Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Lost and Found: Children's Books We Miss (from the Worldcon panel of the same name)

Children's Books We Miss

Lost and Found: Children’s Books We Miss(ed)

This list of recommended books was presented at Interaction–The 63rd World Science Fiction
Convention in Glasgow, Scotland on Sunday, August 7, 2005. Panel participants were Greer Gilman, Moderator, Francis Spufford, Terry Pratchett and Janet McNaughton.

Compiled by Janet McNaughton

Greer Gilman

Mary Poppins Comes Back, Mary Poppins in the Park, Mary Poppins Opens the Door,
Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane, PL Travers.
The Princess and The Goblin, George MacDonald (1872).
Lion, William Pène Dubois, (a picture book).
Peter Graves, William Pène du Bois, (1950).
The Little White Horse, Elizabeth Goudge, (1946).
The Amazing Vacation, Dan Wickenden (1956).
The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm, Norman Hunter, (1933).
The Nine Questions, Edward Fenton, Doubleday, illustrations by C. Walter Hodges (1959).

Francis Spufford

The Blue Hawk, Peter Dickinson (1976).
Charlotte Sometimes, Penelope Farmer (1969).
The Magic City, E. Nesbit, (1910).
The Guardians, John Christopher (1970).
The Heritage of the Star, Sylvia Engdahl, (1973).

Terry Pratchett

Moomintroll series, Tove Jansson, Fin Family Moomintroll and others.
Mistress Masham’s Repose, TH White, (1947).
The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death, Daniel Pinkwater.
Midnight Folk (1927) and The Box of Delights, (1935) John Masefield.
Star in the Hand, Elizabeth Stucley (1954).
The Little Grey Men, (1988) "BB," 1905- (D. J. Watkins-Pitchford).
The Wizard of Boland, "BB," 1905- (D. J. Watkins-Pitchford).
The Griffin and the Minor Canon, Frank Stockton (1963).
Brendon Chase, "BB," 1905- (D. J. Watkins-Pitchford), (1979).

Janet McNaughton

The Live-Forever Machine, Kenneth Oppel, HarperCollins Canada, (1990; 2001).
Dead Water Zone, Kenneth Oppel, HarperCollins Canada, (1992; 2001).
Dust, Arthur Slade, HarperCollins Canada (2001).
Acceleration, Graham McNamee, Random House, (2003).
The Prince of Tarn, Hazel Hutchins, 1997. (A junior novel).
The Marmawell Trilogy: The Dragon’s Tapestry, Red Deer Press, The Prism Moon, (1993),
The Taker’s Key, Red Deer Press, (1998), Martine Leavitt [Martine Bates].

Other Suggested Titles

Space Cat, Ruthven Todd (1957).

George MacDonald, The Princess and Curdy (1877), Back of the North Wind (1871).

The Church Mice, a series beginning in 1972, Graham Oakley.

Alexander and the Magic Mouse by Martha Sanders, (1969).

Monday, August 29, 2005

Weird discount offer

If you go here to this link you will see that my newest book is now Amazon listed.

If you look down to the bottom of the page you will also see that if you apply for an Amazon credit card, you can get $30 off the book. That's a third off.

Weird, but embarrassing though it is to indulge in puffery, it also seemed wrong not to mention it.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

How to Make An SF Critic Very Happy: Oisin McGann, The Harvest Tide Project (Dublin: O'Brien Press, 2004).

The worst thing about keeping this blog is the amount of time I spend either whinging or giving grudging praise. It makes me feel like not a very nice person. I blogged Oisin McGann's first book, The Gods and Their Machines back in January and it was a rare moment of almost unalloyed praise. My only caveat was that the allegorical aspect of the book (children from either side of a political divide) was hard to overlook.

I have no such reservations with The Harvest Tide Project, although this is McGann's first book written before The Gods and their Machines was published.

I'm going to attempt a plot summary:

Taya and Lorkrin (sister and brother) are shape changers who accidentally pull down a stone pillar when they are playing with their uncle Emos's shape changing tools (more of that later). The pillar is holding up a wall which is holding in a bunch of scientists. They all wander out into the market place, but then are "rounded up" by soldiers. All except one, Shessil Groach, a botanist who has just made a breakthrough in the forced growth of a local plant. Shessil is actually a prisoner of a rather despotic regime, but he doesn't know it yet, and he casually wanders away and stumbles into various explorations. When he is recaptured, his captors don't realise who he is at first, which gives him quite a lot of opportunity to see what the world he lives in is actually like. Much of this story is about a very bright, very sheltered and niave man becoming politically aware.

Part of the story (and Shessil's adventures) are facilitated by Taya and Lorkrin's realisation that Shessil has gone off with one of their Uncle's tools by accident. This is where McGann is particularly convincing. In too many travel adventures, people join in because they are on the side of "right". Here, the original coming together of the protagnists is more like a screwball comedy where each has their own agenda. Taya and Lorkrin "liberate" Shessil because of what he carries. Hilspeth the scent carrier, just doesn't much like soldiers and when one hits her, she reacts and is forced to throw in her lot with people running the same way. Draegar gets drawn in because he recognizes the children of an old friend, and Emos, an exile from his own people because he survived an unsurvivable plague, has spent most of the book chasing after the children. All of them are slowly entangled in Shessil's growing awareness of what he is involved in. Although there is a key moment of recognition, the book is so powerful because no one tells Shessil anything, nor does he see anything truly horrific. It's just that he moves from being a scientist obsessed with pure science to being a scientist who begins to wonder what his work is being used for(85). Clearly the model here is the scientists of the Manhattan project.

All of the above is just good writing. What about the science fiction?

Some material is a little clumsily delivered, we get a short background lecture on Taya and Lorkrin as Myunan shapeshifters, "They both knew that their uncle would not use a normal catch for a hidden door. He would have built something that only a Myunen could open. Myunen flesh was unique in that it could be shaped and formed like modelling clay...." but while the second sentence is really uneccessary because in the following paragraph McGann shows this happening the first sentence is quietly brilliant, because it shows in this small opening (it's page 10) the consequences of Myunan powers for Myunan ways of thinking.

The whole shapeshifting thing is also a tour de force. Sherri Tepper was the last person to make this seem like a real bodily function, something to be practiced, something that is both an abiliity but also a variable talent. McGann's shapeshifters have maleable bodies, but they can't actually control the movement. For that they need tools.

"The boy seemed to be combing his ears back... with a comb." (32)
"Whipping out their tool kits, they quickly fashioned their fingertips into claws and clambered up the wall..." (34)

And their are limitations which the children meet by combining shapeshifting with brains: "Standing one child on top of another does not make the shape of an adult, however... Taya had increased the size of her head and even coloured her skin as if she were wearing make-up. She had lengthened her arms, at the same time making her legs much smaller and thinner. leaving them just strong enough to allow her to keep her balance on Lorkrin's shoulders. Lorkrin had flattened his head to conceal it under the cloak, shortened his body and lengthened his legs so that he could stride like someone twice his height." (116) When later they want to fly, they reason that bad shapes can be morphed into--feathers are much too complicated and flying is more than about shape changing "a person needed first to achieve a suitable form, and then to grasp the principles of flying itself."(143 and 144).

Perspective is done well: McGann switches from character to character and with each he keeps hold of a firm sense of their personality and species. Lorkin muses on the brittleness of humans.

There are some very funny touches, a court case that is meant to be fixed against the defendant but which collapses because the judge keeps fining the witnesses for their bad grammar (1130--corruption canceling out corruption.

The description of the tyrant, Rak El Namen is well done: he is a man ambitious for his own country and fascinated by science. He doesn't think of other species as human, but he is no cackling evil villain, his evil is contextualised. "He said the war with the Katharic Peaks would soon be fought and won, and that with that victory would come a time of peace. Science would take its rightful place over the traditions of old. Used wisely, it would put an end to hunger... " (148) and while he makes his workforce labour seven days a week he pays just wages.

McGann doesn't explore all the questions he poses, but each one is a planted seed, some political and some scientific. Most of the "downloads" are posed in a "we should ask questions about this" kind of way. The entire trajectory of the novel is about what happens when Shessil stops asking questions about plants and asks questions first about politics, and then about plants and politics.

If I carry on I'll give away too many of the good bits, and for once I really want you all to go buy this novel. What struck me most in the end was how complex Harvest Tide is, without being complicated. As the story spirals it does so in ways that make contextual sense, and not just because a desperate author needed another "... and then."

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

More Alliteration: Brian Ball, The Doomship of Drax (London: Heinemann, 1985)

Nick Pilot lives on a colony world. His people left earth generations ago to live more peaceful lives. Now there are rumours that the sun may be about to explode, and rumours also that the original settlers left a starship for the colonists to escape in if necessary.

Nick's village regards this as heresy and seeks to appease the sun with sacrifice. Nick follows the "false" prophet and discovers all this is true, and helps to find the starship.

Two things make this book stand out from all the other books with the same "our parents don't know anything, the ancients knew everything" theme.

1. The original colonists knew there was a very slight chance of the star becoming unstable, and although they wanted their descendants to be farmers, they made plans for emergencies. ie they weren't stupid.

2. The neighbouring town which does believe the prophet, do not place their entire faith in the idea of a lost starship. They start experimenting with explosives and rocketry. OK, we know they don't stand a chance, but they act like human beings not


they act like humans not like dogs, calmly waiting for prophet/hero/master to give them their orders.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Scientific Questions: Judy Allen, The Blue Death: the true story of a terrifying epidemic (London: Hodder Children's Books, 2001).

I shouldn't be including this book, because it isn't science fiction, it isn't even fiction. It's a children's history book. I want to talk about it because of the things Judy Allen does which reach into the "complex reasoning" so absent from much of the sf aimed at the same age group.

Allen sets out to tell not the story of John Snow (although she does this as well) but of cholera, a disease (as she points out) which afflicted a society increasingly aware of the need for hygiene, sane, rational and logical. There are no villains in this story, not even, as she points out, superstition. There is only a rivalry between different theories and different ways of observing illness.

What Allen focuses in on, is that story of the Broad Street waterpump is the story of the new science of forensic statistics, or as it will later be known, epidemiology. With great rigour in her narrative she tells of the rigour of John Snow who slowly traced the pattern of the disease and the use of water from two different pumps to figure out that it was the pump with the better reputation (for sweeter water) which carried the poison. Allen points to the "breaks in the pattern" (the woman up the hill well away from the water who died because she habitually had a cask of it sent to her) which aided Snow's research. Most impressive of all, Allen recounts how, having identified the Broad Street pump as the source of infection Snow continued his epidemiological survey to map the spread of cholera throughout the city and confirmed that the spread of cholera was through the fluids excreted by the dead. Allen doesn't shirk from the politics of science either: John Snow's work was questioned by the Health Board which insisted on recreating his evidence through their own enquiries, thus elevating Snow's work into an experiment which could be recreated.

This is one of the very few books I've read this year which is about the scientific process. This is an aspect of sf which needs to be represented more in sf for younger readers. Why isn't it? This isn't an idle question. In my early reading for the initial article I read H.M. Hoover's The Lost Star of which fantastic fiction writes "While on an archaeological expedition to Balthor, a young astrophysicist stumbles upon the Lumpies, gray smiling creatures with a strange secret". The most annoying thing about this book was that the heroine and we learned loads about archeology, while astrophysics, clearly too difficult for us poor readers, remained a closed book and played no part in the plot.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Home is where the conquerors are: Kimberley Fuller, Home (New York: Tor, 1997).

I'm rather surprised at this book coming out of Tor: a good idea, it is marred by so many problems that it bordered on unreadable for me. Crucially it fell into the trap of Mary Sue plots and a romance which comes to dominate the book even as the author is clear that it is not the important issue-at-stake.

When Maran rescues Alik she discovers he is a returner to her planet, a refugee who left when his people were over-run by invading colonizers.

Let's go through the problems in bullet point form so I don't have to make them connect, they mostly don't.

Maran and Alik take an inordinately long time to figure out that if he came from the planet, and his people are no longer there, then Maran's people probably committed geocide.
Alik seems to have no problem with the foreign language, but no one questions this until very late when it turns out that his people are telepaths.
Maran starts to have dreams and visions, these turn out to be revelatory and prophetic.
Maran turns out to actually be one of Alik's people.
About a third of the book is devoted to her romance with Alik.
The book reads as if all the action takes place in a vilage and its hinterland, but they are on a planet. There is no reason at all for Alik's people to have stayed so close.
The genocide is portrayed as something irrational, one person's desire for honour and glory. The genocidal culture gets excused.
The vengeance attack somehow gains moral stature.

This is a messy, rather boring book, that clearly has the seeds of something a lot more interesting. But first remove the romance.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Watch the Skies: Stephen Elboz The Tower of Moonville (Oxford: OUP, 1999)

When his parents die in a typhoid epidemic Nathan is taken in by his uncle, a rat catcher, a thief and a kidnapper of orphans. When Uncle Jago kidnaps Sam Hiliam, Nathan helps him to escape and Sam proposes that Nathan take his place at school while he runs away to sea (although he ends up at the circus).

Nathan discovers Moonville school is a bedlam. The master is a gambler, the boys spend their days how they will. But Nathan finds a scientist in the tower--the owner of the house, not a prisoner-and gets involved helping him shoot rockets.

Most of the book is an adventure story in which Jago catches up with Nathan and there is an escape scene out of Black Hearts in Battersea but two elements let the book into this blog.

First, in its detailing of the hot air balloon Nathan finds the book is as detailed as Wireless Boys. Unlike so many of the novels I've blogged in the past few months, one can actually learn something from this.

Second is more whimsical: the scientist is sending up rockets in the hope that if he does it regularly enough he will have sent a message to whatever is reading the skies from another planet. At the end of the book he sends up another rocket and when the fireworks die down,

Four dots of red light had appeared from different points of the compass and were rushing to meet each other at unthinkable speed across a shining galaxy... they stopped dead in the form of a cross and slowly began to revolve. At their centre a new light grew... and once it formed it winked like a heliograph, repeating the same sequence of flashes five or six times over. The, gradually, the whole thing faded.
'What was that?' asked Nathan.
Mr. Gentleman only smiled, however, and continued staring up at the stars.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

A worm in the hand is worth two in the crevice: Meredith Sue Willis, The City Built of Starships (Montemayer, NJ: Montmayor Press, 2004).

On a barren world colonists struggle to survive. Their crops don't grow, Terran protein is rare (goats and puppies) and native protein fills but kills with malnutrition and "morbid flatulence". The city of Starships is the main colony and is ruled by a tyrant who had once been a liberator, a "hand" who over threw the office class only to despair at the problem of feeding everyone and to slide back into feudalism.

Into this is sent Espera, daughter of Soledad the desert hermit and Leon of the Ghouls or desert people. Leon sends Espera on a mission to take a yeager (a flying beast) to the man called Salt.

In the denoument to the novel Espera discovers that she was a weapon, the city collapses and the hands look to Soldedad and her knowledge of how to convert second earth protein into something they can digest (the trick is to heat it with glow worms in a broth of first earth protein, it's a scientific, not a magical fix). Rejected is the ultra purist/meditation route of Leon and his culture. Embraced is the knowledge that the glow worms are the infant form of the yeager.

The novel stands out because it's a story of a failed colonisation that ends with only a sliver of hope. There are no magic fixes, no lost technologies (although we do have the usual trope of lost knowledge in the generation ship, this time it is because people succumbed to drugs--this sounds unlikely for a whole culture). It's weakness is its tone which is just too dreamy for my tastes. Much happens, but very little is done.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Where have all the SF Writers gone (into fantasy, that's where): Susan Price, Coming Down to Earth (London: Harper Collins, 1994)

I'm guessing, because I can't find corroborating evidence, but I think this is the Susan Price of The Sterkarm Handshake a book also on my list to read some time (I tried once and failed) because it is technically sf.

Coming Down to Earth is simple and brilliantly executed. Price could run a class on how to write sf (and if I can find multiple copies of this short novel I might use it to teach).

Azalin lives in a space station, and when the story starts is on a three day visit to earth. Unhappy at home (particularly with the constant injunctions to be "sporting" when she doesn't get what she wants) she takes the opportunity to run away, and hooks up with a bunch of street entertainers and thieves straight out of Dickens.

What is so good about this book is that Price makes the station very real and familiar (it's the place most known to the pov characters) and estranges us from Earth which is not quite the place we know. Nice touches are simple things like varying Azalin's experiences--she sees Earth as a tourist (rather like a controlled tour I once took in the old GDR); from the workings of a theme park; and the slums and police policies from which visitors are usually kept clear. Price holds the pov firm so that Azalin remains muddled, but not helpless--we get neither the omni-competent/ clear sighted or alternatively completely helpess foreigner that people's too many of these "abandoned traveller" tales.

Price also sets it up that Azalin's rescue is only considered important because she is thought to be in the company of a very valuable runaway android--the relative powerlessness of the small space station compared with the way they view themselves (as a utopian colony in the wilderness) is nicely effected.

Too often with children's "rebellion in utopia" book, the utopia is written as if stupid or hateful, but here, too Price scores. Azalin can't be an electrician because the colony doesn't need any more. It's unpleasant, but Price makes it clear that it isn't actually unfair in terms of the colonies needs. So when Azalin does finally get returned (against her wishes) to the colony, she realises that the solution is not to over throw the system--which is necessary for the survival of the colony--but to emigrate to Mars, where they will need her skills.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Just Wish: Malorie Blackman, Whizzywig and Whizzywig Returns (London: Random House, 2005) c. 1995, and 1999.

Whizzywig is an alien who takes refuge in Ben's bedroom while she fixes her ship, and in second book comes down to Earth to make research notes. Whizzywig grants wishes but they must be for other people. It gets a bit confusing because this turns into "for people other than Ben" which also seems to mean that if other people make wishes for themselves (Aunt Dottie wants to be able to play the piano) that's do-able. As you can tell, I thought it all rather sloppy and really simply a magical morality tale about thinking before you speak. I had the feeling that Blackman chose an alien because boys won't read about fairies.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Apologies for the delay in the promised post: I got sick just before Worldcon and after ten days ignoring it have ended up in bed with anitbiotics. I can read and make short notes, but that's about it. But I *can* read. By Saturday I'll have a little stash of fiction ready to blog.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

On the way home

My partner and I (Edward James, of University College Dublin) won a Hugo award this weekend for the Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction. We are both a bit dazed.

Today we are travelling the long way home via family so my next post will be tomorrow.

Thank you for your forebearance.