Friday, March 31, 2006

How the Children's Book Market Works

I have just been told by The Horn Book that they only review hard backs listed by The Literary Marketplace. Now, I know that one has to have some criteria, and that this is not an unusual criteria for literary magazines. But for children's books?

Now I finally understand why some critics think that children are not a self-determining market.

Gordon Snell, Tom's Amazing Machine Zaps Back. London: Red Fox, 1989.

This is actually rather a fun book, it just isn't science fiction. In the first book (which I don't own) Tom's computer becomes infected with Zenda, a personality, and he has adventures. it seems to be aimed at around the eleven year old, which makes it worth noting because that's unusual. This isnt a YA book, its definitely a children's book.

In this one Zenda turns up in a lap top ('only the size of a typewriter'). He and his cousin Emma proceed, with the help of Zenda, to trap a drug dealer and work out why Emma's mother is on the run, and to secure Emma a place in the school football team (desegregating it in the process).

The problem is that through all of this Zenda acts not as a computer, but as a fairy godmother:
she processes sister Marion's drawings to turn them into fashion plates
she does Tom's homework
she tells Emma how to campaign
she eventually takes a part in the school show.

There is nothing Zenda can't do.

I've got some of the others in the series but I won't bother blogging them.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Poisoning Settlers in the Soil: H. M. Hoover, Another Heaven, Another Earth. New York: Starscape (Tor), 2002. c. 1981.

The basic outline of this book is straightforward and unchallenging. When Lee and her colleagues arrive on the planet Xilan to check it out for colonization they discover a lost colony on the verge of dying out. The colonists are being poisoned by the metal in the ground which is leading to physical attentuation, middle-age madness, and death in the late forties or early fifties.

What makes the book interesting is the politics. To begin with, Gareth a medic on the planet loves her world. When the survey ship arrives she is not thrilled to see them, nor to discover the truth about their world. And when she and her fellow colonists are told they will be "helped" they are not impressed. And in turn Lee and some of the scientists start to wonder what it is they are being asked to do: if the planet is poisonous, why has the suggestion come down from on high that Gareth's people be evacuated to make room for new settlers? Does this mean that other "unviable" planets are being settled knowingly? Lee realises she has never seen any papers on the success or otherwise of such plantations, and when she looks, they all turn out to be classified. And then there is the issue that forced removal of peoples has a long history of failure. Why does a supposedly benevolent company want this? Complicating all of this is that the supposedly benevolent surveyors have taken to behaving like colonial troops everywhere, sure in the knowledge that the natives are stupid.

When the book ends, the survey ship leaves the settlers with medical advice and technological assistance, but both sides know the settlers are doomed.Gareth's colleagues have collectively decided that they want to stay where they are: they have no desire to swap their poisonous but beautiful world for the overcrowded Out There. The surveyors leave with more questions than answers: the consequences of their rediscovery of Xilan stretch into the future.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Cities on Wheels: Philip Reeve, A Darkling Plain. London: Scholastic, 2006.

It's taken me four days to read Philip Reeve's A Darkling Plain which in some ways tells you everything you need to know. I ripped through the other three like a traction city through wheat.

In this book the Tractions Cities make their last sortie on the Green Storm. The Green Storm is riven by rumour and feuding, Tom and his daughter Wren Natsworthy change sides a few times (because as traders they aren't really "on side" at all); Tom's wife Hester walks through the word with the Stalker android, Shrike, and Little Fishcat, an orphan boy, accompanies the accused Stalker (once Anna) Fang. No one seems to have very strong motivations, which I suppose is a reflection of real life, but it is confusing.

But the real problem is that the very things which created such awe and wonder in the first book really don't stand up to the close scrutiny of the fourth. By this time we want to know how traction cities work, and Reeve just can't quite pull it off (the same problem struck Heinlein's short story, The Roads Must Roll. My criticism is about the effect of focus, not a failure of technique).

Also an issue is that Reeve's joky nomenclature and ironic prejudice starts to get a bit wearing. And its long time past that British writers went beyond the Teutonic German all jackboots and leather jacket and called Wolf.

Yet despite all that, the books still hold to their rigorous political stance--even the Greens here are eyed with suspicion--and there are some lovely bits of writing.

This is from the end of A Darkling Plain,

Shrike, the killer android, has seen Hester die with her husband Tom. He has taken their bodies and watched them disintegrate. He has slowed down and let the years go by. Now he is awake again, and the people he meets seem primitive, their metal the left overs from the age of the Traction Cities. He "imagined that their society had no machines at all".

"...but as they brought him through the town gates he saw delicate airborne ships of wood and glass rising like dragonflies from tall stone mooring-towers."

Monday, March 06, 2006

Riding a Log to Nowhere: Jan Mark, Voyager. London: MacMillan, 2006.

This is Jan Mark's last book and it is painfully obvious that it was intended as a middle book in the trilogy that began with Riding Tycho (2005). It begins with Demetria's rescue from the water and the log on which she has escaped her island, and follows her as she is captured, rescued and begins to prepare to be sent back to her island as an agent of the underground. We learn a little more about her planet--Demetria--and that the war between the two inhabited continents is over whether to exploit the third continent as technological development begins to speed up.

And that's it. The politics of the world are barely sketched. There is not enough dissonance to really estrange us. This could be an argument over Alaska. Although Demetria is highly intelligent she is also utterly dependent on what she is told.. she sees almost nothing of the society she lands in as she spends most of her time in a safe house. So in turn, we too learn nothing.