Monday, May 15, 2006

Home is Where the Heart Is? Sylvia Waugh's Ormingat trilogy.

Space Race. Delacourt, 2000.
Earthborn. Bodley Head, 2002.
Who Goes Home. Bodley Head, 2003.

I feel very ambivalent about these books.

In Space Race, Thomas is a very small boy (six years old) who knows he is really from Ormingat but chatters about it to his carer (Stella Dalrymple) in a way that makes her assume he is simply making up stories, Only when his father is caught in an accident, and disappears does the it become obvious something is wrong, and it is when Thomas also disappears, his father's torn coat from the accident left behind, Stella realises Thomas's story is true.

In Earthborn, Nesta is told at the age of thirteen that she is really from Ormingat (although born here) and that the family are going home. She runs away and hides out, first with a friend, and then she journeys to see see Stella (whose name has cropped up in a newspaper) where she discovers her parents are telling the truth. She arrives home immediately after the space ship has left. There is some tension over whether her parents would leave without her, but the outcome isn't really in much doubt, it's not that kind of book.

In Who Goes Home? Jacob is half Ormingat as are his sisters, but because he was dying at birth his father (Steve) presented him to the ship and had his name "entwined" to save him. At the age of thirteen he is told all of this and inducted into his father's work, which is mostly about clearing up problems for other observers and which entangles Jacob in the two stories above. Technically, Who Goes Home? and Earthborn are told across the same time frame. Steve's ship is recalled but Steve decides not to go. Jacob (who doesn't seem to have been listening very hard) goes to the ship to prevent it leaving and ends up being taken back to Ormingat where he forgets his family and meets his grandmother.

Reasons for concern:

All three books are rather self-conciously narrated. This works in the first book, where the main character is six and the expected reader might not be much older. But in the second two books where the protagonists are in their teens, it grates. The tone is of a cautionary tale (although I don't think that's deliberate).

The further into the series one reads, the more conspicuously passive the adults are; they just sit and take orders. In the final book Steve is supposed to be a facillitator and he does do things, but he does them all to order. Only at the very end does he do anything on his own initiative, and even that is pretty mild.

There is also the difficulty that Waugh is so distanced from technology that Steve does not feel like a computer programmer. All the work we see him doing involves pushing levers and buttons and acting a lot more like a telephonist. There is a strong sense that he is operating, not interfacing with his technology.

And finally there is the problem that these are essentially coming of age books in which the issues have nothing at all to do with the interesting alienness of the protagonists. In the end, whether Nesta can blackmail her parents into giving up their home land, or Jacob can succeed in emigrating, are issues which could be placed anywhere, and most historical novels I've read with this theme do a better job of making the context influence the decisions. I don't think it's coincidental, that even though I lived in York, the setting for Earthborn, for ten years, I coudn't follow Nesta's movement around the city. Context--never mind sf context--just isn't that important to this rather generic tale.


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