Thursday, June 30, 2005

A Very Short War: Steve Barlow and Steve Skidmore, Star Bores, (USA and UK, Element Chidren's Books, 1999).

A spoof of Star Wars -- pretty bad but draws attention to the meaningless nature of two sides:

Bureau for the Advancement of Desruction, Depravity and Incredibly Evil Schemes (BADDIES)


Grand Order of Democratic Independent Emancipated Societies (GOODIES)

And I can't help loving a book where Princess Liar goes off with Choccibiicci, the hairy Cookie and leaves Han Zup and Puke Moonwalker to drink themselves to death in a bar.

Nice Kids As Tabula Rasa

Discussing the MacHale books has prompted thoughts about the nature of the children I've been reading about in all of these books. I've never been terribly strong on remembering characters in books at the best of times, but I can't help but notice that very, very few of the characters in these sf novels are in the slightest bit memorable.

I think this ties into the niceness issue--maybe what I've been describing as "nice" isn't nice, but merely a blankness, a depiction drawn to alienate as few children as possible, so that the author is not writing "for people like me" as an adult author might, but for "a market". This is a wild surmise you understand....

The funny thing is that today I saw a movie which got across the idea of the sf/scientific child far better than all but a handful of the books I've been reading.

On the flight from Boston to Ft. Lauderdale (business, not pleasure) I watched The Ice Princess. I swear I only watched it because it was such an obvious Noel Streatfield (White Boots) rip off, and had Michelle Trachtenberg in the title role.

I'll assume you don't know it (and ignore all the summaries you see: it isn't a comedy, Casey isn't a bookworm, a maths specialist, or an ousider, and she doesn't "decide to take on the skating world"). Essentially Casey is a geek: child of a hard working single mom, she is aiming to read Physics at Harvard and is still at the stage of assuming that being good at something means she loves it. In her spare time she skates on the pond at the back of the house. Then her physics teacher tells her she needs a science project in order to apply for a physics scholarship and it needs to be based on something she loves. A figure skating fan, she decides to go down to the ice-rink and study the physics of skating. After some argument about spying, she does. The story then follows a predictable trajectory... she gets hooked, starts skating, turns out to be very good and goes onto win Silver in the junior regionals (I was so pleased she didn't win, it made it a much better movie). In the process she gives up Harvard and finds new friends--both depicted more plausibly than is usual in this kind of movie.

But the reason I'm bringing it up here, is that Casey never stops being a scientists. She pays for her own skating lessons by applying her studies of their movements to her friends' figure skating skills. She films them, charts their movements, works out where greater pressure needs to be applied to give them greater lift. Her approach to skating, when she decides it will be her life, is completely different to the other girls around her. She remains what she always was: a scientist.

There is a neat article here. I don't know whether to be more impressed that Trachtenberg learned to skate from scratch or that they took the trouble to get the physics right.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Indications that I am a Science Fiction Fan

I've just read Catherine Fisher's The Scarab. Fisher comes highly recommended and I can sort of see why: her imagery is vivid, her fiction argumentative. The Oracle sequence as a whole is far too much of a hokey-cokey plot to me (you know the kind, people step in and out of danger with no real ryhme or reason) but I'm not unsatisfied.

But there was one moment that made me pause: the villain, Argelin, declares: "Men will learn that water is my gift, channelled and irrigated by my workmen, controlled by the sluices and pumps I devise. There is no Rain Queen." (Hodder, p. 42).

And the problem is that even tho' I know he is a tyrant, I want him to be right. I'd rather argue with an engineer than a god.

Me and My Bunsen Burner: M. E. Patchett, Adam Troy, Astroman, (London: Lutterworth Press, 1954).

Plot: Earth is about to be destroyed by a meteor, so Adam Troy and his spacemen go to the moon to work on colonising Mars, leaving everyone behind to take refuge in Labyrinths or be killed by Tsunamis and radiation from the asteroid. You can tell it's a British book, because you get lines like these:

The deathly hush lying over London was unbroken., Not even a dog barked. The authorities of London knew that the people of London would rather stay behind than leave their animals. (62)

Even Whipsnade Zoo has been evacuated.

But all of that is by the by, as is the stiff upper lip, upright spines (trying to stand up in an earthquake strikes me as stupid, not brave, but this is 1954) and blue eyes, and the calm but worried observation of "brave men" who are evil villains dying despite rescue attempts (so justice is served without contaminating our heroes).

What interested me is the way the book handles science. At times, there are long explanations. At other moments, the authorial voice moves to an ignorant observer: the boat has a "prong like" device attacked to it. At the end, the scientist explains how he defeated the radiation monsters which have emerged on Earth by describing the process of reasoning rather than the actual science, so we get a little spiel about how they reasoned that the things developed in the sea and were a product of the reaction of the sun on radiation, and then very quickly a technical fix by which they need to send a man with poison rockets to change the sun's rays (he will die of course, except that it's Adam Troy, so he doesn't).

I think there are two things here:

1. Patchett understands science, but chokes when having to actually invent anything. At those points we always get handwaving--things "look like" things or do things, but we never get an explanation of how it might work.

2. In 1954 the world is about to change. We are in the last gasp of easily observable science, the idea that biology or physics can be seen in the surface of things. Other writers make the conceptual leap, but Patchett just can't. This is the science of the chemistry set and the little glass slide.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Life as wasteland: Hope Campbell, Legend of Lost Earth (New York: Four Winds, 1977)

First of all, my apologies for absence. Between the back injury, crises at work, and the fact that the house is filled with packing cases which we are slowly working through, I've been too tired to read--not something I say very often.

But things are picking up, and I pulled this book out of the pile. It's a fairly straight forward and rather well written sf novel. Giles lives on Niflhell, a planet to which humans have fled but which he has been taught they originated on. To say anything else is a heresy, and the government is cracking down on heretics.

The planet is very well depicted; Campbell uses Giles's restless unhappiness to draw attention to shortened life spans, falling ash and wrecked planet. She carries the extrapolation through as well: Giles is dating by 15 and thinking of children by 18. He might be dead ay 40 after all.

Eventually, as one might expect, Giles discovers Earth is real (and gets a new girlfriend). However the route turns out to be mystical rather than technological and he is the only person who can navigate the way through. He leads a party through and they escape.

Earth turns out not to be another planet, but a parallel world to Niflhell. One can only see or access it if one is in the right frame of mind. In a scene that reminds me of the dwarves in The Last Battle the government of Niflhell cannot follow the heretics because they cannot see the Earth even when passing through the portal.

Where I hit a problem is that all of this is explained to Giles by an older man at the very end. He doesn't work out a single thing for himself.

This takes me back to MacHale's Pendragon books. I queried sartorias as to why she liked these books as she had said "The YAs that I admire most are exploring those assumptions, questioning them, questioning human roles in life and society, questioning traditions." and the MacHale books didn;t seem to fit the bill. But sartorias added: "Books that engage with kid toolkits, like MacHale's Pendragon series"and "MacHale starts off with all kinds of zings, particularly for boy readers. (And I noted in New York that among the many, many kids who asked him to sign, were shuffling boys whose mothers all said "He hates to read but he cannot wait for your next book!" or "I couldn't get him to read anything until your first book came out." So I got one, and read the opening--and yup, it's an exceedingly kid-friendly opening.
and that made me think a bit.

The problem I had with McHale's book was essentially that his hero (Bobby) is a Jock. Hope Campbell's hero although no athlete, isn't a thinker either. Both are rewarded for being handsome, nice and kind.

So in both of these books, the type of boy being valorized is not the nerd or the geek who we associate with the sf reader. However, I am also aware that many heroes of adult sf are athletes or jocks etc. I'm not saying they can't be: but surely what most of this fiction does is to valorize those who think, and neither of these books do that.

A question: if boys really like MacHale, which boys? Are they boys who might be seduced by the dark side of sf, or are they boys who want confirmed the idea that bouncing through life relying on strength and agility is the way to go?

Or am I just prejudiced?

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Susan Gates again: A Brief History of Slime (London: Puffin, 2003).

Susan Gates again! I'm still not convinced by her as a writer of juvenile sf but she is far and away the best writer of sf for "younger readers" (ie up to the age where they decide that kissing isn't embarrassing) I've read so far.

In A Brief History of Slime Smiler goes to stay with his grandfather who has set up a Laugh Camp in an iron fort. The camp only has one guest/inmate, Coriander, whose parents have been convinced she can go because they have been told laughter will improve her grades.

Smiler has problems of his own because his friends no longer laugh at his jokes--they think them infantile. The problem is that so does he and he can't find new ones.

Meanwhile there is a fake clown who is out to rescue head lice from the destruction of a mad scientist who hates all head lice [he specialises in campaigning for unattractive species], who turns out to be his mother, who has found a super-headlouse on the head of a neanderthal boy who has been attracted to the future by the mangetism of the iron fort. The portrayal of the neanderthal boy is particularly good: he imports his own life skills and is getting on very well in the twenty first century.

Looked at in the cold light of day, the book is a complete load of tosh, but it is very sf-nal tosh, and I've always maintained that sf is in the attitude of mind, not necessarily in the science. Smiler and Coriander work out what is going on, Coriander knows loads of "stuff" that help her in this and Smiler offers the curiosity so they make a good investigative team, and there is loads of consequence, because, while they have been worrying about giant headlice and glow in the dark rabbits (who are last seen breeding in a hillside) some small molecules of prehistoric metal eating sea slime who came in with the limpet eating cave-boy are breeding like crazy in the sea.

It would be the end of civilisation as we know it. Could anything stop it?
Limpets could. Shellfish had helped bring the first Slimy Empire to an end. Now they were needed again.
While Smiler and Coriander cloud watched, a deadly battle was going on under the waves.
Who will win? Will limpets eat all the slime mould and save the world? Or will the slime reach the shore and set up Slimy Empire II?
Who knows what it'll much first? It could be computer circuits. Or even railway lines. So look out for secret warning signs.
If computers start crashing or trains get delayed, you'll know the limpets lost.

No recursion here, and plenty of material with which to drive parents mad.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Comic Fun: Dav Pilker, Captain Underpants and the Big Bad Battle of the Bionic Booger Boy (New York, Scholastic, 2003)

Separated into two parts:
1. The Night of the Nasty Nostril Nuggets
2. Revenge of the Ridiculous Robo-Boogers.

Some books are absolutely written for kids. They are designed to make adults squirm. Everything about this book, from the disgusting slime boy to the protagonists who are anti-intellectual tricksters is designed to irritate an adult. Our heroes defeat super-scientist braniac nerd boy (think about it and you realise they are simply bullies, but that never stopped me loving Dennis the Menace[the UK version]).

I'm not going to sum up the plot, I'm much more interested in the way the story is told. George and Harold, as well as being the driving force of the tale are also collaborative narrators through the medium of the comics they draw. So you have a told story which is frequently anticipated by the comic. The comic superheroes can do anything while the 'real' superheroes are limited by specific powers. Pilker seems to have a clear understanding that children like rules in the real world, and wish fulfilment in their imaginations, but that this doesn't mean the rules have to be mimetic rules.

The other thing I like is that George and Harrold are imaginative and can think. Many of the "tricks" are later re-used as technological ways of doing things the adult scientists (who are usually shown as fools) cant. The books are anti-scientists/adults, but they aren't anti-science.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Sticky Ideas

When I visited Karen Traviss last month Karen forced on me a copy of The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, a book about how memes start and change the world. Now, if Karen, not known for an enthusiasm for reading, tells you you have to read a book, you do. And in search of anything that wasn't work I started reading it today.

Naturally, being me, who seems to be able to see interesting links to my own work in the natty arrangement of scales on a salmon, I have found something I want to share. There is an entire chapter in the book on Sesame Street. It has lots of discussions of child psychology and what was learned in the process of making the series and I'll go back to all of that (the book is now bristling with bookmarks) but here is the bit I wanted to share:

...when the show was originally conceived, the decision was made that all fantasy elements of the show be separated from the real elements. This was done at the insistence of many child psychologists, who felt that to mix fantasy and reality would be misleading to children. The Muppets, then, were only seen with other Muppets, and the scenes filmed on Sesame Street itself involved only real adults and children. What Palmer found out in Philadelphia [the test area], though, was that as soon as they switched to the street scenes the kids lost all interest...
Henson and his coworkers created puppets who could walk and talk with the adults of the show and could live alongside them in the street.., What we now think of as the essence of Sesame Street--the artful blend of fluffy monsters and earnest adults--grew out of a desperate desire to be sticky.

(Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point, Abacus 2001, 105-6).

Later there is a discussion of Blue's Clues which in arguing for rigid mimesis as even more attractive to small children ends up contradicting this--I think this is because it isn't what Galdwell is interested in, he is much more interested in the mechanisms which also fascinate me and I need to come back to them--but it does give me something to chew on.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

The Books I Read So You Don't Have To: D. J, McHale's Pendragon sequence.

D. J. MacHale, Pendragon: The Merchant of Death(London: Simon and Schuster, 2003 [S&S NY, 2002])
D. J. MacHale, Pendragon: The Lost City of Faar(London: Simon and Schuster, 2003 [S&S NY, 2003])
D. J. MacHale, Pendragon: The Never War(London: Simon and Schuster, 2004 [S&S NY, 2002])

forthcoming: The Reality Bug

Where to start?

Well first, I'm not too sure whether these are fantasy or sf, I'm rather giving them the benefit of the doubt because I think that the frame story structure will allow sf plots, although so far the possibility of sf-ness in The Lost City of Faar (I keep writing that "The City of Lost Fear" which I offer as a much cooler title to anyone who wants it) was restricted to the wondrous landscape of a world built on floating rafts and the ease with which they can be poisoned.

But I should explain the story.

Bobby Pendragon--high school jock, good grades, the girls all love him--is kidnapped by his Uncle Press and taken down a tunnel which transports them to another world which Bobby is supposed to help. This is the opening to all three books and will be to the endless sequels I expect. As the books go on the importance of what Bobby is doing grows and by book three we know the villain (Saint Dane) is out to destroy the universe. Bobby "an ordinary boy" is expected to stop him. Bobby, like his Uncle Press and some of the other people he meet is a Traveller.

Book 1: Bobby and Uncle Press go to Denduron where Bedoowan enslave the Milagos. Bobby helps the Milago's revolt but prevents them using the WMD supplied by Saint Dane. Loor, the Traveller girl he meets, turns from regarding him with contempt (essentially as a spoiled American brat) to seeing him as a true warrior. Loor's mother dies but she takes it calmly.

Book 2: Bobby goes to Cloral, a water world, and with the help of the Traveller boy Spader, who doesn't yet know he is a Traveller, they fail to defeat Saint Dane's plans to destroy the world and to destroy the city of Faar. Spader's father (the previous Traveller) dies. So does Uncle Press. We learn that there is only ever one Traveller at at time. When a new one appears the old one knows he is about to get it.

Book 3:Bobby and Spader are sent back to Earth 1937 (it's called First Earth, 2003 is Second Earth, they are all Territories in the battle). His mission--he eventually works out--is to make sure the Hindenberg crashes so that the money on board to pay for a spy network who are spying on the US's nuclear secrets (I had trouble with that idea--in 1937 shouldn't the spying be going the other way around) and prevent the Axis powers from bombing the US (another idea I had problems with as I'm not sure the west coast cities mentioned would have been within reach unless the Axis already controlled the Atlantic). Spader screws up, Bobby sends him home because he can't trust him. He is much harsher on Spader than Loor was on him.

That takes me to the first criticism from which all else descends: Bobby. Yuck.

Bobby is perfect. He is good at sports, bright (although McHale later backs up a bit and makes him bad at history), and to quote his girlfriend Courtney Chetwynde (of whom more in a moment):

There's something about you, Bobby. I know you're brain and a jock and popular and all, but it's more than that. You've got this, like, I don't know, this aura thing going on. People trust you. They like you. And it's not like you're trying to show off or anything. Maybe that's part of it. You don't act like you think you're better than anybody else. You're just this really good guy--" she paused before going on, then the bombshell-- "who I'e had this incredible crush on since fourth grade."

Now I just know that like me you will want to vomit, but swallow hard, because it's going to be like this all the way. Y'see, the way the book is set up, we aren't meant to identify with Bobby. I've noticed this before--as have a number of critics--that one of the differences between superhero fiction, however apparently sfnal--and sf is that while sf wants you to identify with the hero, and its heroes are often misfits--superhero fiction mostly wants you to admire the hero (don't rush to give me the exceptions, I know they exist) who is often better at all the things that society admires. This is a superhero novel, and what is it a superhero needs? An admiring (or hissing) public.

Bobby's adventures are related through journals which Bobby sends via a magic/technological ring to his old friends Courtney and Mark. Mark is the nerd. If this were an sf novel, it's Mark who would be having the interesting adventures--frankly, he is the one who has the brains for it.

We get to read the novel with Courtney and Mark. The effect, and I don't know if MacHale meant to do this, is that we identify with them, not with Bobby. Now this has mixed results. I know that the whole identification thing is a con--we identify in a story because the rhetoric draws us in, but usually it does so by positioning us an an invisible participant riding side by side with the protagonist. By reminding us every so often that we are actually sitting with Mark and Courtney we are relegated to cheering audience.

This is compounded by the fact that Mark and Courtney's adventures hiding the manuscript, discovering that Mark's family seems never to have existed (even their house is gone) are so much more interesting than the universe crashing quests of the perfect (and rather arrogant) Bobby.

And all of this is written with painful attention to emotions, lots of self-analysis and group hugs. These are very American teens in that they know the emotions they are supposed to feel, and how they are supposed to deal with them. When Bobby rejects Spader, it's with lots of therapy-speak. The thing about therapy-speak is that it is one of the most effective languages for emotional bullying I've ever come across. It allows the one person to impose an interpretation of the world upon an individual while justifying it as "you don't understand yourself". So will it surprise you to learn that the one power Travellers have (apart from Travelling) is the Jedi Mind Touch. See Karen Traviss for an interesting discussion on the ethics of the Jedi.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Susan Gates

I've just noticed that Dusk which I blogged a few days earlier (sorry, can't manage the links while standing up, can't yet sit down to type for very long) is also by Susan Gates. Interesting that she gets the younger children hooked on facts-in the way that younger children often are--but can't make the shift up to the older child's curiosity-mode but leaves them instead in a state of mild dismissal of real information.

I like mine mashed: Susan Gates, The Spud From Outer Space, (London: Penguin, 2004).

Don't laugh, this is actually rather good, partially because Gates is one of a miniscule number of children's sf authors who trust her readers with two plots, one sf and one fantasy, and leaves them wondering who the good guys are supposed to be.

Cruncher, an eleven year old addicted to crisps and thumbsucking, grows his thumbnail long and sharp so he can't suck it, but can't give up his twenty a day habit of Chapel crisps. He is hoping to get rid of both bad habits before starting secondary (high) school in the summer.

Cruncher's grandad runs the council rubbish tip, a small recycling/resale business on the side, and dreams of securing the rubbish concession in space. He's built his own van for space trash reclamation.

Professor Kettles is the man who grew up making friends with potatoes and now owns the factory which makes Chapel Chips. To make the chips he has a wonderful mechanical hand called The Claw. Kettle doesn't quite see the contradiction between loving potatoes and making them into chips, but Cruncher does. Cruncher is also pretty disappointed to find out that when the bag says "made by hand" it doesn't mean by a little old lady in an apron, but by the claw. It's the first step on the road to disillusion.

Two things then happen. A potato grown in space (oddly, in Martian soil--I think Gates slipped there) lands on earth and starts growing. It is carnivorous and must be defeated.

It's chief enemy though is the ghost of the preacher Silas Smite who used his pulpit in the eighteenth century to rail against the evils of the potato (as Gates points out, while Smite didn't exist, the story is true: potatoes are related to Deadly Nightshade and are also easy to grow, thus encouraging sloth amongst the peasantry). It's protector appears to be a ghostly girl, Jane Shore, who burned down her village and like Cruncher has a long thumbnail. This turns out to be the sign of a potato eater--without knives, the poor grew their nails long to skin the potato.

Smite enslaves Cruncher and the Professor and tries to get them to kill the potato. Jane kills Smite. The claw, which has run away from the factory and has adopted Cruncher as its mummy, rescues him from a potato slurry quicksand pool but gets rejected for its pains. Grandad defeats the potato with his truck.

All ends happily as Jane Shore redeems her reputation--it was Smite who burned her village and the claw is adopted by Cruncher. And along the way we've learned a surprising amount about the potato, the manufacture of potato chips, ballistics, and space ecology.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Not very quenching: Catherine Taylor, Thirst (Markham, Ontario: Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 2005).

The one thing in favour of this book is that it isn't anything like as bad as I thought it might be.

The book starts in a walled village in a desert in which the protagonist and her aunt Stone are outsiders. Life is harsh and made harsher by a history which says there is nothing beyond the desert and the world is suffering for the impurities of the past world. Tales of pollution have been turned into ideas about moral transgressions and physical deformities.

Mara and her Aunt escape one night after a particularly savage round of self-accusation sessions and whippings. They find the sea and the injured aunt becomes a dolphin (I think, it might be a seal, it really isn't described well enough). Mara finds another group of people who nurse her and she discovers they have water and rain. She and a friend go back to the desert town where they are whipped, and convince about twenty people to come back to them. I found myself worrying how the town built on co-operation could absorb these people who lived in a world of distrust.

The book feels a bit pointless--very much a "there and back again"--and in that way I've come to recognise, Mara does very little herself but is passed hand to hand from adult to adult.

It's written in a passive present tense as well, just to make sure we all go to sleep,

What keeps it going is that Taylor has a sharp eye for the politics of small communities and the motives behind spite--she doesn't reduce the book to good v. evil. There is potential here, so I'll keep an eye out for her next book.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Rabbits in space: Jan Wahl (illustrations by Kimberly Schamber), Rabbits on Mars (Minneapolis: Carolrhoda Books Inc., Lerner Publishing Group,

Apologies for my unexpected absence. Apart from the sheer time eater that is house moving, on Monday I had a rather serious accident. Details are at my LJ but the short form is that I stepped through a hole in the pavement and triggered massive whiplash. It's probable I won't be posting much until next week as I still can't sit up for long. This is why today's post is on a picture book. It's about my level just now.

Jan Wahl (illustrations by Kimberly Schamber), Rabbits on Mars (Minneapolis: Carolrhoda Books Inc., Lerner Publishing Group, 2003)

Summary: a bunch of rabbits get tired of being chased over roads by dogs "You take your life in your paws", said Greenleaf "just to cross the road", and are finding carrots rather hard to get now everyone grows them under glass houses, so they build a rocket to take them to the moon, where they find giant carrots and moon-dogs. The moon-dogs want to playy and there are some rather disturbing scenes of them juggling with the rabbits and playing tennis with them (the rabbits are the balls). They teach the moon-dogs to dance and escape back to earth where "on Earth we can hide from dogs if we must".

The book, which is otherwise simply an anthropomorphic fantasy which teaches children that home is best, is saved by a number of factors. The illustrations are brilliant; the sections on building the rocket, on space flight and on the views from space are accurate and exciting "The crew sang songs to stay calm. Days grew into weeks, weeks into months. When they napped, they shared carrot dreams. Water was so scare they took sponge baths... Earth grew smaller... and smaller... and smaller." And the very last page:

Lying on his back, Peppercorn looked up into the sky and saw a cool blue star shining so brightly.
"I read that's Jupiter," said Peppercorn.
"I wonder what it's like there..."
But Ouzel and Greenleaf were fast asleep.

Rock on Rabbits!

Friday, June 03, 2005

Drowned World, drowned words: Marcus Sedgwick, Floodland (London: Dolphin Books, Orion, 2005).

I liked The Dark Horse very much. I thought The Book of Dead Days and its sequel a little pointless.

Floodland is a waste of good trees which is funny when you think about it.

Zoe is left behind on the island of Norwich when her parents escape the rising flood. She finds a boat, maintains it and uses it to escape when others attack her because she has a boat and they don't (it's unclear why she didn't leave before). She finds a much smaller island--Ely--where the inhabitants are all wild children with the exception of a not too sane old man called William Blake who reads the poetry've guessed it. There is lots of stuff here about the value of stories but no one remembers them any more.

Zoe and a nice boy called Munchkin (we know he is nice because he keeps a pet rat) escape to the mainland, and they find Zoe's parents. Zoe is furious that they never came back for her, but forgives them when she discovers it's because her mother was pregnant and she now has a baby brother (most kids I know would be more, not less resentful).

That's it. This story has been done better by Peter Dickinson, Jan Mark, Julie Bertagna, John Christopher and probably a lot of other people.

Stick the originals.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Liminal Science Fiction: Written by Helen Ward and illustrated by Wayne Anderson, The Dragon Machine (London, Templar Publishing, 2003).

Back in February I talked about John Parke's The Moon Ship in which boys played at going into space.

At the time Jeff VanderMeer hit the nail on the head when he said the reason the book worked was that the boys believed in their activities absolutely.

In the book I'm actually writing at the moment (as opposed to this one for which I am "preparing"--like those cookery classes at school which always started "first lay out your equipment") I am discussing ways of creating belief in the fantastic. The group of texts which most fascinate me are those which I've dubbed "liminal fantasy".

The liminal fantasy hovers on the edge of the fantastic, inviting belief by balancing what it shows on the expectations of the reader. One way of doing this is through irony--having the protagonist and the reader with very different ideas of what might be the fantasy in the text. The example I always use is Joan Aiken's "But it's Tuesday" in which the Armitage family look out of the window and see unicorns on the lawn. The reader responds "wow, unicorns". The family respond "but things like unicorns only happen on Mondays!".

I don't see this form of fantasy in books for small children very much. Play and pretend remain play and pretend. Even something like Where the Wild Things Are is essentially a dream. Occasionally though there is something special. In Diana Wynne Jones's picture book, Yes Dear Kay finds a magic leaf. The illustrator. Graham Philpot, has drawn pictures in which wherever Kay is, things become magical. When Kay is not there, the magic fades. But we see a cat licking at the party foods Kay has made in the sandpit, so when Grandma admits she, too, found a magic leaf when she was young, we aren't quite so sure that she is playing.

Back to the subject text: `George--unseen and overlooked--starts seeing dragons everywhere. They are pictured. The dragons multiply and begin to cause problems. George looks up dragons in the library and decides to take them home. He builds a metal dragon and we see plans and tools everywhere. George flies them home to the wilderness and crashes. He is eventually brought home and is no longer overlooked.

He is given a dog, who is secretly a dragon.

So here I have an example of liminal science fiction. Does George build that iron dragon? Who knows. I suspect that a child will read this book as either sf or fantasy, with a solid sense of the realness of George's dragons. What the adult reader will do will depend on their own reader orientation: many will, I suspect, present the book as an example of "let'spretend"

Works Cited:
Yes, Dear, illustrated by Graham Philpot. London: HarperCollins, 1992.