Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Stretching Out a Good Story: Bruce Coville, My Teacher Glows in the Dark (New York: Harper Collins, 1991).

I wrote about the last of these a while back. Basically Coville has taken Heinlein's classic, Have Space Suit, Will Travel, spread it over five books and given all the interesting things to do to the adult aliens.

I like Coville's work but this series is dismal in the way it renders kids mostly as observers.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

The Friends You Meet: O'Brien, Robert C. The Silver Crown. London: Victor Gollancz, 1973.

Not at all sure this is sf. Ellen wakes on her birthday to find a crown on her pillow, She takes it to a park and when she comes home her family is dead and the house burned down The policeman who tries to help her is killed. She sets off to walk to Kentucky to find her aunt Sarah. She meets Otto who lives with a lady in the woods and wrecks trucks. This section is a classic braacelet fantasy in which Ellen collects assistance and we learn about Ellen.

When Otto is captured she goes to the dark castle and finds everyone conrolled by the black paths, made of malignite (which is a classic fantasy conjuration), and working out how to terrorise the world, with no particular goal in mind. The best scene of the lot is the one in which she sits in on a class on terrorism. I don't think O'Brien meant this one to be the scene I would have remembered for two decades.

Eventually Ellen rescues her crown from where she had left it and puts it on, and the silver crown turns out to run the Heironymous machine which had enslaved everyone in the castle, including the "King". Ellen destroys the machine.

The accoutrements of sf are there: the Heironymous machine spawns an industrial complex to produce more of itself, and to spread itself through the world, but the structures and themes are of fantasy -- destiny, mastery, control and free will.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Mud, blood and electricity. John Christopher's The Prince in Waiting Trilogy

It's a very long time since I read John Christopher's Prince in Waiting Trilogy (The Prince in Waiting (1970), Beyond the Burning Lands (1971), The Sword of the Spirits (1972). Set in a balkanized England cut off from Wales by volcanoes and from Scotland by distance, this is a tale of the Principality of Winchester and specifically of Luke, second son of Robert who is elevated to be Prince.

Luke is nominated by the Seers to be Prince-in-Waiting, but over the years the very things that make him useful to their mission to bring back science will undermine Luke: is honour, his stubbornness mean that he can't give way, and when he ends up in an Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot triangle, he cannot bend and brings down everything around him.

This is a very macho book. Luke is a soldier and he tells the world from a soldier's point of view. It's very effective, but does mean that we never really get to see the development of science, and what we do see is mostly in terms of weaponry. Other uses for technology are mentioned but stay out of sight. What does come over strongly is the idea that one cannot control the social and political consequences of new tech.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory...: Levithan, David. Wide Awake. New York: Alfred Knopf, 2006.

There has been a Presidential election, the Gay Jewish candidate won and the conservatives are up in arms. But this is a bit further into the future and the evangelicals have split. The Jesus Freaks are more concerned with community and kindness, leaving homophobia to others.

But the election is challenged in Kansas and Duncan's boyfriend decides to go and join the many who refuse to let this election be stolen. Most of the book is about the personal relationships on the bus, and on Duncan's anxiety that he cannot live up to his boyfriend's more radical spirit. It's also about Duncan's belief that the relationship is forever and Jimmy's rather more mature approach. As with Boy Meets Boy (a wonderful utopian novel about a high school) Levithan's protagonist is rather young for his age.

The book is heavy handed on the future politics and oddly conservative about monogamy (one of the girls is having an affair and the idea that she is in love with both of her girlfriends is treated with hosility), but it's worth mentioning here as the only book I've read which both envisages teens taking a realistic part in major change, and which can see a future that doens't look just like ours or even an extension of ours. This is a fight back book, not an If This Goes On....

When I was a lad, we had to use slide rules: Anderson, M.T. Feed. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press, 2002.

A variant take on a very popular book.

Titus goes to the moon where his head chip is damaged by a virus. He recovers but a new friend, Violet, doesn't. She recieved her chip late, and her brain reacts by turning to mush. Most of this book is about Violet dying and the inquity of having all information on hand. ie not having to work. Although the book is extremely effective, it's actually one with Charles Sheffield's Jupiter sequence (faux Heinlein) in basically writing off teens and being quite hostile to teen culture. It also doesn't ever really speculate about the possibilities of the head technology, it sees it only as supporting lazyness, not as making it possible to do more.

For Sapphire and Steel Fans: Richards, Justin. Time Runners: Freeze-Framed. Time Runners. London: Simon & Schuster, 2007.

Strong on the time travel, weak on anything resembling ethics and politics this is the story of Jamie Grant who slips through a crack in time and becomes a time-runner. The time-runners turn out to have caused the crack in time through which Jamie fell but that's ok. Jamie joins the time-runners to oppose the sinister Darkling Midnight. I never did figure out quite what DM wanted but I suspect I'm not really supposed to because I might agree with him. Good and Evil here seem to rest on the possession of twinkly versus deepset eyes. Yet it's quite a good book with the issues of time-travel dealt with well. Richards has made things difficult for himself by deciding that a person can visit a time as an outsider only once with complex effects.

Make sure you are holding your friend's tentacle so you don't get lost: Willis, Jeanne. Dr Xargle's Book of Earthlets Pictures by Tony Ross.

If you only ever buy one sf picture book for your child, this is the one to buy. It just can't be beaten.

An alien teacher stands in front of his class and prepares them for the school trip to earth where they are going to meet earthlings. The lecture is full of creative misprision, and I can't write out the whole book, but here is ny favourite example:

[picture of baby wrapped in brown paper]

To stop them leaking, Earthlets must be pulled up by the back tentacles and folded in half.
Then they must be wrapped quickly in a flufy triangle or sealed with paper and glue.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Catch the 9:15 rocket from Paddington Space Station: Reeve, Philip. Larklight, or, the Revenge of the the White Spiders!

Or to Saturn's Rings and Back! A Rousing Tale of Dauntless Pluck in the Farthest Reaches of Space. As Chronicl'd by Art Mumby with the Aid of Mr. Philip Reeve. Trans. And Decorated Throughout by Mr. David Wyatt. London: Bloomsbury, 2006.

A Victorian Aether Romance in which Newton discovered the Chemical Wedding and the Briitsh Empire rules the space-ways. Arthur Mumy and his sister Myrtle live in Larklight, a house in space which points all ways (see the map "This Way Up" on all four sides -- although it should probably be sixteen). There mother is missing, presumed dead. Their father is a xenobiologist.

One day, spiders invade and the adventure begins. It takes Art and Myrtle to Mars where they are captured by the pirate Jack Havelock who turns out to be a very young man. They are split up. Art goes with Jack to the Spiders where they rescue Art's mother and discover that the Spiders are the Old Ones who once ruled the galaxy and that Mother is the Shaper who billions of years ago helped the planet to form (nice comments about "What ABout God?"). Then they go to Earth where the Crystal Palace has been turned into a Spider Automaton, and they arrive (in Larklight) in time for Myrtle to rescue them all. Art is very funny on the subject of Myrtle and Jack.

And it all ends up happily on a note of high adventure.

Gripping stuff. Suitable for any fan of empire tales and aether romances.

The Pipes, the pipes they are a freezing: The Highway Men by Ken MacLeod (Dingwall, Sandstone Vista, 2006)

Jase, Euan and Murdo are conscripts. In the war against terror and cold, they are the ones fighting the cold, laying pipes and lagging houses.

By accident they get caught up with a bunch of squatters, living in the hills in the Highlands, and end up smashing up an army operation. It ends with them joining up with the squatters (and as with many of MacLeod's books, there is more than a hint of a man led by his heart rather than his head).

The book is slight because it's meant as an intro reader, for those who don't read fast, but it's meaningful: MacLeod opted to give a slice of story, an episode in a war, rather than try for a longish short story and it works very well. The future is clear and MacLeod does a good job of seeing it from the bottom rather that the top. In terms of the books remit it has two very specific things going for it: first the protagonists are older than average--very early twenties perhaps--and second they are very, very competent. Working class, not too bright, but very competent. We don't see that combination anywhere near enough in sf (whre most working class men turn out to be super-duper engineers).

Some other reviews:

Yellow Peril 1990s style: John Marsden

Tomorrow, When the War Began (1993)
The Dead of Night (1994)
The Third Day, the Frost (1995)
Darkness, Be My Friend (1996)
Burning for Revenge (1997)
The Night Is for Hunting (1998)
The Other Side of Dawn (1999). Sydney: PanMacMillan.

Asians invade Australia and teens take to the bush. Some of them die. They become guerrila fighters. More of them die. They blow things up spectacularly and escape. Then several of them are sent back as operatives to help undermine the invasion. Australia is partially liberated with the Asian invaders keeping part of it.

The good stuff is that the kids learn huge numbers of practical things, and the most successful is the farm girl who already knows how to skin a sheep. The problematic stuff is the token Asian teen who is there so we can't call the books racist--which they are--and the utter absence of Aboriginals. The idea that whites are invaders themselves is rather glossed ove

Water is Life: godless, by Pete Hautman (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004).

Jason Bock is trapped in a fairly typical, godfearing midwestern town. On the spur of the moment he decides that water is so important that worshipping the water tower makes as much sense (if not more) as worshipping Christ. For him it's a joke. He recruits his best mate, the rather nerdish Shin, the violent, unpredictable but sf reading Harry, and a girl, Magda.

Things all come to a bad end. Harry breaks his leg, Magda chooses Harry instead of (as might be expected in teen fiction, the protagonist), and Shin tips over from weird to pyschotic.

Yet at the end Jason, ostracised, weired out and in debt up to his ears, is pretty happy and relaxed, having made the first step away from family and community.

This isn't an sf book as such, but both Jason and Harry are sf fans, Jason knows enough to reference Shin's obsession with snails to Sturgeons "Macrocosmic God" and the creation of the water tower as god, and the creation of the Chutengodians, is all done with a sharp eye to the Scientologists. This is a very knowing book, and the protagonists see themselves within a world in which sf exists (and you'd be amazed how often sf is absent from sf-nal worlds).

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Wearing a silver foil helmet; The Lurkers, by Charles Butler (London: Usborne Ltd., 2006)

Verity can always see the truth. When her hyper-active, super intelligent brother is seduced by aliens who drain his intellect and his enthusiasm for life, she is the only one who starts to see the odd things happening. The aliens want to use her brother as a gateway to the world, and he is keen to be it.

The book ends with them all locked in a chapel with Verity fighting off the Lurkers., She succeeds, but only partially, and like any good horror novel there is an indication that they will be back.

The book works as sf because of Verity's rational response: she notes, records and analyzes. If there is a problem it is that there is slightly too much emphasis on her powerful will, but that is not utterly unusual as an sf conceit (fans are slans!?)

Mad enough to have a dog called Igor: , by Jim Benton (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005)

Franny K. Stein is a mad scientist. She's also about nine. She makes lots of things, does lots of experiments and keeps her family both proud and terrified. But when she wins the school science fair with a time machine (so you can eat your cake and have it) her middle name is revealed as Kissypie and the whole school laughs, She travels back to the past (we see her making her bringing a teddy bear to life) and changes her name to Kaboom but when she goes into her own future, her teen self is not just mad, but evil., They fight but draw, and Frannt goes back to the past to change not her name, but her reaction to being laughed at. This turns out fine. But annoyingly she also goes home and tidy's up her room and I can't see the logic in that at all.

A lovely book, especially if you've ever thought of putting the wheel-turning properties of a hamster to mad purpose.

Dino Chase!; Dinosaur Time, by Michael Foreman (London: Andersen Press, 2002).

Tom's mother buys a new egg timer which looks like a saucer and tells him "This is not a toy, don't play with it". But he can't resist and in his hands it starts to wink, and the world spins round and he finds himself in a world of dinosaurs who chase him. He falls into a next and off a cliff and finally stops still long enough to use the timer, when he finds he has brought an egg with him and it's hatched, and is stuck in a bucket so he sticks the timer on the bucket and sends the little dinosaur home, and its mother looks at the timer and says, "This is not a toy, don't play with it". But he can't resist and in his hands it starts to wink, and the world spins round and he finds himself.......

And yes, it does feel that whirlwind.

Keep your leash on darling: Baby Brains by Simon James (New York: Walker Books, 2004.

I'm not sure it's the business of either children's books or science fiction to stomp on ambition and enthusiasm.

Baby brains is a very special baby who from the moment he gets home reads the newspaper. The next day he demands school and after sampling that he demands university and a week later is a surgeon in an operating theatre. Then space scientists ask him to go into space. He does, but realises he "Want my Mummy!"

"From that day on, Baby Brains spent most of his time at home doing the things that most babies do. Except, that is, at weekends when he still liked to help out at the local hospital."


Salad fixings: Tomatoes from Mars, by Arthur Yorinks an Mort Drucker (New York: Harpercollins, 1999)

pictures by Mort Drucker

Told in War of the Worlds rhetoric, giant tomatoes arrive from Mars. Only Professor Shtickle (drawn to look like Einstein) can save the planet. He tries communicating but it fails. Then he has an idea while making a salad. He gets out a spritzer, fills it with olive oil,, vinegar, basil and a little garlic, and sprizts the tomatoes. They scram. The world is saved.

This one's for adults really as the true pleasure is in the caricatures.

Spiffing show old chum: Captain Raptor and the Moon Mystery by Kevin O'Malley, illustrateed by Patrick O'Brien

New York: Walker Books, 2005

A space opera in which dinosaurs are intelligent and the aliens are human. Captain Raptor goes out to meet the aliens, prevents bloodshed and helps find their lost drive. There is honour and glory and stiff upercuts. There are also different specieis of dinosaurs happily conversing with each other (and vegetarians serve with carnivores)/

The whole is brilliantly illustrated as a comic book and if it weren't it would be a thin thing. I confess to enjoying it rather a lot.

Swinging in the Stars: Hush, Little Alien by Daniel Kirk (New York: Hyperion, 1999.

Daniel Kirk rewrites ""Hush, Little Baby, Don't Say a Word..." with words about the planets and stars and universe. There is one illustration that takes us from sf to fantasy, when the milkway is portrayed as gigantic baby bottles, but apart from that, the pictures of aliens large enough to treat humans as soft toys are rather lovely.

Hush, little alien, don't say a word,
Papa's gonna catch you a goonie bird.
If that goonie bird flies to far,
papa's gonna lasso you a shooting star.
If that shooting star's too hot,
Papa's gonna find you an astronaut!
If that astronaut should fight,
Papa's gonna bring you a satellite!
If that satellite gets away,
Papa's gonna take you to the Milky Way!
If that milk has got no cream,
Papa'sgonna buy you a laser beam!
If that laser makes things melt,
Papa's gonna get you a new tool belt.
With that tool belt on your hip,
you're gonna build a rocket ship.
And when that rocket ship takes flight,
Papa's gonna give you a kiss good night!

American Girl in Space: Amelia Takes Command by Marissa Moss (Middletown, WI: Pleasant Publications/American Girl, 1999)

A bit sad because the "frame" of this book is a girl dealing with a bully, but the central part--spent at space camp--is not skimped on so the book does work as sf.

Amelia is being bullied at school. When her friend Nadia asks her to come to Space Camp she decides to go. She competes with three boys for the place of commander on the simulator and wins, to the boys's shock because they hadn't thought her in the running. We get a lot of description of what she has to learn, in such a way that we can choose to learn it too, and when things go wrong on their "flight" Amelia takes command and makes decisions about how to maneouver the rocket.

The book ends with a return home, a maths test, and telling off the bully. This seems the most important bit, but I did find the time at space camp well done, and I can imagine some girls getting hooked on that bit, even though Amelia doesn't seem to carry it home with her (her last thoughts are of her grandma's Depression diary).

Tiptoe through the Martian ice flowers: Mrs. Moore in Space by Gertrude L. Moore (London: Cassells, 1974)

If you haven't seen this it's worth a trip to abebooks.com. Although there is a new edition availble if you aren't fussy about such things.

Gertrude Moore drew these pictures in the 1960s and 1970s, when the likelihood of life on the solar planets had already been discounted. They are sharp, funny, especially satyrical. Painted in sepia tones, they are caricatures of vaguely humanoid, mermaidly creatures living ordinary lives on different planets.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Another Day at the Office Dear: Man on the Moon (a day in the life of Bob),

by Simon Bartram (Dorking, Surrey: Templar Publishing, 2002)

A picture book.

Bob works on the moon, He gets dressed in the morning and gets in a rocket and goes to the moon where he jumps about to entertain tourists in their rockets, and then gives a talk on moon rocks. He eats his sandwiches. He assures people there are no aliens on the moon. In the background we see aliens dancing, and when Bob checks the moon for rubbish before he leaves for the day, we see them hiding in in a hole in the ground.

Man on the Moon is brightly coloured and fun, but it presents the future as dull and ordinary. It probably will be, but it's a not a lot to aim for.