Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Orange Eyed and Scary: Susan Gates, Dusk (London: Puffin, 2004).

Curtis is a lab technician looking after gen-enged rats. One day he is a) careless, and doesn't tighten the cage locks and b) decides to check out the weird noises from next door. They turn out to be made by a wild girl with the eyes of a hawk. He panics, starts a fire, frees the girl who runs off, and the rats (led by a General rat) escape.

Two years later his son arrives to stay, discovers the burned and fenced area, sneaks in after a stray dog (which gets killed by the wild dogs inside) and finds the girl, Dusk. Dusk helps him to escape and he in turn runs off with her into the wilderness. Although this story is in part about Jay's relationship with his parents (Ma is an over attentive Christian, Curtis is dad is a drunk) Jay runs away, he doesn't actually solve anything--there are hints though that if there is a sequel, familial reconciliation will be a theme.

It's an ok story, unpatronising and clear cut, but Gates solves the problem of "what science will children understand" by ensuring that the novel is not told from the point of view of scientists, or from their level of understanding, and instead from the position of ignorant outsiders--the public in other words. Politically it makes sense but it means that there is no technical detail: the results, not the process are what is discussed. This reminds me of the trend in UK school science to teach kids about science and technology, rather than teaching scientific knowledge. The protagonist/student can react politically and socially to the end results, but can't actually take part in shaping that result.

Monday, May 30, 2005

Peter Stonely, Consumerism and American Girls' Literature, 1860-1940 (Cambridge: CUP, 2005).

If anyone out there has read this book I'd value a second opinion, because my over-arching thought is that while there are some very interesting ideas in here, I've just spend £40 ($80) on a rather tortuous article.

Peter Stonely's thesis is that from 1860 to 1940 American Girls' Literature was constructed with the none-too-subtle aim of teaching middle-class girls to negotiate the rocky shoals of incipient womanhood in a society in which the definition of middle class was changing, the location of the middle-classes was moving from the country to the towns, and the chances of holding on to status were becoming more problematic as social mobility created traps for the unwary.

All of this is rather obvious, and written in stiflingly tortous language that manages to make Nancy Drew sound dull, but the subtleties of his arguments are worth paying attention to and some of his interpretation of the way in which successful female authors accomodated their notions of modesty to the consequences of their success are fascinating.

His book runs something like this:

1. Louisa M. Alcott--argues for "modesty" as the defining matter of Womanhood to be held onto at all costs even in the face of financial hardship. Excessive consumerism is immodest.

2. Magazines begin to publish fiction that is more ambivalent, contrasting the nouveau riche (who always turn out to be bad and shallow) against the poor but well-bred *but* at the same time running adverts for the things the poor-but-well-bred are not supposed to covet and increasingly marketing themselves not to the middle class per se but to the aspiring.

3. Education is increasingly seen as the true consumer desirable and indicator of middle-classness.

4. Men become commodities, awarded to the unassuming, who are increasingly identitified with "country" values.

5. "Whiteness" (or nativeness) emerges as a hallmark of the deserving middle-class girl.

6. The girl's body is subsumed into her eyes (which are always large) and her hair. The rest of the body remains "trim" (Stonely argues that this is about keeping the girl pre-pubescent but I wonder if it is also a racial stereotype. As I point out far too often, only Bostonian ladies would have decided that the proper place for a napkin is on the lap.)

6. With the Depression emerges the Nancy Drew/Orphan Annie figure, dependent on a father for luxury goods out of reach of others,

There are three elements of this book I find interesting:
The first is that the books were written to construct an ideologically bound narrative of the m/c girl/woman which shifts over time in ways we would all recognise;
The second is that because it was often the aspirational who read the books, there is a constant jockeying as the aspirational increasingly impose their values (through sales figures) onto what it means to be middle-class.
The third is the section on serials--those books written as franchises. They aroused much the same response as Star Wars tie-ins today. They can't be literature. They must be morally bad. But crucially, they are cheap enough for girls to buy themselves which means that control over their dissemination leaves the purview of parents and teachers. I find myself wondering if a) this is why tie ins are considered so dangerous and b) if it is also why they are so attractive to children, because they make it very clear to children that they are being listened to. This last point is something I'd love to explore but at this precise moment I can't figure out how.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Picture Perfect: Graham Oakley, Henry's Quest (London and Basingstoke: MacMillan, 1986)

Jessica Yates (author of the chapter on science fiction in the International Companion Encyclopedia of Children's Literature (ed. by Peter Hunt) lent me this, and it really is a masterpiece of what you can do for children.

This book has to be read on two levels, the words which relate a quest narrative in a matter of fact, ironic demotic voice, and the pictures which tell a science fiction story.

In a small village kingdom surrounded by trees, the King declares a quest for PETROL. The one who finds it will marry his eldest daughter. Henry, a shepherd, takes up the quest with his donkey and travels many miles. He helps merchants fight off bandits, meets people and arrives in a fabulous city where the Emperor fetes him, and a minstrel tries to embroil him in a coup. Henry is the innocent, clueless as to the politics which go on all around him. When the Emperor accidentally sets light to the petrol store Henry is lauded as a hero by the minstrel who deposes the Emperor and takes his place. The minstrel sends Henry home with more petrol. What I particularly admired about the written story is that Oakley allows Henry to gradually catch onto the corruption of the Emperor, and that both Emperors want to follow him home and conquer the kingdom, but it is done with subtlety.

Halfway through the banquet, after the fourteenth course to be precise, the [new] emperor rose and after saying a word or two about the Birth Pains of Infant States, Self-sacrifice and the Tightening of Belts he announced that Henry was now an official National Hero and presented him with the last two tins of petrol in the whole world. Henry was overjoyed. He said that now his Quest was over and that he could return home in triumph and claim his bride and would it be rude if he went first thing in the morning. The emperor said that would be fine and Henry saw him smirk in a particularly nasty way at the minister of war and something clicked in his mind.

I really liked the fact that we aren't allowed to follow every moment of Henry's thought process, instead we have to work out what it is he has worked out. It makes us active participants in the story.

This is even more important in the pictures. Lurking in almost every picture is a hint: in the first illustration there is junk in the woods. On the second, a jousting match takes place among chicken coops made from cars and televisions, and one of the jousters wears a motorcycle helmet. The symbols on the shields of knights allude to mundane jobs such as pie making or sheepherding. Over the page, a sign for Boots the Chemist has been overwritten to read "Tom Boots and Son" and then overwritten again with the word "herbalist". When we first see Henry, he sits in a wood, but one of the trees is an over-grown electricity pylon.

It isn't just that Oakley is encoding visual jokes, it's that he demonstrates a rare sense of the way the historical landscape accumulates. To a historian, all tv historical dramas look slightly wrong, because they "dress" the people and places absolutely of the moment. But of course culture isn't like that. Look around your own home: note that plywood door which replaced the old panel doors sometime in the 1960s which you have been regretting ever since. The 1930s fireplace surrounding the 1990s gas coal effect fire in the 1880s house; the woman on the street who decided what suited her in 1985 and still has flicked back hair and shoulder pads; or just the woman whose skirt is oddly the '"wrong" length. A child reading this gets to read an sf world constructed of the lingering past in which objects are not anachronisms, because they fact that they linger means that they haven't fallen out of use--they've just found a new use. One of the most beautiful pictures is of a grounded British Airways aeroplane turned into an Anglo-Saxon style long house. Some of us may live long enough to actually witness this.

Without preaching Oakley has managed to deal with all sorts of ideas about change, scarce resources, and a culture of re-use and ingenuity. He's even got some interesting political ideas in there as the emperor pacifies his citizens with the promise of ice-cream and discos, bread and circuses.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Brief absence again.

I need to spend the next few days putting up book shelves in our new house. It's much smaller than the old house, so if I don't put the books up, there isn't going to be room for furniture.

I am reading a very interesting book on girls fiction and ideologies of consumption in the US, so you can expect a blog post on that and another sf novel on Friday.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Galactavision Weekend (or, Where's Terry Wogan when you need him?): Brian Earnshaw, Starclipper and the Galactic Final (London: Methuen, 1987).

One finds good books in surprisingly unprepossessing places. , Starclipper and the Galactic Final is a series book about Star Jam, a family pop group. It has the kind of garish poorly bound hardcover that screams "library edition, meant to tempt boys", and the story line--Star Jam have made the finals of the Galactavision Song contest but must hide out for a week to avoid their competitor who wants to sabotage their chances--made me shudder. So it was quite a surprise to find one of the rare books which genuinely fitted that rubric for Full SF which I outlined at the beginning.

In Star Jam's world, there is interstellar flight in a variety of different types of ships. Music has gone galactic but is still regional. Rock rules, but their mother is a folk singer. Their mother's fiance is the owner of a mega music corporation (my memory is that 1987 was the height of the Stock, Aitken and Waterman domination of the UK music scene).

When their future step father tells them they may not compete in the finals--he wants his group, Sven and the Five Girls, to win even though he hates their music--they take off, with the help of their mother who stays behind to get married. Sven chases after them and damages their solar sails forcing them to head to an unknown but very large ship for rescue. This ship turns out to be owned by space hippies. It's an old Russian Mars rocket, fuelled by paraffin. It can't land, it's very slow, but it's considered one of the greenest fuel there is. There is a lot of discussion in the book over ecology v. speed. The ship is on the way to the Green Planet, a hippie reserve where the annual folk festival is to take place.

The hippies are folk singers and there are some nice culture clashes between the children (with the exception of the youngest, who likes folk). Some of this is over music but also over attitudes. The children begin to realise that the planet they are heading to may not be an idyll (there is 12' of cloud cover). Once on the planet they discover the inhabitants are deadly serious about letting the indigenous species alone, and that humans come last but this is handled not as an opportunity for sentiment but for ingenuity. Instead of shooting at a predator, the pilots of the speed boat throw honey filled apples on wires into the air which are grabbed by dragonflies who pull the boat out of danger--there is enough honey for a five minute flight.

The book was written (if I remember Top of the Pops correctly) at the dawn of the video age and at the height of the synethesizer craze, and it reflects those concerns. Two of the children have learned (in the previous book) how to project telepathic images as they sing -- they call this telesinging. Sven, they discover, is using android backing singers with someone to control them from a distance--sort of a synthesizer in android form I suppose.

There are two interesting aspects to this: the children actually know they aren't a very good band. The younger ones know that their eldest brother and lead singer can barely hold a note and can manage only about three chords. Telesinging only works live, so when they hear that the judges will be on other worlds, they know they can only make a local hit, they can't win. There is also a sense that they know that although they can project images, their images are very literal--illustrations rather than art, which act out the words of the songs.

But when they pull the plug on Sven's androids, they are clear that their argument is less that Sven cheated--they are sure he'll come clean if he wins and help sell more music androids--than that this is a battle between natural music and unnatural. Which is ironic given that they hated the Green Planet. But this understanding--that this is not about cheating but about philosophy, and about the long term future of music--means that the book has consequence, it reaches into the future. This is underscored by the children's decision to pull out of the contest. Earnshaw has resisted turning this book into something about personal ambition or growth, and instead has engaged his protagonists in a wider political debate.

Utterly unexpected.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

The river of science: Paul Samuel Jacobs, Born Into Light (London: Scholastic, 1988). However, I am pretty sure that the author is American.

Roger is ten years old when he and his fourteen year old sister Charlotte see a shooting star. Charlotte runs out into the storm and comes back with a "wild child", a young boy who, as they stare at him, becomes more and more like Roger.

Roger, Charlotte and their mother take the child in, despite the Doctor's warnings that he may never speak, and slowly but surely he picks up language and culture. Ben, as they name him: learns fast but is curiously literal and has huge gaps in his knowledge. When later the family rescues the chid Nell from an institution, she behaves in much the same way: less obviously curious but just as bright.

Most of the story is about Roger's experience of growing up with two "odd" children. Nell and Ben are, in today's terminology, mildly autistic. They have trouble reading social cues and metaphor rather passes them by. They are also very frail: Nell almost dies. Ben has special powers but is exhausted by their use. As they grow the family becomes aware of other "wild children". One, Montrose, is a school friend of Ben's but dies after a sprint race which leaves Ben too ill to attend school. As the years go on, it also becomes obvious that the children, a few more of whom have been identified, age more rapidly than humans for it is now admitted by those who know them that they are probably not truly humans but faulty copies.

Ben and Roger, educated first by their step-father (the doctor) both grow up to be scientists. Ben becomes an astronomer and Roger a research doctor, and here is where the book adds a layer of complexity, for Father declares, "..for mankind, to know is also to live." (78) Yet despite its presentation of scientific enquiry as highly desirable, the book itself does not proceed in that manner. Roger, our pov, tells us in the end not o his enquiry, but of the story of enquiry that Ben told him. So that, as with too much of the modern science curriculum, science is replaced with the story of science, research with the story of research.

At the conclusion of the book, Roger tells us of his conclusions: after reading Ben's research and diaries, all of which point to an alien origin, to the need of another species for our gene pool (the hybrid children are taken off the planet during the conjunction of the pertinent stars) Roger decides that the wild children were the descendants of a pre-human species who vacated the planet earth and have now returned.

I cannot emphasize this enough: nowhere in the book or in Ben's notes is there any evidence for this. Suddenly, and without explanation, and in a way that is utterly out of character for the scientist-Roger, a Fortean explanation is thrown into the mix. It is as if, right at the very end, the author had to remind us that the way of knowing that is "the scientific method" was inherently untrustworthy. The heart not the head rules the episteme.

And we wonder why religious adherence is growing and we can't get kids to study science.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Red haired Cavaliers, Neanderthal Roundheads: Ben Jeapes, New World Order, (London: David Fickling Books, 2005)

I have just finished reading Ben Jeapes's YA novel, The New World Order, in which aliens descended from neanderthals (who long ago emigrated into a parallel world) return to invade England three years into the English Civil War.

Charles I and James get killed by an arial bombardment, Charles II marries his sister off to the half-breed son of the alien general to make peace at the end--but with uncomfortable historical glitches such as Charles II introducing actresses to England. I wonder if he would have done if he hadn't spent time in Europe where it was normal.

Cromwell ends up leading God's Army, a guerrilla force attacking both aliens and Royalists. Fairfax is in exile but brought back by Charles II to lead the armies against the aliens, and Monk works for Charles II but this time sends letters to Cromwell on the sly.

The aliens are pagans who can use the ley lines, and want toevangelise the English (as well as conqering and settling). They crucify people to prove the untruth of the gospels. One of their first victims is Matthew Hopkins who, it turns out, really can smell witchery.

The characterisation isn't wonderful: this is Cromwell as cardboard Puritan, which he never was, but it is rather fun. Because Neanderthals can breed with humans but not as a matter of course, atthe end of the book the Holekhor are left stranded in England knowing that they will be a thin strand in the nation's blood.

What is less clear is what the impact of foreign technology will be--will there be learning or will the advances the Holekhor have brought with them simply disappear. How will the European powers react to an England which now has better weaponry than they do (we already ready know they have fortified their coasts). Charles II has not married Catherine of Braganza so there may be a legitimate heir to the throne. With James II dead already, there goes the Stuart disaster, and of course there will be no King Billy (Cromwell hasn't taken Ireland either). I think Jeapes is Catholic so you could regard this as a counter-reformation alternate history, even if England stays Protestant.

Jeapes does a pretty good job of creating the political difference of his world, but ironically for an sf writer falls down on the world building. Almost any historical novelist could produce a more convincing seventeenth century than this. What I suspect happened is that Jeapes forgot that the past is an alien planet.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Pink and Blue Time Travel: Nick Baron, Glory's End (Robert Silverberg's Time Tours (New York: Harper Collins,1990).

What puzzles me sometimes is the precise ways in which a children's science fiction novel can be bad. This novel manages to be both demanding and patronising all at the same time. It's demanding because it is asking children to assume understanding of the grandfather paradox clearly enough to see that it can be used as a weapon (kill your own grandfather and your enemy can't get to to you) and to set up endlessly coiling time loops in which some people retain the memory of the changed times and others don't and to communicate these clearly and effectively and embedded within the story...

And at the same time to use the word-substitution method of worldbuilding (...the pod drew up beside them, Rafe looked at his chronometer... etc), and to posit a social system identical to ours in which every single female character's place in the book is justified by a romantic attachment (so that men want to go back into history to see great events, while a woman wants to go because she has fallen in love with the diary of a dead soldier).

Cognitively, the book is very interesting: unlike many from this period it makes intellectual demands but no emotional demands. Much more like the earlier fiction,

Just after reading this I read Joanna Russ's The Two of Them..., a book in which the world is built in moments of shock, and of amused observation. There is nothing in this book that an intelligent thirteen year old girl couldn't grasp. Of course, that might be a very good reason for keeping it out of her hands [g].

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Independent Bookshops

I spent yesterday in Devizes (near-ish to Salisbury) visiting Karen Traviss. It's always good to see Karen. I always learn something new. This time one of the new things I learned was that Devizes has an utterly outstanding children's book shop, The Well Wisher. I bought about eight books but as I had no room in my luggage, notes on those will have to wait until Karen can visit (my friend, the pack mule).

I've put the link to the left under a new heading of recommended retailers. If you have a favourite specialist children's book shop, tell me and I'll add it here. Better I think to support the independents than Amazon.

Give History A Chance: Kenneth Oppel, The Live Forever Machine (Toronto: Kids Can Press Ltd, 1990).

Despite Kenneth Oppel's Airborne I still tend to associate the man with talking bats, so turning this book up in a second hand shop was great. The Live Forever Machine is one of the best of the sf books I've read because it's one of the very few that forces the child to question binary dichotomies, and which ties the wider philosophical issues at stake to the protagonist's family problems without simply making one a metaphor for the other or an easy solution. What Eric experiences allows him to see his family differently, but it doesn't offer any solutions.

Eric's father is a subway driver, an autodidact and writes fantasy fiction in his spare time, none of which he sends out for publication. In each of these fictions, somewhere there appears a dark haired young woman, Eric's mother who was killed when he was a baby. Eric's father won't talk about her and tell's Eric that he doesn't need to know--that the pictures of her would mean nothing to Eric. He hoards her.

But Eric's father has also inspired Eric with a passion for history, and this is where Oppel begins to impose demands on the reader, because this passion is a two edged sword. Eric loves history and the past, but less because it sparks his curiousity than because "dates are stable", artefacts are stable. They are something to cling to.

In the museum one day Eric sees two men fighting. He picks up a locket one of them has dropped, and is drawn into a centuries old struggle between a Greek scholar (Alexander) and his student (Coil). Two thousand years before Alexander invented a way of living forever, Coil took advantage of it (it involved drowning oneself) and obsessed with new inventions, began destroying "the past", old fashioned tools and archives. Alexander also took the steps to become immortal and has been chasing him through time to stop him and preserve the past.

Again Oppel demands more of his readers: Alexander has spent two thousand years with tuberculosis. Eric, much as he loves history and is less than thrilled with the new shopping malls, or his friend Chris's high tech, sterile apartment, is not averse to computers or other aspects of modern life. Coil's passion for the future has led him to forget old languages and old ideas, while Alexander has a private cache of artefacts rotting for lack of care. There is a constant tension in the city between the preservation of its history and the desire for the modern.

It would have been so easy for this to have turned into a preservationist tract, "old is good, new is bad" but Oppel forces Eric to consider not this, but the nature of obsession and the blindness it creates. When Chris and Eric defeat Coil they use both Chris's knowledge of computers and Eric's memory for dates. Eric undermines Coil's stability by forcing him to acknowledge the connection between present and past, leading him back in time through a list of dates of the invention of computers and the thought that led to computers-it's one of the most effective demonstrations of science as a process of thought, of cognitive acts as adventure, that I've come across since I read Sandy Landsmann's The Gadget Factor.

By the end of the novel Eric has also confronted his father over his secrecy and obsession--it turns out that his mother committed suicide. Nothing is resolved, but Eric's tolerance for his father's obsessions has been undermined partially by Eric's experiences, partially simply by his passage into adulthood. The adventure itself has also changed the way Eric understands the world around him. It is no longer divided into old and new, the preserved and the changing. Instead he sees a world in complex dynamic that needs the new to preserve the old, needs the old to underpin the world. The main trajectory of this book is from simple understandings to complex, abstract thought.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

A New Zealand Future: Ged Maybury, Time Twister (Auckland: Ashton Scholastic, 1986).

In Time Twister Troy, Helena and Jason are drawn to a computer arcade game that lets them into the past and future. Once they are hooked, they are drawn into the future by the mysterious figure[s] of Yos who shows them how to use the helmet to go back in time and change the future so that the world is not enslaved by a computer corporation.

A number of things make the book unsually interesting: although Maybury explains too much, it's usually after the event rather than before, which makes me wonder if an editor demanded "clarity", and there are plenty of occasions when we are left to work it out for ourselves.

Troy, the eldest boy, has such a bad first experience that he doesn't travel again, and tries to hand the adventure to his younger brother Jason--warning his sister off the dangerous mission. But as it turns out, Jason and Helena have different aspects of the Gift. She can handle the time travel far better than he. What Yos wants Jason for is his computer skills.

The depiction of early computer programming (the mainframe is programmed with a tape) is done very well, and particularly good is the way Jason and Helena think themselves around the time problems. Less convincing, but endemic to adventure fiction generally, is there assumption that Yos are the good guys (just because a foreman is a nasty piece of work, surely doesn't necessarily damn his entire company?) Maybury cheats by giving us one--and only one--glimpse of the company plotting against the family's father, but it is a necessary cheat which helps to undercut this irritating trope.

Yos, by the way, means "Your Future Self".

Monday, May 09, 2005

Romancing the Future: Herve Jubert, Devil's Tango (London: Hodder, 2005), translated by Andrea Bell, original copyright date, 2003.

A sequel to Dance With Assassins which I unfortunately haven't read, Devil's Tango is that very rare thing in English, the scientific romance, which isn't a surprise as it wasn't written in English but in French. It's set perhaps a century after the Great Flood, in the apparently Ruritanian Swiss city of Basle--some of the characters have French names, some have German names.

Basle is crime free because particles in the air monitor the behaviour of all citizens, until suddenly a series of murders begin which cannot be traced, and which are being used to destabilise the city. Basle, as one of the last enclaves in a flooded world, is home to gypsies--engineers who have build Historic Districts for the entertainment of the citizens and the preservation of some of the great wonders of the world (such as historic London). In this moment of crisis it is all too easy to blame the stranger, and one of the Mayoral candidates (Fould) is whipping up hatred for his own purposes.

Devil's Tango is a scientific fantasy. The particles which monitor citizens have been developed by the sorcerers of the city in return for civil liberties. The murders are committed by an entity comprised of these same particles, which unite to search for the "genetic markers" which affect the magical DNA of the descendants of as yet unpunished criminals. Yet even this farrago gains a scientific paradigm: it is the shuffling of files from one database to another that has led the Baron of the Mists to confuse the descendant with the ancestor. This is murder through bureaucracy. The villains, Froud and his accomplice Banshee, are engaged in alchemical experiment to bring the devil's child into the world using DNA from a cigarette on which the devil sucked, and elements stolen from the murdered corpses and stored by a golem until they can be downloaded. When the gypsies and the heroes--Roberta Morgenstern and her lover--escape, it is on a ship constructed of the Hidden Cities, a Ruritanian mechanical wonder.

The novel is a mish-mash of science and pseudo-science (herbalism is very popular), of different centuries and many cultures. The result is a world that works because of its inconsistencies, its sense of muddling through. There are no perfect experts here, only people trying to work out the rules of their world.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Absent Without Leave

I've just moved house (a tiny little terrace in North London with walking access to three Asian and two Caribbean supermarkets) and we are also going to take a much needed holiday in the Lake District, sans computers but with lots of books.

Normal service will resume May 11.