Monday, February 14, 2005

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.


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