One of the things that distinguishes this novel is that it is structured around a recognised genre plot drawn from adult literature: the treasure hunt/crime novel of the Private Eye. The tone is consequent upon this, a hard boiled detective novel with a sense of humour that comes from te incongruity of a hard boiled detective in a paternalistic industrial community.

In a world in which the rich grow clones to ensure they have a supply of transplants, Alfred Dunn is a clone catcher, for in this world, the only way to end up with healthy organs is to bring the clones up as people, taking as long as people to grow. Most are kept in compounds until their bodies are needed. Some escape.

Alfred Dunn is called into find Lady Kate Montague's clone. Unlike most clones she has been allowed to grow up outside the compound, and until the age of 16 had not known she was a clone without rights. Later, she had gone onto be an actress on the stage, like her progenitor.

When Lady Kate needs the body parts, Mary disappears, the night after she gives her final performance and had agreed to return to be Lady Kate's supply of body parts.

Eventually, Dunn works out that Lady Kate is dead-she died of natural causes on the way home-and that Mary has taken her place. But along the way we have seen a clone revolt in the Montagu compound, and been exposed to the politics of the anti-clone movement.

The novel ends with Dunn marrying the anti-cloning movement nurse Alice and returning to live on one of the Montagu farms. Lord Montagu gives his business over to his clone while his son (who has both helped solve the mystery and help bring it to a politically satisfactory end) can retire to sheep farming and books (one of the things I like best is that this shy, quiet, un-driven man appears in the end as the sharpest cookie in the book).

What I don't like is the assumption that clones, with very different life experiences, will be identical in personality with their progenitors, even to the point of falling in love with the clones of their progenitor's lover.

But this remains one of the best of the books I've read. At the end it opens out and the results of the adventure have an affect on the world, nothing remains unchanged and there is a very strong sense that resolving the initial problem--the slavery and butchery of the Montagu's clones--as wider ramifications. You can compare this to Nancy Farmer's The House of the Scorpion, a stylistically better book, but one in which there are very few consequences beyond the personal.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Where am I in the Future?

I'm not blogging a book today because I feel lousy. If you follow my LJ you'll know I have gluten intolerance, and took a stupid risk last week. This was compounded by someone else's mistake on Monday, and I am now in what I think of as "second stage". The stomach and joints have calmed down, but the brain cells (which worked just fine when I was in real pain) function only at the most primitive level. I have a book I really want to blog about, and which I'll blog about tomorrow, but right now I can't think of how I want to say what I want to say, and when I try, I get a wave of lethargy.

But all of the above does have a point in this discussion.

We read a fiction that more and more tries to embrace the diversity of the universe. If I had a student who wanted a book relevant to them, I could find them something that related to their colour, their sexuality, their profession, their nationality or their religion.

But where in the stars are the books about people with disabilities? I don't mean war-veterans who have lost limbs, I can think of a few of those, but just the day to day issues of living with deafness, or blindness, or a food intolerance, or diabetes etc. Again, I can think of books in which these issues are "the" issue (Varley's "The Persistence of Vision" is probably the best, followed by Heinlein's Waldo) or in which they are the background (how you treat diabetes when the pharmaceutical industry breaks down crops up a lot in post-disaster novels these days).

What I can't think of is a book in which someone gets on with their lives in the future living with a disability which is simply part of their character and not somehow integral to a gee-whizz bit of plottery.

I'm off to Boskone this weekend so whether I post will depend on whether the hotel has wi-fi. They've put me to moderate a panel which starts with a quote from this page. This is the moment I always want to say "But I believed that *last* month. I'm not sure I believe it any more...".

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Does Sf require the extra-textual experience? 2041 ed. by Jane Yolen (New York: Delacourte Press, 1991)

Reading a lot of novels it's often hard to see the patterns--it's going to require me to stand back from my notes--but an anthology wears its pattern on its sleeve, or at least on the contents page. Jane Yolen's anthology 2041 has if not crystalised some thoughts, at least got them lining up against each other.

2041 Does not say it's for the young, but all the stories have teen protagonists,and Yolen's own YA credentials are flaunted on the back cover.

We are so used to thinking that one of the many hearts of science fiction is story and adventure, but reading the sf selected for the young--as opposed to that written for the young--I am struck by how many of the short stories and the novels are episodes in a life. This might be what gives them the feeling of open-ness, of consequence, missing from the purpose writ YA sf.

Let's take a look at this anthology to see what I mean.

A small number of the stories are sf by grace and favour: what I mean by this is that they may be set in the future, in a changed world, but it truly doesn't really matter. In this category are: "A Quiet One" by Anne McCaffrey in which a girl wins the right to train horses in a world where there aren't many left; "Moby James" by Patricia McKillip in which a boy compares his now teenage elder brother to the White Whale, and "Free Day" by Peg Kerr, where a girl in a war torn world goes to visit an elderly woman who turns out to be her grandmother.

What struck me about these stories were three things.
i) as I've already mentioned there is no need for them to be in the future: the first story could be in a stable anywhere, the second the only "futuristic" item is a viewer instead of a book and in the third, apart from the food shortage, the story could be set in any inner city.

ii) and I think in direct relationship to this, each of these three stories is about personal growth, not in terms of learning about one's own society and how to operate within it, but entirely and absolutely about one's feelings towards another.

iii) and also I think as a direct correlation, these are the three stories with the most absolute endings. Having reached that moment of inner recognition, there is a small moment of celebration and the sense of an ending. The "issue" has been resolved, and there is nothing left to jog the reader's mind into an extra-textual experience.

Now to turn quickly to the other stories. Notice how one of the things they (almost) all have in common) is the sense of being part of a larger story, just a moment in a life lived in the future.

Connie Willls "Much Ado About [Censored]"--two school friends help a teacher to prepare a Shakespeare text, sorting through all the litigation and protests directed at the material. At the end, one of the protesters is seen defacing her own poster, because someone has protested against it. She rails at her friends about the loss of free speech.

Nancy Springer, "Who's Gonna Rock Us Home"- a kid runs away from home to play guitar in a world too drugged to enjoy music. His Dad rescues him. But the joyous moment is not the realisation that his Dad loves him really, but Dad's decision to cut back on the drugs, to try and change the world around him.

Carol Farley, "Lose Now, Pay Later". One day free candy is available at the mall. It's so delicious that weight obsessed teens can't resist it. Then stores open up offering to take your excess pounds for 25c a pound. Only a small boy thinks there might be a catch--maybe someone is farming humans?

Joe Haldeman, "If I had the Wings of an Angel"--a girl's last flight before she becomes too heavy for the equipment. Elegiac.

Kara Dalkey, "You Want it When" -- a very funny story in which a young woman intern subverts a facsimile machine and enables it to time travel documents.

Jane Yolen, "Ear"--young people plug directly into sound, everyone else is deaf.

Resa Nelson and David Alexander Smith, "The Last Out"-- sorry, someone who understands baseball needs to explain this one to me.

Susan Shwartz, "Beggarman"--a good exploration of what it might be like to be born in a space habitat, but not fit in.

Bruce Colville, "Old Glory", a boy arranges for his grandfather's arrest in a police state.

In each of these stories, any issue of personal growth is tied directly to the condition of the world in which the children live. Unlike the first three, it simply cannot be separated from the context.

Each of these stories ends with a very strong sense that something is going to happen next, just off the screen, around the corner. It isn't just that they are set in the future, but that they look to the future for their conclusions.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

The Body as Experiment: Jeff Brown, Flat Stanley, illustrated by Tomi Ungerer (New York, Evanston, London: Harper & Row, 1964).

I’ve included this book as sf because the facilitation device is mechanical, not mystical.

Quite a famous book I believe: Stanley is squashed by a picture board and comes out flat. He can slide under doors, and through gratings. His younger brother gets jealous and Stanley allows Arthur to fly him as a kite. There is an exciting period in which he is a hero after he helps catch robbers (he poses as a picture of a Shepherdess in a museum), but then the public turn against him and he is mocked. His formerly jealous younger brother uses a bicycle pump to blow him up again and return the family to normal.

I like the way the child is encouraged to play with possibilities and to think about what their own body can do. Lurking behind the story is “what can I do with a human body?”

There are a number of books in the series. The much later Invisible Stanley (1996) follows a similar trajectory to Flat Stanley, but Stanley In Space (1990) is a straightforward meet the aliens story in which the threatening aliens turn out to be Lilliputians who have run out of food. Stanley rescues them and brings them to Earth for a year while their lands recover.

The Research Matrix

I've been thinking about nationalities, because, although I was wary of looking for it, there is a distinct Canadian-ness to the Canadian children's sf. It ties in with the different way Canada has dealt with its First Nations people. This isn't a "Canadians were nicer" post, there are areas where they were just as exploitative: but they do seem to have a different understanding of their relationship with indigenous peoples, and if I am to understand the sf I need to do quite a lot of reading on this. I'm coming to love this project: it's perfect for me--lots of alleys and byways and butterfly paths to explore.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Piers Antony, Race Against Time (New York: Hawthorn Books, Inc., 1973).

I like everything about this book. Not something I’ve said much.

John is vaguely aware that there is something off about where he lives. He is white but he has seen tan under his classmates’ skin. His kitten had a prehensile tale and when he told his mother—he had looked up cats—it disappeared. On the day the book starts he jokingly tells his dalmation dog to climb a tree, and it does, its claws retracting and flexing to help.

This time something clicks and John realises that his home is somehow fake. He works out how to get beyond the perimeter, and begins exploring. At the same time, he starts to plant a code in his letters to Betsy, a girl he has been told to correspond with.

The day Betsy is due in town for the first time, Ala turns up instead, a black African girl. They talk and Ala thinks she is from 975AD and is on the way to marry an Arab. The next day, John discovers he has supposed to have forgotten it all. When Betsy arrives that day, the two of them immediately escape, using the various things that—between them—they have made ready such as tan skin paint. Using the co-ordinates Ala gave them they find first the Chinese enclave, where Pei and Meilan are, and then find Ala and Humé.

By this time they have long worked out that the world is made up of Standards, concerned to be conformist and with—to add an extra twist—a mathematical system in base 8.

In their escape all the young people (they aren’t children) display ingenuity and intelligence: we are treated to code breaking, a rudimentary abacus, a discussion measuring the earth and working out how to reverse engineer co-ordinates. The I-ching manages to be discussed without getting all spritual on us and there are some sane and sensible discussions of leadership. Even the sexism is handled with rationality: ie when they have to decide on a leader, the women exempt themselves (this was written in 1973, and none of the cultures portrayed are later than 1960), but the men decide that the women should choose the leader. They do it by drawing hair ribbons and Pei “wins” but decides that John will lead the space flight, Pei any intellectual stuff in between and Humé. (because he comes from a warrior culture) the landing on earth.

When they get to Earth they discover that they are on the same planet, the other half is Standard, this half the ruined earth. Each is treated to a view of the place they are engineered from and the shocking truth (a bit muddled they admit) of what happened to Earth. They also learn and work out that the people of Standard have been wedded to conformity, but that a small group of people felt that racial difference should be reintroduced in order to recreate dynamism. But that the products—themselves—are considered as monuments.

This is where Anthony really pulls it off. Throughout this book, the protagonists have experienced attraction across the colour divide. What Anthony shows us at the end is them both accepting but working through, this reasoning: that is, accepting that the Standards may be right to try to recreate diversity but protesting that it be so rigid and so racial, “Let them all go back—for a while. Soon they would be grown, more knowledgeable, better able to cope with the world of the Standards.” (178). Although they have been outwitted in their guerrilla warfare in the book, all six of them realise that the struggle isn’t over. “The Standards did not need race: they needed an example. The world did not need monuments; it needed action.” (179)

At the end of the book the main character, John, has matured enough to give his dog to Humé. They have all shattered the worlds they were brought up in, and a very strong implication is given that they are about to shatter the world of Standard. Knowledge cannot be pushed back into its bottle, and while they are all heading home, it is a staging post, not a place of refuge.

Metaphors for What? Monica Hughes, Space Trap (Toronto and Vancouver: A Groundwood Book, 1983).

I have mostly avoided discussing authors that I know you’ve all read—they’ll turn up in the book of course, but I had a lot of stuff to get through in the archive that I hadn’t seen before. I’ve reached the end of that material, and this morning I’m moving down to Fredericton Public Library. Thanks to one of the librarians—Lisa Grewel—I’m not going to have a hard time finding books, the library is running a display of SF for children and I just have to go along the table and take notes. Unfortunately I don’t have borrowing rights, and most of what I can borrow from the University lending library is Monica Hughes and John Christopher. Given this, I’m going to post a few notes on these two authors, both of whom I like a lot, but who, in their splendid execution are I think very revealing in what they don’t, do.

For this morning, a note about Hughes’s Space Trap. It’s a straightforward enough story. Valerie is fed up babysitting her sister Susie on the rather bare planet her parents are studying, and resentful that her big brother gets to go with her father. She persuades her mother to ask her brother to do the babysitting, but her father doesn’t ask her to go with him as she had hoped, so she is left at a loose end. When her brother and sister find a thorn bush maze she follows them in and wakes up as a prisoner on an alien planet. The humans are just one of many species that the aliens capture and display in zoos, take home as pets or dissect. Valerie is lucky in that her scientist owner is a psychologist and linguist.

Most of the story is about Valerie’s escape, her rescue of her brother from a zoo and her sister from pet-dom, and how she joins up with others to find a way home. All of this is done incredibly well, Valerie reasons her way through the world she finds and gets over her feelings of guilt about her sister. She even comes to realise that not being interested in biology isn’t a big deal when she is interested in mechanical engineering.

It is, once again, the ending which depressed me. This is where children’s sf seems to hit a problem almost every time. At the end of the adventure the story is over and we all go home for tea. Hughes is more complex than most of what I’ve read: when Valerie and her companions get home, there is at least a suggestion that the Federation will search for the alien planet, find the Matter Transmitters and use them, but that is placed far in the future. And there is a "however", if the Federation does find the planet and its technology, Hughes does not speculate on the possibilities instantaneous transportation might make. Instead technology reappears as the Big Bad. “She compared the people of Hagerdorn and Eden and the other planets she’d visited with the horrible, selfish, lazy popeyes. Had they always been that horrid? Or maybe it had started when they stole the Matter Transmitter…Having a machine like that meant that you could grab more easily than you could give…” (152-3).

Feel free to chime in here that all I am demonstrating is my pro-tech bias standing against Hughes’s anti-tech bias—there is definitely truth there—but there was a related something else that bothered me. In these last pages Hughes has shifted the responsibility for Valerie’s experiences to the degrading effects of technology. All the discussion between Valerie and the alien scientist about the treatment of animals by humans has disappeared.

I complained in an early blog that books which end up making sf a metaphor for family relationships, or simply a way of working them out, can be unsatisfactory. But sf which makes the alien world a metaphor for ours is a very long tradition. Space Trap showed promise of successfully combining the two trajectories, only—at the end—to bottle it. Valerie may have learned that she is important to her family and have her own gifts, but she has learned very little of what an alien culture has to teach her about her own.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

A Lab may be fun, but an Alien is better: Raymond F. Jones Son of the Stars (Philadelphia: John Winston Company1952).

The book comes with a rather touching preamble is a dedication to backyard scientists, kids who experiment in their back yard:

“Fortunately, that great wonder is in most of is, in the beginning at least. Unfortunately, it survives in only a few of us. In the fury of living, a sunset becomes just a sunset, and seeds and leaves a nuisance to be raked and burned.” (vi) – this might make a nice epigram for the book.

The oddity is that the book fails to represent the prologue.

Bob, an amateur meteor hunter, finds a crashed space ship and rescues the only survivor who is brown with six fingers on each hand. The brown skin turns out to be an injury so eventually we have a white guy, a bit taller and stronger than the average, with an extra couple of digits.

The book is about the struggle of the military for control, and their nasty suspicious minds, and Bob and his girlfriend Anne who want to protect this adolescent from the stars whose father and brother have been killed. In the end Bob and Anne help Clonar get in touch with his race who turn out to want to destroy Earth after all, and they believe (and this is never contradicted) that Earth shot down the ship. Clonar talks them out of it, and the Earth military let him go.

What the book does best is to demonstrate how easily we disregard the rights of others. There is a lot of discussion between the honourable military man about the necessity of his suspicions in the name of the rights that—as Bob and Ann point out—he is denying Clonar. And a note for Karen Traviss: the first thing the military do, even though they know that some of the dead are Clonar’s relatives, is to pickle and dissect them.

But the book never really takes off as more than the sketchiest sf. There is no discussion of science, and the moral problem presented would apply as well if Clonar had been a stranded Soviet sailor.

Friday, February 11, 2005


I have 699 responses which is just amazing. Thank you everyone.

Any chance of pushing that to 800?

If you haven't already completed it, the questions are here..


I spent this morning working on Worldcon questionnaires (if you are coming and you want to be programmed, go fill yours in) so no book to blog, but instead a short "thought".

In the maths material I read this weekend I came across a study on why Japanese and Chinese children are better at maths. Here is what the western observers noted.

1. In elementary schools 40% of the time was spent on maths. This remained constant. In US school, less than 20% of the time is spent on maths.
2. Japanese and Chinese teachers stick to one topic at at time, teach to the whole class, and keep them going over the same problems 'til they get it.
3. Japanese and Chinese students are regularly called to work on the blackboard when they are having difficulty. The teacher supervises them and their classmates comment. When they get it right, they get a round of applause. Far from regarding it as humiliating it is seen as helpful.
4. Japanese and Chinese teachers teach classes of forty or more but teach all students the same thing in depth, rather than many different things in breadth.
5. Japanese and Chinese teachers do not believe in "individual styles of learning" or that some children have more "native ability" than others. They believe that maths talent can be *taught*.

I read this the day before I heard an item on the Canadian news about the need for child care to be tailored to "children's individual interests". My take on this -- when faced with the perennial student cry of "why do we have to do this"--is that if you only introduce a 2 yr old to the things they like at the age of 2, how are they going to become 3yr olds? There is nothing more amazing than trying something you thought you *weren't'* interested in, and discovering it will be your life's work.

My own culture (Jewish) is a lot closer to the Japanese and Chinese students, and I was interested to hear that Stanley Kaplan, the man who undermined the idea that SATs tests could not be prepared for (ie they rested on a notion of "innate talent") also had the same idea. Recently research at US and UK universities has driven home the same point: the only reliable indicator of how well a student will do in a subject is how committed they are, and how hard they work.

I missed out one point in the summary of the article. Although at the age of seven Chinese and Japanese students spend the same time in school at US students, by the age of 15 they are receiving at least seven hours a week more. It sort of explains why these countries now fill our graduate schools.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

We are all doomed: Rosemary Harris, A Quest for Orion (Harmondsworth, Mdx: Puffin Plus, 1982).

Having complained bitterly on Tuesday about the propaganda of The Girl Who Owned a City I now want to retract a bit. For all its classic cosy catastrophe structure (ie all the wrong people are killed off--the poor and feckless--and the right ones--the middle classes-- make a new and better future), at least it is a book with faith in the human spirit.

But there is a strain running through children's sf which I can only call "anti-survivalist". These are the prophecy books, the voice of doom books which predict ecological disaster, nuclear war, or invasion. Robert Swindell's Brother in the Land, Gudrun Pausewung's The Last Children of Lenebsborn spring instantly to mind. Both of these books are there to warn children, " if you don't act, the world is doomed". They are both post-disaster stories, but unlike the equivalent written for adult sf (the classic is Walter Miller's The Canticle for Leibowitz) they posit no world after. One can only screw up once, there is no chance at redemption. In a very odd way, although intensely threatening they are also recursive, they offer the safety of the grave and the end of trouble and torment.

Rosemary Harris's A Quest For Orion fits this category. England has been invaded and the neo-Stalinist hordes are moving the English population into prison and labour camps, clearing England completely (not at all clear why, although towards the end, there is talk of creating a drug controlled slave population).

Four teens head to London, to rescue a fifth, Alastair, a young boy who is cannot walk but has premonitions. A sixth, Matt, decides to surrender himself with the idea of creating a fifth column. He is of course turned into a slave, until he finds a Germans resistance unit, who, for no reason that I can quite see, parachute him and a friend into England with the King’s Treasure, which might be Otto the Great’s Crown and a jewel belonging to Charlemagne.

Meanwhile Alaistair in London has been having visions and we begin to get a lot of mystical stuff about Arthur and Charlemagne. This takes the place of any kind of political analysis: the term “neo-Stalinist” is used without question, and the one time Matt, the historian, pauses to think it is to think “The reasons for what happened, and any apportioning of blame, seemed beside the point now—fruitless. As did any discussion about the growth of neo-Stalinism and the surprising speed with which so many disparate people had fallen beneath its spell.” (106).

And at the end, all but two of the children die, the invaders--who can read thoughts and control populations with drugs--stay in charge, and the sense is of history coming to an end. The book is well written, but the combination of the absence of political critique, and any sense of future change means that it reads very like the post-nuclear disaster novels I mentioned above. I'm not at all sure what the point of this novel is other than to make teens feel passive and as if the world is not theirs to make.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Political Indigestion: O. T. Nelson, The Girl Who Owned a City (New York: Dell, 1975),

Although I've presented very clear ideas of what sf might be, I've tried to avoid outright political bias. But I've just read a book that left me feeling very disturbed, and when I discovered that this book is still taught in schools and is clearly very popular among children, I decided that I would post a political commentary.

Reading what I've put below, please keep in mind that what bothered me so much was the dishonesty of the political argument in this book, the way arguments presented as being to preserve liberty actually serve to construct the beginnings of tyrannt. O.T. Nelson is still alive. A friend of his (Winnie Dawson) posted here to say he is considering writing a sequel.

O. T. Nelson, The Girl Who Owned a City (New York: Dell, 1975), pb.

A very straightforward story in which post-plague (which effects adults only) a girl leads a bunch of other children to create a city. Elsewhere, other kids do the same, but in each case but this one, what they create is violent armies and gangs.

As Lisa takes control of the other children she consistently pushes a "private property" angle, but she does so in ways which are really disingenous. Nelson is a good writer, but that's part of the problem. Every time Jill (another child) criticised Lisa I found myself nodding. One of the ironies in the final chapters is that it is Lisa's insistence on benevolent tyranny that will allow the city to fall. Had it been a democracy, they would have had other leaders to fight for when she was kidnapped.


This is a survivalist book and there are lots of really good things. Lisa thinks and plans. She consideres where food might be found, and she organises a militia to protect all the “child-families” but there is never once a suggestion that they should gather together in houses so they can share the burden. The implication is that Jill has handicapped herself by taking in orphan children. Lisa herself only helps her brother. Other people's ideas are always wrong. One thing Lisa dismisses is Craig’s long term desire for a farm, in favour of her plan to re-start civilisation, but actually, Craig’s plan is far more sensible, and as we shall see, in Lisa's ideology, had they gone for the farm idea, the farm would have belonged to Craig. A decision that is presented as "commonsense is actually highly political.

Lisa decides she will share her knowledge, but not for free. My concern here (politically) is that this is set up as fundamentally different from the gangs’ protection racket, whereas in fact it is competitive with, but essentially just the same. Lisa is also very quick to decide that what she finds is hers. Yet as she realises earlier, what she has done is essentially to loot. Nelson frequently has Lisa see other ideas and dismiss them. Like the best of tyrants, she refuses to consider moral equivalence (she accepts the gang leader, Tom’s apology for hurting her brother, but it becomes clear she never intended to admit the gang to the group—this entire scene could have gone another way.)

Lisa is right to tell Jill that the children should co-operate in their own survival, and her decision to bargain with the kids—go work and you get a toy—isn’t stupid, but it doesn’t have to be set up in direct opposition to Jill’s notions, and it is. Later she declares, “Freedom is more important than sharing.” (135) The alternative for Craig and Jill, she says, is that they can use their freedom and leave. Frankly, all this does is demonstrate that Lisa thinks they are supine. They could, after all, always kick her out.

pp. 132-133 is the most unnerving. Jill challenges Lisa as to why she regards the city as her property, despite the fact that all the children helped build it. Lisa exerts “ownership through discovery” for both the city and the supplies. Voting can’t be countenanced because it infringes on Lisa’s “discovery-ownership”, completely ignoring that fact that the truck that brought the children and the supplies to the fort belonged to the father of one of the children, that there are now scavenger groups contributing to the structure of the fort.

Lisa tries to make it sound equal by telling Jill that when she finds a hospital it will belong to Jill, but it is clear that Jill is unconvinced. After all, will Lisa return the sweat that Jill has put into Lisa’s property?

There is no sweat equity at all. What Lisa discovers is hers. What others discover is also Lisa’s. Far from setting up a libertarian community, and in sharp contrast to Lisa’s idea that a “king” in Chicago is dark ages stuff, Lisa has set herself up as a prince who has abrogated to herself pretty much all ownership. That nice little scene where she gives children toys, is not a scene in which children acquire property ownership. If we trace what happens in the course of the book, what Lisa has recreated is vassalage in which individuals “own” property on behalf of the monarch.

And just to cap it all, she invents debt peonage as well. The Constitution reads: “Each citizen was free to leave if he or she ever wanted to. But he had to leave free of debt. There was a provision for that. Everyone had to earn his place in the city by the means decided on by both parties—Lisa and the citizen.” (137)

Monday, February 07, 2005

Game Books

I've just been "playing" Steve Jackson's Starship Traveller or as much as you can play these things without dice to hand. I'll come back to these books later this summer because I think (although it's a gut instinct not a rational thing) that these books are much more important to science fiction than we have realised.

Just playing this book through once I was struck by how almost all encounters turned away from people and towards objects, and this is even with a set of decisions which always chose people rather than place (I suspect boys at the time played it differently).

It's as if, stripped of the camoflage of true story, this book has slid along the spectrum to the very extreme of sf-non-involvement with the human.

Must muse some more.

Inter-Stellar Parenting: George Bowering, Parents From Space (Montreal,Roussan Publishers Inc. 1994)

A very funny book written somewhat in the style of Daniel Pinkwater: slightly on the edge of surreal, but unlike Pinkwater there is real sf happening.

Neville Neatby is the narrator. Part of a group of kids who meet to review movies together. One day his friends turn up, miserable because they all have duplicate parents. In some cases just one extra set, in others three or four extra sets.

The kids set out to work out what’s going on, with wisecracks, neat theories and a sense that they have become characters in a movie written by someone else.

A lot of this is about parental behaviour—almost any parental behaviour, however nice or caring, would be too much if multiplied. But it is handled in a way that this isn't metaphor, but the very practical problem that aliens bring with—a proper “what if”.

It turns out that the aliens are “ideas” from another place that they call “Earth” (they call their language “English” when they translate it as well). As a result of a population explosion they banned new children altogether and now, they miss being parents.
“You can imagine how some people felt when their kids had all grown up….Young ideas, so to speak, are so nice to have around.” (153)

[contrast this to Star Wind which seems to actively dislike teens.]

But they can’t cope with new ideas that they didn’t expect (which is why the left-handed Neville has no extra parents) and they deflate into balloons when they see something absurd.

The alien parents are never presented as a threat, just a little sad.

There are some lovely moments in the book: the psychologist who asserts that the parents are a symptom of teenage psychological disturbance (68). The fact that the Professors in the Astronomy department are arguing with each other about the possibilities (no single expert voices here, 69).

The fact that by the end, we have serious suspicions of the origins of Professor Purzlebaum, the rather eccentric astronomy professor, whose books have interesting titles:

Homeless and Ugly in the Solar System: An Ontological Survey of Irregular Self-Perceptions among Humanoids.
Stepladders on the Moons of Neptune
Great Scott, It’s Alive! An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Everything that has Come From Outer Space.
Who’s Who in the Galaxy
A Cubic Foot at the Other End of the Universe: Einstein for Rookie Carpenters.

There is also some really good thought in here. Harry, the smartest of Neville’s friends, worries that they might come from the future because if so, it might not be possible to send them back:
“I think you can go back in time because all that stuff has happened, so you just go back the way you got here, kind of in the footprints you made going to where you are now.”

“…I don’t think you can go to the future because it hasn’t happened yet. There aren’t any footprints.”

“…now they are here in the present. The world they came from hasn’t happened yet.”

…“What it suggests to me is that either they can’t get back to where they came from because now it is not there now—or they aren’t here now anymore than they would have been if they were from the future.”

Harry’s musings (which turn out to be wrong) leave lots of space in which readers can think. This is something I haven’t seen much before.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Teenagers are From Mars, Pre-Teens are from Venus: Linda Wolverton, Star Wind (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986).

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could blame adolescent tantrums on an alien mind sucking device?

Camden comes back from summer camp to find her best friend Mitch spouting slang and shuffling like a teenager. He persuades her to join the “Kidsters” A bunch of them hang out in the hippy town of Venice, with WT3 who gives them all IDs (your intials and the number of children in your family) and has them play a game in which they are transported elsewhere. The game centers on a little grey box.

Despite realising that the “elsewhere” is microinaturisation (the orange sea is inside a can of orangeade) Camden begins to fall in line, learning the slang that they use, The Words, a form of TrueSpeak which limits expression. She also gets tired and hostile to her parents.

Along with this Camden begins to forget words and also to dream of a Bronze planet in which the Teacher has stolen all the words and only a few die hards hold out.

After a fight with Mitch and the other kidsters, Camden is cast out (she is less absorbed than they are and more inclined to ask questions which is dismissed as “grownie” stuff). Cast out she starts reading again and discovers how many words she has lost. She solves this by reading the dictionary for weeks. Finally she has a dream in which the Teacher holds the same grey power unit as WT3 uses. She twigs, and goes back to rescue her friends, by following WT3 into the back room and using his light-tunnel to the bronze planet.

At this point (the last 20 pages) the book goes badly askew. The Teacher tries to defeat Camden by humiliating her with memories. But Camden defeats the teacher by wishing her ill , convincing her she is wrong (the Teacher can’t take that at all and “stomped her feet, whimpering” . and finally Camden tells her she gives teachers a bad name. It’s all very mystical and in the mind, which hasn’t been part of the structure at all up to now, but is very good for Camden’s self-esteem.

Camden liberates the prisoners and in the weakest line of the book, the imprisoned Professor tells Camden “you’ve got your own way home” and encourages her to dream her way back to reality, even tho this time she didn’t come in a dream.

Once home. Camden pours the words from the grey cube back into her friends and they all promptly go back to being nice, well behaved pre-teens again.

I think this book is intended for pre-teens (as is Anne Fine’s brilliant, Book of the Banshee,) who still feel hostile to the weird behaviour of their teen siblings.

Science in the classroom: musings 1.

Reading material on science teaching, the one thing that stuck out is that science is not strictly logical.

Bjorn Andersson, in a paper called, “Some Aspects of Children’s Understanding of Boiling Point”, asked children about what they think happens when water boils and is left boiling.

“Some of the pupils’ explanations are quite consistent. This of the pupils on category 2 B on problem 1 (the longer the water is on the hot-plate, the hotter it gets), 80% explain, as would be expected, problem 2 by saying that the switch-number determines the temperature of the boiling water. …many of the apparent misconceptions came from good logical thinking, the problem was merely that the pupils had inadequate background knowledge.” (258-9)

Science does not proceed from first principles, it proceeds from learning by rote what others have frequently figured out by intuition, and then proved by experiment. I know this, it isn’t knew. But I don’t see this paralleled in much science fiction for children—although it used to crop up a lot in 1950s engineering style sf where often the sensible and Iogical choice was not the right one (think Colin Kapp here).

But leading on from that is that, and more interesting for some of the issues science fiction raises, is that studies of science teaching demonstrate how it is possible to have a well educated populace, steeped in superstition and ignorance.

“Driver and Easley point out … that whenever we attempt to introduce a topic to our pupils they come to it with a framework of ideas relating to it which they have derived from past experience. When they are faced with the statements of teachers or textbooks or the result of their own experiences, not in keeping with the conceptual framework they hold, they either have to modify their own framework or keep two separate systems. Alas, the two systems are sometimes never reconciled; some pupils using one to pass school examinations and one they use in every day life. Likewise Karmiloff-Smith and Inhelder … provide developmental corroboration that a child does not easily relinquish a new theory. And when they do they first prefer to create a new theory, quite independent of the first, before attempting to unify all events under a single, broader theory. ( from Kenneth Lovell, “The Relevance of Cognitive Psychology to Science and Mathematics Education”, (3)

Which goes a long way to explain how you can teach a class physics and still end up with a bunch of people who believe in Creationism.

All of this interests me because one of the absolute staple threads of much of what I’m reading is an interest in pedagogy and a belief that a properly educated workforce will be an enlightened one. The nearest book I can think of that reflects this alternative idea--that classroom theory can exist independent of other theory--is Jeff Noon’s Nymphomation, in which children drop out of different stages of the education that’s on offer. I’m pretty sure someone important wrote a very scary story with the same idea (Zenna Henderson perhaps?) in which this is expressed also.

But it also interests me because of these multiple reading protocols we discussed earlier, and for many children, the multiple behavioural protocols they adopt: school, playground, home, grandparents’ home. Again, it’s not an idea that crops up much in fiction for children where one of the definitions of maturity appears to be the ability to bring together oneself in one neat package.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

What we used to think teens wanted: Tales of Time and Space edited by Ross R. Olney (Racine, WI: Western Publishing Co., 1969),

In Tales of Time and Space , we find the following stories, selected for teenaged readers:

Arthur C. Clarke, "All the Time in the World" in which a crook helps people fro the future to steal Earth's Treasures, and discovers that they can't change history, because the bomb has already dropped.

Fredric Brown: "Puppet Show"--in which a revolting alien tests us for xenophobia. We pass, the alien turns out to be a puppet and we express relief that the puppet handler really is like us, and humanoids are the master race. Then the burro speaks up...

Robert Silverberg, "Birds of a Feather"--a carnie man who runs a zoo which shows off willing aliens on Earth (it's the only way they can get past immigration) finds himself outwitted by a better con-man.

Larry Sternig, "Clutch of Morpheus"--a comet brings sleep to everyone except a young man who has never slept, and must save the world.

Keith Laumer, "The Last Command"--wakes a war machine from its slumbers.

William Campbell Gault's "Fog", an incredibly sad story in which a lonely and isolated young man seems to be selling Earth out to Venusian invaders, only to die a martyr's death.

Poul Anderson, "The Martian Jewels" introduces a Martian Sherlock Holmes and a locked spaceship mystery.

and last,

Jack Finney, "Of Missing Persons" in which a man misses his chance to emigrate to another world.

In eight short stories I have found more variety than I have found so far in the thirty books I have read so far. I hadn't planned to do this, but one thing I'm going to have to do now, is to start keeping lists of plots. None of the stories in this volume uses complex language or science, but all of them with the exception of "The Clutch of Morpheus" requires the reader to consider consequence.

Undrerground Again: Bev Spencer, Guardian of the Dark (Richmond Hill, Canada: Scholastic Ltd., 1993).

This is one of the books that “proves” my rule about the 1980s and 1990s by sticking rigidly to the formula of what I have termed “juveniles” and eschewing the markers of the YA/social issues novel. There is no romance in this book, no “healing” of familial stress, and at the end there is consequence for everyone involved.

Gen lives in a world underground. As far as he knows, this is all. His forefathers once lived in “Sky” which he conceives as another, larger cavern. Outside of Senedu there is only unformed rock.

Gen is also the only son of the Guardian, and as such will be the Guardian next. He has only one friend (Duff) because most boys won’t play with him, and he is kept busy by his father—a very strict and cold patriarch—learning number games that seem to have little use. His female cousin Nirrin is a little older and he regards her as a pest. The other boy we meet is Jered, a bit of a bully, training to be a miner but has been downgraded to farmer when he got into (quite separate) trouble. Gen and Jered dislike each other.

The social structure of Senedu is kept by Truth Time, at which the legends of Wizards and Dragns are recounted, and the expulsion from the Sky, by the Guardian, and by the Council (which also seems to be hereditary).

Gen’s only free activity is sneaking through air tunnels with Duff, and he knows it will come to an end. Both of them are getting too big for the spaces and Gen is about to become co-Guardian.

Then on their possibly last trip they hear a noise, they follow it, and Gen realises that he is hearing the sound of a Dragn (this bit is rather fudged). In a panic they flee with the intention of telling what they have heard. They are intercepted by Jered, who reports them, and incarcerated. Gen tells his father what has happened but his father refuses to listen and begins proceedings in counsel to have them unnamed and cast out. Jered meanwhile has been thinking about what Gen told him, and goes back and helps him to escape. Jered and Gen go looking for the Dragn.

What they find is the Wizard, who explains to them that the Dragn is a missile, the people are descendants of an underground missile establishment who rebelled and refused to fire their weapons. Six hundred years have past, long enough for myths to grow up, but also long enough for a sound, if poverty stricken internal economy.

Acid from above has eaten through the carapace of the missile and triggered the explosion mechanism. Wizard recognises “Gen” as “General” and asks him to use his “number game” to get the missile to stand down. Gen does, but it doesn’t work, the missile is corrupt, the only solution if to fire it. In doing so they will also create a route to the outside world. Gen races off to get his father’s “wand” which is the key to the missile. He returns, having also met Duff and Nirrin who have followed him, and between them they climb the missile and form a human chain to insert the key—then rush and hide. The missile fires.

The children return and all four are declared outcast. Gen uses what he has learned about the old communication mechanism to call to him any who want to move on to the world Wizard (a computer) says is now recovered and ready for them. About seventy leave, and note that they leave prepared, with seeds and tools and determination. (Some back out at the last minute.)

The last two scenes are very impressive. The Guardian refuses to speak with Gen but when he returns to his office what he contemplates is not what we have assumed. The Guardian new that the truth had become mutated after 600 years, but underneath he new there was a way out and that the time would come when the General would use the codes to save the people and take some of them away. His role was to preserve the people who needed the security of Senedu and to create a son who might be “the General”. When his turn came, it was too early, he never found the Dragn. In order to make sure Gen left, with enough people, he had to stick to his guns. There is no familial reconciliation, no last father's blessing.

When Gen and his friends get out into the open air they talk about it in the terms they understand: “The ceiling was blue and so far above Gen’s head that he could not touch it. Yellow light poured from a place too bright to look at.” (167)

At the end we are left with two stories to follow: what happens next in a Senedu from which people have, for the very first time, left with hope? What happens to Gen’s people in a community that have not just left all they knew, but have already decided that the old way of organising—the rigid benevolence of Senedu—is no longer appropriate?


Underground stories definitely have an appeal for writers in this market. I've just read a third, by Suzanne Martel (a French Canadian), which I'll talk about tomorrow. It takes a quite different tack from either Spencer or DePrau.

Friday, February 04, 2005

An off day.

Apologies for lack of post: the two novels I read today most definitely weren't sf and weren't even interesting enough to say "what the hell" and blog anyway.

I am struggling my way through the reading I've started on science and pedagogy. By tomorrow I may have processed it. The problem isn't that the material is difficult, it's that the book I chose to start with is a University Conference Proceedings from 1980, published in-house and essentially a bound type-script. It was fine to read, but my eyes start watering after just a few pages of note taking.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Genre Boundaries: Is there such a thing as SF fancy?: John Parke, The Moon Ship (New York: Pantheon Books, 1958).

This book shouldn’t be here at all. It’s a children’s play story, not sf in the way we usually think about it. The entire thing is pretend, but written with the utter seriousness and acceptance children bring to “let’s pretend”.

Chris’s mother tells him to go outside “Go take a walk with the Man in the Moon” (9) so he does.

Chris goes into the barn and starts turning the barn into a space ship. He’s joined by his friend Bruce, and they build their ship/barn and take off for the moon. Space suits are made from raincoats.

They get to the moon, walk out and around, and come home. Neighbours come over and they invite them into their ship for a second trip.

It is, of course, absolutely a fancy, a child’s game, but I have to include it for two reasons:

1. Parke is utterly methodical. Everything the boys do recreates the real thing. It isn’t that they make the ship, they don’t, but if a ship needs a radar, they find something to represent the radar. The match is perfect and a lot is said about rocketry, space ships and the moon in the process.

2. Parke handles his materials beautifully. What the book reminds me of is the Spaceman Spiff cartoons in Calvin and Hobbes. The children don’t say “let’s pretend” because they know. They don’t create a radar and then look out of the door because they know that you can’t see out of spaceships. Parke has depicted the closed world of a true fantasy game brilliantly and he plays it right to the end. Even in the closing lines Chris is holding in his head the dual world of the “real” trip to the Moon, and the awareness that he was “only” playing.

I’ll need to come back to this book. I need to consider carefully the way in which Parke has written. But if in the meantime the Minstry of Whimsy Press wants to start a children's line, this would be pefect.

Watching the Rockets Go Up: Charles Coombs, Mystery of Satellite 7 (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1957)

Also author of: Celestial Space Inc., The Case of the Purple Mark, Treasure Under Coyote Hill,.

Coombs started off as a hack writer for adults and gradually moved into children’s fiction. In a short note at the back he mentions not writing down to children, but there is a passivity to his protagonists which I associate with later YA fiction.

Straightforward enough: Steve and his friend Karl live in Florida where their fathers work on private statellite launch projects—the satellites are for tv communication. The boys are allowed a surprising amount of involvement—Karl helps check equipment.

Seven of the eight satellites have gone wrong and there is a suspicion of sabotage.

Mostly the boys sit around, listen and watch. They stumble across the saboteurs, are tied up, and are rescued by a journalist.

Scientific material in this book is handled in an interesting way, in that apparent explanations turn out to be mere description. “Spools spun thin wires through complicated recording devices. Small varicoloured lights flashed and pulsated like fireflies on parade.” (18) and “Until the firing switch was thrown closes, there was no way of anticipating what numerous unsuspected opponents lay in wait to reach out and ambush the project. It could be a slight cloud in one of the fuel lines. It might be a microscopic crack in a turbopump blade. Vibration might sever the filament of a critical subminature vacuum tube.” (20) You can read this stuff and think you are learning from it, until you realise you can't piece any of it together. Classic hard-sf in other words.

See for more.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Miss Pickerell Conquers My Heart (1951-1983)

I have spent the afternoon reading a series of books by Ellen MacGregor and Dora Pantell about Miss Pickerell and her adventures. Or rather, they are by Ellen MacGregor until 1954 when she died, and Dora Pantell afterwards, although from '54 onwards both names appear. There is a useful link here: Link for Dora Pantell

I really didn't expect to like these books--they are about an old lady who goes into space (Miss P is very like Miss Marple) and to the bottom of the sea etc, etc, and I thought they would be terribly patronising.

Not a bit. In fact, they may be some of the best sf for children I've read so far, MacGregor was a librarian, and Pantell a curriculum advisor, and both of them understand absolutely that science (rather than technology) is about ideas and curiosity and synthesis.

This is what I like about these books:
Miss Pickerell learns by asking questions which are grounded in context.
She reads and sometimes knows more about the world that people assume.
Infodumps are sort and contextual and quite often Miss P fazes out because she already knows the information.
Miss P is interested in science, as well as technology.
Miss P wonders. She looks at the world around her and thinks about it.
Miss P doesn’t mind being wrong as long as being wrong teaches her something.
Miss P is a synthesizer. She takes the information she has—and often information from earlier books—and uses it to develop ideas. (...Goes Undersea—uses the space suit techniques from her Mars trip).
Miss P is a researcher. She uses her common sense to develop techniques that sometimes take her away from the common sense solution, to something more interesting (…Harvests the Sea)
Miss P exists in a parallel world in which the moon is settled, and human presence there is taken for granted (this is handled particularly effectively, ...On the Moon

The best bit is how Miss Pickerell works out ideas, there are never Eureka moments of genious but always a process of ideas, research, testing, add in new evidence and start again. In ....Harvests the Sea, we even get offered a full research plan as to how they are going to test for a pollutant, check that it is *the* pollutant, and then trace it back.

Pantell even expresses the increasing speed of change in the modern world, Miss Pickerell frequently starts by consulting the encyclopedia, and then adding evidence as she finds it to modify the entry in her mind. By ...Meets Mr. H.U.M.(1965) however, this no longer works, The Encyclopedia update, newly bought, is now eight months old and in the world of computers (the book's concern), that is a generation ago.

At the end of all her books, Miss P’s world has changed, either by her efforts or by someone elses. No genies get pushed back into bottles, the world moves on and Miss P goes on to use her experiences in other adventures.

Yesterdays Tomorrows

A very good reading list at a site called Yesterday's Tomorrows. Lots of books there I've never heard of.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Skill Sets (a deviation)

I spent all of yesterday either on a 'plane or waiting to board a 'plane. Thumbs up to Montreal Airport which has five cockail bars ('hic). Mostly I read up on the pedagogy of science and mathematics. I'll blog a bit more on that tomorrow, when I've completed my notes but for the moment, a couple of things stood out.

First some context: when UK universities modularised (ie we now examine at the end of each semester, not at the end of three years) we were told that in order to justify the "level" of a module we had to show progression. Those of us in the arts said "..but progression in this subject simply means knowing lots and lots more so that you can use more and more evidence to analyse whatever you are looking at, and with practice, get better and better at applying exactly the same skills sets as you used in your first year".

We were told very firmly that maths and science had "skill levels" which related to "skill sets" and we had to emulate.

I wish I'd spoken to a few science teachers before accepting this codswallop. Reading science pedagogy, the one thing that is blindingly clear is that science teachers have just as much of a problem defining skill sets as those of us in the humanities, and for reasons that baby-Cyc made clear. What seems commonsense to teachers, is not necessarily commonsense to students. Links that seem obvious, may not be linked in the student's mind in the way the teacher expects.

From yesterday's reading I learned the following: science is susceptible to logic. It is not susceptible to reason.

By this I mean that if you know a fact or a theory you can work with it, and test it, until enough evidence arrives that it falls apart, and suggests a new workable theory which you can play with until it reaches its end game. But if you don't have the facts or the theories to play with, "Reason" (in the classical sense) tends to lead you into sensible, but incorrect conclusions. When you divide things into "skill sets" with an imposed sense of progression, you tend to promote "Reason". When you work on an approach of: "what do we need to play with what we have in front of us", skill sets overlap and produce a matrix of learning, not a hierarchy of learning, and (I think) promote logic.

This is the second time I've had it brought to my attention that historians (which is what I am by training) have a lot more in common with scientists than I have been brought up to believe.

I don't yet know how to apply any of this to children's science fiction: I'm not seeing a lot of play with theory and ideas. At the moment the only children's sf writer who comes close to what the science pedagogists seem to be arguing for, is William Sleator. Strange Attractors (1989), plays with the idea of the universe as an unstable place, and numbers as weapons. it depends absolutely on logic, rather than reason. Reason (as I remember, I don't have the book to hand) lands the hero in hot water.