Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Invisible Helpmeet: Margaret Meecham, Quiet! You're Invisible. New York: Holiday House, 2001.

Holiday House have sent me a batch of books and, as they are all pitched at that apparently "odd" age group, the 7-11s, (and are short... useful given that I have to deliver a book next month) you are likely to see a small flurry of blogging based on the parcel.

Meecham's Quiet! You'reInvisible. is a fairly slight story. Hoby Hobson is being bullied at school. When an alien boy lands (and turns up in his shower) the bully manages to capture the alien's spaceship battery. Hoby and Zirc's have to steal the test paper to bribe the bully to give it back. They try to lay a trap for him but it misfires and captures someone else, however, Mrs. Tinsley thinks the bully laid the trap and complains to his mother. Zircus gets his battery back and goes back into space.

I don't want to be too hard because the story is very well told. It's witty, fairly fast moving and with really lovely insights about being a small boy trying to be responsible and helpful around a pregnant mum (and her cries of "Yikes" with each contraction are perfectly judged).

But as science fiction this is a dead loss: not because Zircus could be a fantasy friend, but because everything the two boys try to do fails. Far from being a story of sf-nal competence (which even the spoof Captain Underpants series gets right) this is a tale in which things children can do get them into trouble and the only hope is rescue from parents.

I can see that this is true but ...

Friday, December 23, 2005

A Couple of Surprises: Nick Gifford, Piggies (London: Puffin, 2003)

I picked up Piggies by Nick Gifford shortly after attempting to read a book so bad I couldn't even flick through it. Matt Thorne's 39 Castles contained some of the worst info-dump I've read in a long time (phrases like "owing to" produced solid clunks of anti-poetry), and committed the worst heresy in children's fantasy of making the rebels who are against wise elitist rule sound utterly in the right (we are clearly supposed to think they are misguided). It's a shame because the basic idea of having diplomats instead of warriors as heroes is pretty good. I was very surprised when I looked up Mt Thorne to discover he has been shortlisted for the Booker and was a founder of the New Puritans. No sign of it here.

But it was the day for surprises: while in Camden I bought a second hand copy of Nick Gifford's Piggies simply because I liked the sound of it. A boy falls through a portal and finds himself in a world of vampires. I didn't expect to be blogging it because it sounded obviously fantasy, but after I had read it (and passed it onto Chilperic who enjoyed it every bit as much I ad I did) I chewed it over and decided it was very definitely science fiction. Here's why:

When Ben finds himself in another world, he stumbles around ignorant and scared. The people he meets confuse him: unlike in a fantasy novel, no one really stops to explain anything, and when they do (the policeman, the doctor, the boy in the woods) they later turn out to be lying or to be manipulating him. Although this is a pretty sweeping statement, the unreliable guide is a much more typical sf trope than a fantasy trope.

Then, having found sanctuary in the wood, Ben must learn to survive. In most fantasy novels this is fairly romantic, and is usually constructed around acquiring of mastery. In this novel, the more Ben gets to know, the more he realises he needs to know. The more of the world he understands, the more world there seems to be. In this sense, the world is Real.

FInally there is the fact that the vampires aren't vampires as such, but humans who appear to have caught a disease in which they need to exchange blood--preferably between kin-in order to thrive. Gifford doesn't just give us this as an sf explanation tho', he adds in the kind of back story which gives that sense of a world extending away from Ben into itself which is very sf-ish, so that he tells us at one point that there are courtesies about who may or may not share blood, but has the sense not to elaborate. Ben doens't need to know after all, he isn't a vampire.

There is a really excellent review of Piggies here.

And my surprise? I hadn't realised that Nick Gifford is Keith Brookes. Which explains a lot.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Chick-sf: Mindy Schanback, Princess From Another Planet, (New York: Holliday House, 2005).

The book has a pink cover and a tiara. It's a very pink book. And I loved it.

There isn't much to say: the book is very written--I couldn't put it down--and is not dissimilar to the Princess Diaries but with the twist that Gracie Wright thinks her mother is mad, because her mother claims to be a Princess of Pannadeau and insists on teaching her how to kill Maluxziads.

It quickly turns into a romp/screwball comedy, triggered in part when Gracie swaps places with her richer cousin so she can go to riding camp (the cousin is bookish: I look in vain for nerds-as-hero in modern YA sf, despite their ubiquity in the older juveniles).

Gracie defeats the invaders, discovers her mom is not insane, and life goes on. The only sadness is that the wormhole through which her mother and the invaders travelled closes at the end of the book--ending of any chances of long term consequence. A "sealed" story in which all the "future" is personal, not sf-nal.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Children Learn by Monkey See, Monkey Do. Chimps Don't.

Published: December 13, 2005

I drove into New Haven on a recent morning with a burning question on my mind. How did my daughter do against the chimpanzees?

A month before, I had found a letter in the cubby of my daughter Charlotte at her preschool. It was from a graduate student at Yale asking for volunteers for a psychological study. The student, Derek Lyons, wanted to observe how 3- and 4-year-olds learn. I was curious, so I got in touch. Mr. Lyons explained how his study might shed light on human evolution.
Skip to next paragraph
Victoria Horner

Yoyo using a stick at the top and front of a black box, above, to retrieve candy inside after seeing a human do so. But seeing the same prize inside a clear box, top, Umugezi figured out the fastest way to the candy.

His study would build on a paper published in the July issue of the journal Animal Cognition by Victoria Horner and Andrew Whiten, two psychologists at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. Dr. Horner and Dr. Whiten described the way they showed young chimps how to retrieve food from a box.

The box was painted black and had a door on one side and a bolt running across the top. The food was hidden in a tube behind the door. When they showed the chimpanzees how to retrieve the food, the researchers added some unnecessary steps. Before they opened the door, they pulled back the bolt and tapped the top of the box with a stick. Only after they had pushed the bolt back in place did they finally open the door and fish out the food.

Because the chimps could not see inside, they could not tell that the extra steps were unnecessary. As a result, when the chimps were given the box, two-thirds faithfully imitated the scientists to retrieve the food.

The team then used a box with transparent walls and found a strikingly different result. Those chimps could see that the scientists were wasting their time sliding the bolt and tapping the top. None followed suit. They all went straight for the door.

The researchers turned to humans. They showed the transparent box to 16 children from a Scottish nursery school. After putting a sticker in the box, they showed the children how to retrieve it. They included the unnecessary bolt pulling and box tapping.

The scientists placed the sticker back in the box and left the room, telling the children that they could do whatever they thought necessary to retrieve it.

The children could see just as easily as the chimps that it was pointless to slide open the bolt or tap on top of the box. Yet 80 percent did so anyway. "It seemed so spectacular to me," Mr. Lyons said. "It suggested something remarkable was going on."

It was possible, however, that the results might come from a simple desire in the children just to play along. To see how deep this urge to overimitate went, Mr. Lyons came up with new experiments with the transparent box. He worked with a summer intern, Andrew Young, a senior at Carnegie Mellon, to build other puzzles using Tupperware, wire baskets and bits of wood. And Mr. Lyons planned out a much larger study, with 100 children.

I was intrigued. I signed up Charlotte, and she participated in the study twice, first at the school and later at Mr. Lyons's lab.

Charlotte didn't feel like talking about either experience beyond saying they were fun. As usual, she was more interested in talking about atoms and princesses.

Mr. Lyons was more eager to talk. He invited me to go over Charlotte's performance at the Yale Cognition and Development Lab, led by Mr. Lyons's adviser, Frank C. Keil.

Driving into New Haven for our meeting, I felt as if Charlotte had just taken some kind of interspecies SAT. It was silly, but I hoped that Charlotte would show the chimps that she could see cause and effect as well as they could. Score one for Homo sapiens.

At first, she did. Mr. Lyons loaded a movie on his computer in which Charlotte eagerly listened to him talk about the transparent plastic box.

He set it in front of her and asked her to retrieve the plastic turtle that he had just put inside. Rather than politely opening the front door, Charlotte grabbed the entire front side, ripped it open at its Velcro tabs and snatched the turtle. "I've got it!" she shouted.

A chimp couldn't have done better, I thought.

But at their second meeting, things changed. This time, Mr. Lyons had an undergraduate, Jennifer Barnes, show Charlotte how to open the box. Before she opened the front door, Ms. Barnes slid the bolt back across the top of the box and tapped on it needlessly. Charlotte imitated every irrelevant step. The box ripping had disappeared. I could almost hear the chimps hooting.

Ms. Barnes showed Charlotte four other puzzles, and time after time she overimitated. When the movies were over, I wasn't sure what to say. "So how did she do?" I asked awkwardly.

"She's pretty age-typical," Mr. Lyons said. Having watched 100 children, he agrees with Dr. Horner and Dr. Whiten that children really do overimitate. He has found that it is very hard to get children not to.

If they rush through opening a puzzle, they don't skip the extra steps. They just do them all faster. What makes the results even more intriguing is that the children understand the laws of physics well enough to solve the puzzles on their own. Charlotte's box ripping is proof of that.

Mr. Lyons sees his results as evidence that humans are hard-wired to learn by imitation, even when that is clearly not the best way to learn. If he is right, this represents a big evolutionary change from our ape ancestors. Other primates are bad at imitation. When they watch another primate doing something, they seem to focus on what its goals are and ignore its actions.

As human ancestors began to make complicated tools, figuring out goals might not have been good enough anymore. Hominids needed a way to register automatically what other hominids did, even if they didn't understand the intentions behind them. They needed to imitate.

Not long ago, many psychologists thought that imitation was a simple, primitive action compared with figuring out the intentions of others. But that is changing. "Maybe imitation is a lot more sophisticated than people thought," Mr. Lyons said.

We don't appreciate just how automatically we rely on imitation, because usually it serves us so well. "It is so adaptive that it almost never sticks out this way," he added. "You have to create very artificial circumstances to see it."

In a few years, I plan to explain this experience to Charlotte. I want her to know what I now know. That it's O.K. to lose to the chimps. In fact, it may be what makes us uniquely human.
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Monday, December 12, 2005

Investigative Fictions: Malcolm Rose, Traces:Roll Call (London: Kingfisher, 2005)

I feel a bit embarrassed about this book: I almost didn't buy it because the word "thriller" is almost code in the genre world for "bad sf". But Malcolm Rose's Traces is genuinely futuristic and doesn't fall into the anti-science mode of most "futuristic thrilers".

Traces: Roll Call is the third book after Framed and Lost Bullet.

Luke Harding is a Forensic Investigator, at 16 the youngest on the force. He lives in a world in which the South of Britain is a mess, while the North of England and Scotland are still pretty good places to live. There is an all powerful Authority which arranges jobs and marriages and to which all children are given for education at the age of five. Luke, as befits a teenager, is refusing to fall in love with the scientists for whom he is destined and instead loves Jade, a musician which is completely illegal, but he has four years to go before Pairing Time and is trying to ignore the issue.

The actual plot is a flimsy confection in which someone is killing off people named Emily Wonder, and Rose mostly uses it to teach kids about forensic science. There are clumsy moments--Rose can't resist telling us what characters are feeling even when he has already shown it through what they do and say--and I got annoyed that, while Luke us smart, it is his computer that knows things, but on the whole this is a book in which things are thought through and worked out. What really puts it in my "extremely interesting" category is the background story. The investigative plot is ok, but the story of Luke's world is fascinating. Rose gives us a sense of a place and time of change in which politics is still a real thing, there is none of the rigidity and lack of historical sense so common to many of the futures in children's sf. The book ends with Luke having promised to try and get someone acquitted in the face of a system that believes appeals are bad for confidence in the law*, there's some serious stuff going on here, and a very real sense that everything one does has consequences. I'm going to be buying the sequel.

*for non-UK readers, that's pretty much a direct quote from ex-Home Office Minister David Blunkett.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Guest Post: Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu, Zahrah the Windseeker by Gary K. Wolfe

(first published in Locus, December 2005.)

One has to look closely at the jacket copy and promotional material for Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu’s first novel Zarah the Windseeker to realize that what appears to be a young adult fantasy based on Nigerian folklore—which would be worth our attention by itself--is in fact a young adult science fiction novel based on very clever analogues of Nigerian folklore. Okorafor-Mbachu, whose parents came from Nigeria but who grew up largely as a suburban Chicago teenager and did a master’s paper on video games, takes full advantage of this dual perspective in establishing the setting of her novel, the lushly overvegetated planet Ginen (a name which suggests the mythical homeland of the African diaspora, a notion reinforced by Okorafor-Mbachu’s naming the principal city on the planet Ile-Ife). Ginen is so uncontrollably fecund that much of the planet is covered by a dangerous and forbidden wilderness called the Great Greeny Jungle, and the human population, mostly located in the Ooni Kingdom, have not so much suppressed the jungle as learned to live with it: as in a few earlier SF tales (such as Geoff Ryman’s “The Unconquered Country”—interestingly, also set in an analog of a third-world nation), virtually all their technology is grown rather than manufactured, from their high-rise office towers, one of which is 4,188 feet high, to portable computers grown from seeds. Okorafor-Mbachu doesn’t spend a lot of time letting us explore this intriguing society, for whom Earth is but a vague myth, because she has a young adult adventure to get to, but there’s enough here to suggest that there may be room for more tales of the Ooni Kingdom, not all of them necessarily young adult.

And the young adult adventure, as it unfolds, comes to depend less on originality of plot than on Okorafor-Mbachu’s unflagging inventiveness in introducing us to a variety of strange creatures and places, from Little Shop of Horrors-style “carnigourds” to peaceful, technology hating intelligent gorillas to birds that continue to fly after they’re dead to a terrifying monster called the elgort. As with any YA novel, the minute you hear of something called a forbidden jungle you know that’s where the kids are going to end up, and in this case the kids are the narrator Zarah, who feels like an outsider because of having been born “dada”, with dreadlocks supposedly conveying magical powers—which, as Zarah discovers as the novel opens, include the power to levitate--and her risk-taking boyfriend Dari, who talks her into venturing into areas prohibited by their parents, such as the Dark Market, where Zarah meets another dada woman who will figure later in the novel. But when Dari convinces Zarah that they should explore the Forbidden Greeny Jungle, he is bitten by a poisonous War Snake. Zarah accompanies him in the ambulance to the emergency room (the novel makes good effect of these occasional transitions from the mythic to the contemporary and back; we also learn that an uncle of Zarah’s runs an auto-parts business), she learns that he will never recover from his coma until he’s injected with serum from an unfertilized egg of the dreaded elgort. This, of course, sets up the terms for Zarah’s quest, as she returns to the jungle alone on a mission to find a beast that no living person has seen and survived.

On occasion, Okorafor-Mbachu’s narrative voice wavers a bit—there are bits here and there that seem like shout-outs to adult SF fans, such as a joke drawn from The Hitchhiker’s Guide, or that seem to echo tutelary figures in fantasies ranging from the Narnia stories to The Last Unicorn, but for the most part Zarah the Windseeker is a consistently compelling and provocative tale that suggests new ways of treating folkloristic material, particularly African folklore, in a science-fictional setting. The traditional elements of the YA fantasy—the teenager as outsider with secret powers (in some ways, Zarah’s dreadlocks are the descendants of Van Vogt’s tentacle-haired Slan), the violation of community taboos, coming of age and testing one’s capabilities (Zarah’s ability to levitate or fly seems associated with her puberty), the quest to save a friend—are all handled by Okorafor-Mbachu with the grace and wonder of a young writer who remembers well the feelings she’s writing about. That’s about all we really need to conclude that this is a very promising first novel, not only in terms of YA fiction, but in terms of science fiction and fantasy as well.

My blog notes are here.

Friday, December 09, 2005

A Walk on the Wildside: Garth Nix, Shade’s Children (New York: Eos (Harper Collins), 2003. C. 1997.

I’ve never been wholly convinced by Garth Nix’s fantasy and the latest sequence, the Keys, leaves me cold. Shade’s Children interested me a bit more but I’m still rather uneasy.

In this book children who escape from the Dorms are taken in by Shade, an artificial intelligence which survived the Change. Some of the children have Change powers: one can see into the immediate future, another can teleport small objects.

Shade uses the children to conspire against the Overlords who breed children and work their bodies into bioforms to fight games. The book is as if the opening scenes of The Terminator were extended into a whole film of humans fighting machines.

Where the sf works is in the children’s abilities to learn and to adapt, their relationship with Shade and their resentment of his control, and Shade’s own tension between his desire to defeat the over-lords and his realisation that this will destroy him. Adults are nicely absent because anyone over 16 disappeared in a technological rapture on the day of Change.

Where I am more bothered is politically: the castrated child and his girlfriend die before the end of the book, and the survivors are shown walking through the bliss of reconstructed heteronormativity. It really wasn’t necessary.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

If Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver is Science Fiction.....Frances Hardinge, Fly By Night (London: MacMillan, 2005)

I won't be using Fly By Night in my book because I'm deliberately using quite a rigid definition of sf, but this is one of those borderline books which can be read as either fantasy or as alternate world.

There has been a civil war. The King has been executed and his son went into exile, but in this world the son dies (of an infected camel bite) and the number of possible heirs multiplies geometrically. The Kingdom fractures into many loyalties and Parliament controls only the centre. But when it comes to open war, the Guilds, grown strong in the power vaccum, steo in and say "if you go to war, there will be no guns, no paper, no locks, no food etc".

The book opens in the middle of this standoff. The local "heirs" are becoming less important. Increasingly there are loyalists to different Monarchs spread throughout the kingdom and loyalties are expressed in toasts and beastfights. The Guilds however are struggling for power: the Stationers control the written word, and the Locksmiths control crime. Both are wary of a outbreak of the Birdcatchers, a monotheistic group who fifteen years before tried to destroy the country's paganism.

Into this comes Mosca, an orphan girl born on Palpittatle's day, and named for one of the insects of which he is the God. Mosca is also the daugter of Quillam Mye, once a Stationer, lately a heretic. Mosca is fascinated by words and arrives in Mandelion in the company of Epyonymous Clent a con artist and spye for the Stationers having also made a contact with Lady Tamarind, the sister of the mad duke. Oh, and with a goose under her arm.

There are adventures, there are dangers, and sometimes there are rather heavy handed explanations of people's pasts, but what makes this book such a wonderful, brilliant, compulsive read is the careful exposure of civil war politics, and the realisation that there might not actually be a right side.

Just one quotation to show the degree to which Hardinge is operating head and shoulders above so many other writers of fantasy for children. Kohlrabi, a spy, has just tried to convince Mosca to become a Birdcatcher.

Words, words, wonderful words. But lies too.
'No, it isn't!' shouted Mosca the Housefly, Quillam Mye's daughter. 'Not if what you're belivin' isn't blinkin' well True! You shouldn't just go beliving' things for no reason, pertickly if you've got a sword in your hand! Sacred just means something your're not meant to think about properly, an' you should never stop thinking! Show me something I can kick, and hit with rocks , and set fire to, and leave out in the rain, and think about, and if it's still standing after all that then maybe, just maybe, I'll start to believe in it, but not till then. An if all we're left with is muck and wikedness and no gods, then we'd better get used to it because it's better than a lie.

There is no destinarianism in this novel. Mosca does not ascend great heights, but she does show the talents of her father: a sharp ear and a fierce intellect. Her father challenged the old order, Mosca seems about to invent materialism. I look in vain for this quality of writing in most of the sf novels for this age group yet Hardinge seems to pull it off effortlessly.

Fly By Night is a fantasy of wit and wisdom.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Best of the Year

Margo Lanagan's Black Juice is on the Horn Book's Fan Fare 2005 list. Congratulations Margo!

And while we are on the subject, the following are my Best Children's Sf of the year, should you be looking for presents to seduce the young,

Ann Halam Siberia London Orion 2005
Philip Reeve Infernal Devices London Scholastic 2005
L J Addlington The Diary of Pelly-D London Hodder 2005
Ben Jeapes New world Order London David Fickling Books 2005
Susan Price Odin's Voice London Simon & Schuster 2005

And from 2004 (because children's books seem to come out just before Christmas)

Rhiannon Lassiter Outland Oxford OUP 2004
Jan Mark Useful Idiots London David Fickling Books 2004
Oisin McGann The Harvest Tide Project Dublin O'Brien Press 2004
Kate Thompson Origins London Red Fox 2004
Conor Costik Epic Dublin O'Brien Press 2004

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Toxic Planet: Nicola Davies, Home (London: Walker Books, 2005).

This book is a throwback to the 1960s with its classic theme, the elders are lying to us.

Sacks lives in a Worker Station producing Product for the Supas who feed it back to the workers as addictive Meals. When a rebel raid on the station goes wrong she meets up with Nero, a Supa boy of the same age. Bother are captured by rebels and both discover they are the children of Bly, the leader of the rebels. They have various adventures and discover that Planet Home, promised by the Supas is a myth, and so too is the idea that the Earth that they live on is an alien and poisonous planet.

Home is pretty well written (with the exception of the news letter at the start which gives away the entire book) but it is incredibly unoriginal. The plot is straight from a John Christopher novel, Lady Liberty is found sunk beneath the waves, the children turn out not to be who we think, and they go on to be predestined to lead the people. Where it does score is that this is the book to give your child if they want to learn to make explosives. The instructions are quite detailed.

Not Science Fiction But...

Because most children's books don't come with genre labels the way adult fiction does, I have to take fairly wild guesses as to whether a book is sf. On the blurb both these books walked and quacked like sf, but neither are. I'm listing them here tho' simply because they are interesting books.

Nicola Morgan, The Passion Flower Massacre (London; Hodder, 2005, but copyright 1988) is a retelling of the Jim Jones Massacre only its set in Northumberland. Morgan's best book remains Mondays are Red, a tale of synathesia, but this isn't bad. She tends to emotional downloads, and I wish she'd get out of her characters' heads. I've noticed a lot of modern YA books spend a great deal of time on feelings. It's not precisely that I don't want to see someone's emotions, but can we get back to "show, don't tell"? Sometimes I feel like I'm sitting in on a therapy session.

Peter Slingsby, The Joining (Cape Town: Tafelburg Publishers Ltd, 1996) [with thanks to Nick Wood for sending this to me].

Being told that a writer is an "environmental educator, author and cartographer" is enough to make the heart sink. Welcome to didact city! But not at all: this time travel fantasy in which four children, two Xhosa, and two Cape Colored, slip back in time during a school trip is a genuine delight. Absorbed by a local group of (now extinct) /Xam (ancestors of Sam/Bushmen) they learn another way of life structured around looking after the land and mysticism. There are some icky bits--I am not convinced that humans of the past lived in harmony with the land; I suspect we've always been rapacious little buggers--but on the whole Slingsby produces a really excellent ethnographic fantasy.

I don't know how much of a theme it is, but the few chidren's books from South Africa I've read all suffer a little from Power Rangers Diversity: you know, one of each color. I don't know how to read this book because I'm not part of the culture, but in it the black girl becomes a hunter, the black boy a spirit painter (because he is the one who can read the paintings) and the mixed race girl marries into the tribe and becomes a carer. It's the fairest boy, the one who looks white, who becomes the Shaman, the one who knows. I winced a bit, but I suspect I'd have winced a bit whatever the arrangement. A very vexed issue.