Tuesday, July 19, 2005

An Irish Rennaisance; Kate Thompson, The Missing Link (London: Red Fox Books, Random House, 2001

If there is a Renaissance in children’s science fiction, it seems to be coming out of Ireland. Eoin Coifer,Oisin McGann, Ann Carroll, Conor Costik and also Kate Thompson. I should have picked up on Thompson sometime ago but her books are packaged and blurbed as cheesy thrillers and they looked dire. I ignored the “winner of the Irish Children’s Book Award, 2002”.

My apologies Ms Thompson, this will teach me to judge a book by its cover and to ignore the taste of judges.

Christie lives with his mother, his stepfather Maurice and his stepbrother Danny. To the reader, Danny seems vaguely autistic and dyspraxic. There is some deep dark secret Maurice won’t talk about, and it starts to leak when Danny’s mother turns up after an absence of fifteen years. Christie learns she is a scientist and untrustworthy.

Then a few mornings later, Danny wakes Christie up and demands to be taken on the bus to Scotland. Christie capitulates for the sake of peace and takes him onto the Dublin bus, expecting to be able to coerce him back, but by this point something that has been a background note to the story starts to rise in volume: there is a war somewhere out there in the Gulf, oil fields are alight and the western world is grinding to a halt. They can’t get back, but they can go forward.

As a twist, they find themselves accompanied by Darling, a talking sparrow, who then hooks them up with Oggy, a talking collie dog, and the homeless girl Tina who Oggy has picked up when he got lost. But this isn’t a fantasy novel: the animals refuse to explain how they can talk, and they keep their essential natures. There is a really superb scene when Oggy kills a sheep so that they don’t starve. It’s brutal, nasty and real and Christie has to come to terms with it.

This is one of the elements of the book that make it so good. We very much ride with Christie, but Thompson doesn’t force Christie’s conclusions on up. There are various points where Christie asks questions (of himself or others) on our behalf—about whether the west can survive without oil, about what homelessness has done to Tina, about Maggie’s research, about Maggie’s decision not to give food to the hungry—but he doesn’t rush to give us the answers. Thompson uses Christie to show us that intelligence is about inquisitiveness, not about knowledge.

Christie and Tina end up taking Dannie all the way back to his mother’s camp in the north of Scotland, a long, slow, vivid journey through ice and snow and a collapsing economy and infrastructure. Thompson has hit on the secret of really good sf, that very often it is about the experience of people in the microcosm when the big stuff is happening—the small people in interesting times.

When they do get to Maggie, they discover the lab of Doctor Moreau, full of failed mutants, and talking animals surrounding the farm. Maggie’s scientific partner has gone, taking with him their third child. Sandy their second child turns out to have frog fibre muscle. At the end we discover what Danny is.

One of the best scenes is when the animals encounter Christie and Tina and want to know what they are, peppering them with questions:

“Have you got any children?”
“Are you house trained yet?”
“How many is three?”
“Can you see colours?” (192)

There is a real sense of alienness there. Similarly there is a sense of consequence: Christie decides that Maurice chickened out of the potentials of the early research. Maggie is a scientist concerned with the future of her research and the world. Her partner turns out to be investigating the one bit of the research that baffled Christie too. As is always the case with good science, Maggie’s results have provoked more questions than they have answered.

Sequels; Only Human, Origins


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