Wednesday, March 12, 2008

A group called the Mind_Meld approached me and others on the question, Is Young Adult SF/F to explicit?

The comments are here.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

A Lonely Little Petunia in an Onion Patch: The True Meaning of Smek Day by Adam Rex, Hyperion, 2007.

After my bitter complaint here that there wasn't a single sf book on the initial Norton ballot, miraclously, the final ballot has added one, The True Meaning of Smek Day by Adam Rex.

It's sort of fun, has lots of nice Messages, joins the ranks of the *tiny* number of sf books for kids with a black protagonist (which is not to be sniffed at), and is politically interesting if heavy handed and ruins its own message. It's best feature is that Gratuity is the kind of competent kid protagonist that I treasure. All that apart, it's ordinary as hell.

Gratuity Tucci is eleven and she has been asked to submit a school essay on The True Meaning of Smekday for a time capsule competition. In her first essay she tells of her mother's mole, how her mother is abducted, and her own decision to drive to Florida instead of getting on the rocket. She also explains that the invading Boov have decided that the planet is now theirs and they have signed a treaty "forever" with humans--using as representatives anyone they pick up (the first of the political messages, as this is pretty much how native American "representatives" were chosen). She takes her cat, Pig [which made me smile as I had a cat called Pig] and ends up collecting a rather worried looking Boov. There are adventures.

Part two: Gratuity is told to add more to the essay. She tells of the journey through Florida onto Arizona where the Boov have pushed the humans having decided they want Florida [again reference to history, not very subtle]. Then the Gorg arrive, all clones of a single inhabitant of a planet where the species wiped itself out after fighting non stop for generations--so much for the anti-stereotype messages otherwise running though the book. The Gorg are nicely gruesome and they hate cats.

Gratuity and J-Lo, the Boov, who has been rendered cute by this time with nicely broken English and odd eating habits, finally find Gratuity's mother who is helping to organise one of the Arizona encampments [and there is a discussion on the way all the Americans in Arizona have split into ethnic and ideological groups, a racist is shouted down and a lecture about free speech given.] Gratuity discovers that the Gorg hunt cats because they are allergic. Gratuity and Boov clone and teleport Pig[s]. The Gorg leave the planet, someone else takes the credit, and Gratuity explains this is a good thing because she gets to lead her life as she wants to. There is a coda ninety or so years after.

End of book.

It isn't allegory, but its real message is teaching children to question the colonialist stories told by America and Israel (those being the contemporary examples) and once it's done that, it actually falls back into some of the trite assumptions about "the other" it ostensibly sneers at.

I enjoyed it, it's fun. it will go down well with kids. It has an identical plot to about twenty other books in my collection which it handles with a certain swing. I have nothing bad to say about it. Except it isn't a patch on any of the titles I listed in February in terms of any attempt to introduce kids to any kind of speculation.

It could be so much worse: Shadow Web by N. M. Browne. Bloomsbury, 2008.

Jess Allendon is bored with her homework so googles herself. She finds another Jessica Allendon who asks for a meet up. Not being stupid she takes her mate Jonno with her when she goes to meet the other Jessica in Waterloo Station, but when she sees a face identical to her own, shock takes over and on automatic pilot she moves forward and takes the other girl's hand.

There is an explosion and when Jess wakes up she is in a different Waterloo Station, one where the floor is made of coloured marble, and young men in purple uniforms are rushing toward her, hustling her out the door as a "Yank poppet". Jess is put in a taxi when they realise she is from a resectable household, and is driven to a grand house not far from Soho. There. she finds herself forced into the role of Jessica, sixteen year old secretary to Mrs. Landsdowne, in a house riven with politics and suspicion.

The world "Jessica" lives in is not just alien to Jess it's horrifying: women appear to have no rights, only those over thirty can vote. Jess is subject to constant sexual harrassment, and if she complains, other women assume it is her own fault. Her employers are oppressive. wages seem to be incredibly low and the workhouse awaits any servant who dares to transgress. Outside there is a low level civil war going on: in a Britain which still holds its colonies and the Black and Indian people she meet seem oddly exotic compared to those of her own world; in which the technology is still analog but an internet exists; in which the manners and mores and industrial politics seem out of the 1910s, someone is planting bombs.

Jess gets pushed from pillar to post, becomes a pawn in a game she never really understands, and falls in love with her best friend's doppleganger. Jess is only in the other world one week but it's a terrifying week in which the threats of the grey suited Security or the dapper black clothed King's Constabulary seem far less frightening than the constant sexual threat. By the time she returns home, she isn't quite the same person.

Browne hands her alternate world with a deftness of touch I've rarely seen in YA sf: she is happy to leave Jess confused and us with her. Although we learn the broad outlines of the society, we don't get to know it, and we never find out how it got that way. We know very little more about alternate London than most of us (Jess included) could describe of our own world. Browne sticks rigidly to Jess's viewpoint and as no one has time to explain the world to her, or even really a place to start explaining from (where would you begin if a stranger landed here?) this other world remains powerfully nebulous.