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).


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