Thursday, December 21, 2006

Therapising the Future: Keaney, B. (2006). The Hollow People. London, Orchard Books.

Bea is the daughter of doctors on an island mental asylum, Dante is an orphan and a kitchen boy, his mother suicided in the asylum.

The world is very strange, very ridid. There is no social movement up and down the hierarchy. At the age of twelve people start taking Ichor and stop dreaming, stop being imaginative.

When Bea and Dante become friends they upset the order, discover that they live in a drugged tyranny and that Dante's mother was a resister. A prisoner who can manipulate doors in the world helps them to escape to the Ruined City where the resisters hide out. Then it gets all mystical: Dante's mother had wanted an "Odyllic" solution to the world's ills. Dr. Sigismunde opted for drugs. So we get a dreamy "Force" v. evil machinations. By the time Dante is recaptured and we realise we are at the beginning of a series, it's all feeling very Destinarian and very Star Wars.

Morphing Hurts: Applegate, K. A. (1996). Animorphs: The Invasion. New York, Scholastic.

A fairly typical story in which a bunch of kids get gifted powers from aliens in order to fight other aliens they are told are evil. But this is Applegate so first, we get to see the second bunch being evil (taking over brains), and second, the people they set out to rescue die, the elder brother of the primary character dies, and at the end one of the kids gets stuck as a hawk. His home life is shit and he quite likes being a hawk, but even so.... not quite what you expect at the end of a cutesy humans with the power of animals story,

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Stupid is as Stupid Does: New Heroes: Sakkara by Michael Carroll (London: Simon and Schuster, 2006)

A disappointment. The sf equivalent of the fantasy middle-book journey is the training school. At least in Star Wars they kept it to the first fifth of the movie.

Kid superhero Colin accidentally reveals his real identity. He and all the other new heroes are taken off to Sakkara, a base in the American desert. There they train, are called out to battle an old villain called Dioxin, and come into contact with the Truetopians who encourage the lawful to live in gated communities which they control.

The book is, unfortunately, riddled with stupid. Ok, one of the superheroes will turn out to be a traitor who can control minds and hence make people overlook the obvious, but in order to make this book readable it might have been better had the readers been let in on this earlier--although that might have turned it into a comedy. It's a mystery why they all agree to do what Josh tells them. It's a mystery that they ask so few questions. Diamond sets off in search of her family without ever questioning the convenience that they had suddenly been in the news. No one on the base ever considers that if most terrorist attacks are on a specific community, but using the name of the heroes, there might be funny business coming from the specific community. I think even a ten year old could spot the conspiracy theory yet these very intelligent people do not.

I'll stick with the series because the first was so good, but it feels now as if that were a pilot and this is book one in a long running series where stupidity will keep the plot spinning.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Speaking Out: Odin's Queen by Susan Price (London: Simon and Schuster, 2006)

In the first book, Odin's Voice, Kylie the Bonder became Odinstoy Godspeaker, while Affroditey spoiled child of selfish parents became Kylie the Bonder in the same family as the first Kylie. At the end of the book Odinstoy and Affey ran to Mars, taking with them Odinstoy;'s son, Apollo, who had been apropriated by her employers. See here for the write up.

Now Odinstoy arrives on Mars with Affey and Apollo, renamed Odinsgift. They have arrived with Odinstoy dressed as a man but not denying that she is a woman, and Affey listed as her "sister and wife". On Mars Odinstoy causes consternation by hugging a bonder in the greeting party, and questioning why Mars's Odinites have bonders--they have never really thought about the problem. From there she and Affey go to a small provincial non-conformist town where Odin worshippers have retreated to escape the discrimination of the Church of Mars--a graeco-roman pantheon which claims all other gods as merely aspects of its own.

While Odinstoy is off exploring Mars and its underbelly, Affey screws up. Lonely, still spoilt, hating Odinsgift who is a sullen, none too bright child, she gets involved with a young man who promises to marry her. Much later it will turn out that he is a spy for the Church of Mars and unfortunately, Affey has spilled the beans: in a tv interview the head of the Church of Mars reveals that Affey is an escaped bonder and that she and Odinstoy have kidnapped Odinsgift (the law saying that he belongs to his genetic father who is free). Affey and Odinstoy run, taking wiht them Odinsgift and John, a bonder boy who Affey has bought and Odinstoy has freed. They take refuge in a maintenance tower protected by the young of the suburb, but when the stand off comes, it is Odinstoy who walks out of the airlock--a seeming impossibility as the lock is programmed to remain closed if it cannot detect breathing technology.

Some of the allegory is a bit heavy handed. Affey is betrayed by Jason/Judas who is in it for the money. Odinstoy walks out of the airlock because she knows that Odin has finished with her, she is no longer the toy of Odin. When she is gone, myths about her disappearance rise up quickly. But the story remains powerful because Price gives the relationship between Affey and Odinstoy momentum of its own.

Affey really is in love with Odinstoy. In her world, men were what you did as a career. She has no training for anything other than being a very expensive wife. She doesn't cheat on Odinstoy for pleasure, but for security and wealth. This may seem abhorrent, but as Price portrays it, its actually quite sensible. And more interesting is that Odinstoy is brutal and violent. If Affey runs to Jason it is in part because Odinstoy is an abuser with the best of excuses "I do this for Odin". Price manages to avoid lecturing but there are many, many uncomfortable moments.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Trusting our Children: Prose, Francine. After. New York: Harpercollins, 2003.

Francine Prose is a well-known US novelist for adults, but I didn't know that and the book's opening gave all the impression of "amateur sf" ie heavy on the allegory and with alll the worldbuilding technique of a suburban tract builder. Then I came across, Reading Like a Writer and fell in love, spotted this book on the to be read shelf and decided to give it a go.

It doesn't start promisingly but builds into a very satisfactory bit of sf whose "what if" begins "what if our distrust of teens deepens...?"

There has been a massacre at a high school in a different state. Suddenly there is a new head teacher, kids are being frisked for weapons and more and more things become forbidden. As parents acquiesce, the rebellious students are picked off. Eventually the progatonist and his friends go to check out the school that was the original victim, and discovers all the students have been taken away. With the help of the few parents who haven't been reading the letters home, they head for the hills.

A boy, a dog and a rocketship: Murphy, Mary and Mark Oliver. Foley and Jem. London: Magi Publications, 2004.

A picture book for children up to about seven I think.

This is partially a story of a boy, his dog and space.

Foley loves his dog Jem but as he grows older his interest in space grow. He builds a rocket and sends Jem to Mars.
But Jem has grown more miserable over the years, he has felt himself losing Foley's love to the rocket ship and to space. He doesn't want to go to Mars. But he is a good dog and learns to operate the space suit, and eventually he takes the rocket up to Mars. In space he realises why Foley is so fascinated by space. On Mars he sends back pictures. He misses Foley and back on earth Foley finally misses Jem.

Then Jem goes for a walk and round the corner on the other side of Mars he discovers Martians who look a lot like dogs. He takes one last picture, of hmself in the space suit, and sends it back to Foley, with the message that he'll send the rocket back. The rocket explodes on entry, and Foley looks at the photo, and feels sad, "But at least he is happy on Mars."

One night a puppy approaches Foley on a hill. He calls her Judy and loves her properly.

"And Jem? He really was happy on Mars, happier than he would have though possible. Just like any dog would be."

The paintings are bold and joyous, and unusually the little boy grows into an adolescent. The growing space-wonder of the boy can be read on his face and his bedroom is full of technical drawings of rocket ships and a telescope--the rocket ship he builds will be a real mechanical thing. By the time it is built he has trajectory calculations on the walls, but we can see that Jem does not share his enthusiasm, the dog looks ever more depressed. But in space, Jem is captured by its beauty, this is not an anti-exploration, stay home book. And Mars is exciting to Jem, it's Foley who decides Mars, with its "rocks and cracks and sand" is not interesting after all. Although Jem does find aliens, it's actually Mars that comes to interest him, Jem acquires a sense of wonder and Foley loses his. A bittersweet book.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Isolated City Worlds:Storm Thief, by Chris Wooding. (London: Scholastic, 2006)

Rail and Moa are ghetto urchins thieving a living when Rail holds onto a find that that the Thief mistress wants. He and Moa run, and find out that the technology will let them through doors. On the way to sanctuary they pick up Vago, a golem/android who has escaped from a master he ended up with after a Probability Storm.

Rail and Moa live on/in Orokos, a city island in the middle of the sea. Orokos is the only place in the world where there are humans, but it's a hell hole in which the wealthy live in the city and the poor are crowded into walled ghettos. Every so often a probability storm sweeps by and changes things, sometimes inoccuously sometimes in ways that reminded me of Sean Williams Galveston. In the meantimes the Revenants sweep through, fatal aether ghosts that the Protectorate attempt to keep confined. The Taken (humans ridden by the Revenants) are fatal to the touch.

As Rail and Moa run they take us through this world and into an underworld where gehtto dwellers seek to build ships to find out if there is land over the horizon. When they are captured they are forced into helping the Protectorate break into an old Fade technology building to turn iff the central computer. Once there they are greeted by an Obi-wan figure (named Ben) who tells them that the city was a walled utopia in which humans went stale. All that they live with was deliberately designed to make humans active once more. Man cannot cope with utopia, da dah da dah....

They break the computer., the golem rescues them and they arrive at the walls in time to join the fleet of ghetto people. Vago ends up at the bottom of the sea but the children survive.

This ought to be a good book. Chris Wooding writes well, and there is plenty of pace and adventure. Rail, a boy who must use a breathing mask since his lungs were paralysed by a Probability Storm, is well conceived. But as I've sort of hinted at, there are too many places where this book feels familiar.

The city feels like the walled city in Julie Bertagna's Exodus. Rail and Moa feel like Reeve's Tom and Hester, and Vago is far too much like Reeve's Shrike. The ending is too close to the ending of Mortal Engines.

So, a good book, but...

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Taking Time by the Tail: Gideon the Cutpurse by Linda Buckley-Archer (London: Simon & Schuster, 2006).

There are two books here, the story of two children stranded in the past, and the story of scientists trying to get them home. The first is handled well, the second has problems.

Peter and Kate are in Kate's father's laboratory when they fall against what is supposed to be an experimental anti-gravity device and find themselves in England, in 1763. They are rescued by Gideon, once a cut-purse for a high class criminal, and now a steward. Gideon takes them to join the family he now works for, but when Gideon must leave to protect his brother (who has come under the sway of Gideon's old employer, Lord Luxon) the children also travel to London to try to retrieve the machine from the tar man.

Meanwhile back in the twenty first century, Kate's father is talking to Nasa about what might have happened and there is a country wide search for the children, complicated by the fact that their ghosts keep showing up.

Back in 1763 Kate and Peter have discovered they can "blur"into the future, but that they are always snapped back. This forces them to confess all to the Parson and the family they travel with: this is one of the things that makes the book work so well,. Having bitten that bullet and made a clear decision as to what can and can't be told, Buckley-Archer is in a position to use the fact of time travel rather than get hung up on the consequences although that haunts the book. Kate and Peter approach the problem logically, and eventually use their blurring technique to rescue Gideon from the scaffold.

If this entire book was set in the past I'd be recommending it as a picaresque--eighteenth century London is wonderfully depicted and I can forgive the coincident meetings--but the contemporary material lacks either the literary panache or the content confidence. First the writing of these sections is laboured and old fashioned. We are told what people feel, and furthermore, all the adults are simply role-holders. Peter's father is not a person. Neither is Kate's mother. The characterisation of the Parson and of Mrs.Byng in the eighteen century, even of the Detective Inspector in the twenty first, show that Buckley-Archer can write adults, but for some reason she has chosen to leave the contemporary parents as ciphers. This rather ties into the next issue, which is that Archer has committed the (for me) unforgiveable sin of children's literature paternas ex machina. At first I thought this applied only to the dashing, if incomplete, rescue from the past by Kate's father at the end, but when I thought back I realised that although Peter and Kate leave clues for people, and aid Gideon in various ventures, actually, they are quite passive. The book is rightly titled because once you clear away the time-travel issue, this book is really about Gideon.

All of that said, I did enjoy it, but I think the right audience for this book is going to be nine or ten, whereas sorting out the characterisation of the parents would have given it greater appeal.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Knowledge is Power: Michael J. Daley, Shanghaied to the Moon. New York: Putnam & Sons, 2007.

I first met Michael J. Daley with his utterly perfect book, Space Station Rat.

He has been kind enough to send me a proof of this book, and I'm just delighted, It has all the qualities of SSR, and yet is quite different.

Stewart is a bit short for a thirteen year old. He also has a scar on his hand he doesn't remember getting, nightmares and regular appointments with the Counsellor. His Dad is a computer geek, as is his elder brother, but he wants to go into space, like his mother, even though he saw her shuttle crash. The problem is that he can't get the hang of Astro navigation and his Dad won't sign the form for extra coaching, even though he has only a year left to qualify.

When a visit to the Counsellor goes horribly wrong, Stewart signs up with an elderly bum who claims to be a spacer, and ends up on a rickety rocketship to the moon where he will be asked to use a very small, old fashioned space suit, to find something the spacer wants retrieved.

During the trip Stewart's world comes unravelled. Without the mnemonic suppression devices he's been subjected to his memory unravels and he realises that his mother did not die quite the way he had been told, and that he had actually been there, she had died in part to save him. He also realises that the bum is an old friend of his mother's and the hero of the docu-vids to which Stewart has been addicted. This is not the hero worship moment you'd expect. What Stewart learns is this:

"The best don't always make it home."

Sounds soppy I know, but Daley is a rigorous writer. Shangaied to the Moon is stuffed full of information on engineering and astro-navigation as it currently and may one day exist, but it is also stuffed full of work ethic. Stewart is highly talented but there is none of this rubbish about "innate talent winning out". He practices and practices, and when he does get his memory and skills back, he discovers he had the skills because he practiced and practiced when he was younger. I hope this doesn't sound odd but its the work ethic that makes the book dense, the engineering information on its own doesn't. It's something about the engagement between the two. This equation, talent plus practice = ability is a truth more essential to children's fiction than is sometimes admitted (and lies behind the success of endless streams of ballet books).