Thursday, May 15, 2008

Jonathan Strahan, The Starry Rift, New York: Viking Penguin, 2008.

Jonathan Strahan’s The Starry Rift is a really excellent YA sf collection, for 12 yrs and up. It contains thought provoking stories by some of the best writers in the field and they are all science fiction. There isn’t a fantasy story in the lot. I know that sounds odd, but you'd be surprised at how many sf and fantasy collections for kids I have upstairs which contain very little science fiction.

It’s the best collection of sf for teens that I’ve seen in the past four years. It compares well to what I think of as the gold standard, the Out of this World series, edited by Amabell Williams-Ellis and Mably Owen in the 1960s.

Note: this is not a review it is a critique. If you don’t want to read spoilers, don’t read further.

This is a fabulous collection (and I urge you to go out and buy it now) but I do have some quite strong comments about presentation and ideology, most of which relate to the issues I’m talking about in my book. The stringency of the critique is in part because this was a book I could really enjoy and get my teeth into. I got more out of each of these stories in terms of stuff-to-think-about than all but about twenty of the books on my shelves.

First, I was delighted by the real density of the stories: much of my distress over the YA and children’s sf I’ve read is about how empty they are. In many books children reject knowledge of the world in favour of knowledge of themselves, or demonstrate innate talents that overwhelm adult knowledge. Here the authors know what they are aiming for: Scott Westerfeld delivers a hell of a lot of info about space and the concept of mass. Cory Doctorow gives an intense seminar on sweat shop economics and union organization while Ian McDonald tackles water politics. Stephen Baxter slides in uncertainty theory and Margo Lanagan looks at the structures of poverty economies. There is also a real range of stories, some contemporary, some near future.

My first caveat however, is that none of these stories are allowed to stand as they are. All but one (the Egan, which is also the most transparent story) gets a neat little explanation from the author about what was intended, and here my heart just sank. Almost every one of these explained the “relevance” of the story. Halam talks about children and gaming experience, Doctorow gives us a little lecture about obesity, Goonan explains that her story is about dealing with death. Even the more sf focused author notes such as those from Baxter, Ford and Reynolds seemed to detract from the stories. I wanted the stories to stand alone, for a kid to experience that sense of awe and mystery that the stories on their own generated. I wanted the sf in them to be the most important thing, to be able to read about things not about “me”. I also really didn’t want to be told that a story was “relevant”, because I don’t ever remember a time as a teen when I didn’t resent some adult telling me what was relevant. Which brings me to a story which separated from this book I would have really enjoyed, but which struck me as a serious misfire both for the market this book is intended for and more specifically as an opener for the book, Scott Westerfeld’s “Ass Hat Magic Spider”.

The level on which I love “Ass Hat Magic Spider” is that it functions as a reworking of Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations” both in terms of the problem it sets, and the fact that a smart kid will realize that it's an ideological set up. In “Ass Hat Magic Spider” a boy has to decide what he will leave behind in order to take a favoured object with him to a colony world. The weight limit is incredibly tight, tight enough that he has shaved off all his hair, starved himself and reduced his water in take for the final weigh in. The discussion of the limits of space flight, of mass-energy calculations etc are very well done indeed. The Godwinesque ideological seal is of course that no one would be daft enough to weigh a 13 yr old boy and then insist that he is not allowed to grow over the next couple of months. For the story to work, you have to assume that no one would have had the common sense to factor in allowance for growth (or simply refuse child colonists). But that’s ok, because it’s a cool thing to have to think about. Where I winced was when we discovered what it was our protagonist was holding out for: a hard copy of E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. I’m sorry, but while I can really see adults getting this nostalgia, and I can also really see pre-teens loving that ending, I’m having a really hard time believing that the target audience—12-17—are going to respond. A hard copy book. A mawkish, incredibly sentimental book at that. I know this is personal taste, but that in a sense is my point. As the opening story, that’s one hell of a risk.

There is one other issue relating to the age range I want to raise: this book is aimed at the whole of the YA range, but this is not reflected in the stories. I confess to going looking for this because the plummeting age of Juvenile/YA protagonists has been one of the things I’ve been considering. The short version is that around 1968 there is a revolt against adult protagonists in fiction for teens. By 1975 there are almost no adult protagonists left. I think there are two interconnected reasons for this: first, as the school leaving age climbs, the world of work is increasingly seen as irrelevant to teens; second, the model of desired reader response changes from “protagonists for readers to emulate” to “protagonists for readers to identify with”. I’d like to see both, but there you go. Of the “protagonists to identify with” the story most swamped by this ideology is Kelly Link’s “The Surfer”. A tale of a soccer kid who finds himself in a refugee camp with his Dad, fleeing a flu pandemic and a collapsing US infrastructure. The back story is brilliantly delineated, but in the end the story is about a boy learning to think outside himself, fall in love for the first time, and generally be a teenager. It was one of two stories in which the sf background was far more interesting than the use to which it was put.

In Starry Rift, seven of the sixteen protagonists are adults. Of those five are adults by age and the other two I have granted adult status on the grounds that they are either in the workplace (as in Lanagan’s “An Honest Day’s Work”) or are carrying adult responsibilities (as in Sullivan’s “Post-Ironic Stress Syndrome”). All of the other stories use protagonists who are clearly children or teenagers, but of those only two are what we might think of as coming of age stories (MacDonald and Link) which is a relief. So that the general pitch of the book is (I think) closer to 12 thru 15. An older reader is going to spend a lot of time reading about people younger than him/herself in modes which ask for indentification. There are many readers who do that cheerfully, but if this is an entry gate book, it strikes me as not quite thought through. Ironically, it may be one factor in ensuring that the book is successful with adults. Personally, I long for the days when sf published for teens assumed that what those teens most wanted to be, and to identify with, was adults. I don’t think I’m alone in this. The Inter-Galactic Playground reader survey (see the forthcoming book) suggested it was under 13s who wanted protagonists their own age and recent experience with classroom response suggests the same.

Now on to the stories themselves: briefly, the range of subject matter is huge as is the representativeness of different aspects of the genre and this is very definitely due to Strahan’s skill as an editor in selecting authors. I’m not trying to write a beautiful review so the following should be read as mostly enthusiastic notes.

The two weakest stories for me are Kelly Link’s “The Surfer” and Greg Egan’s “Lost Continent”. Both are as you would expect very well written, but neither need to be sf stories. I’ve already discussed Link’s story in which the future is simply a facilitating device to get the boy out of the house, and confronting his sense of self. Egan’s story is even weaker: it is a very fine piece about how terribly we treat refugees. But there is nothing in it whatsoever that means it needs to be sf. So the refugees come from over a time bridge from a past parallel world. If this is meant to be a metaphor for the fact that refugees come from places that seem to be living in the past with parellel world ideas—well yes. We got that. It might have been more interesting if we saw refugees going back and taking new time with them, but that time bridge is really just another ocean and there is no consequence to it being a time bridge that I can see.

I’ve already written about Westerfeld’s “Ass Hat Magic Spider”, and I just want to reiterate that I like what Westerfeld is trying to do. I haven't reviewed it here, but I recently read his Last Days, an sf vampire novel and enjoyed it very much.

Ann Halam’s “Cheats” is a fantastically well written, disabled child liberated by the web, story. Neil Gaiman offers us a very silly (for highly enjoyable values of silly) story of a teenage sister who uses Mom’s magic bubble recipe to tan her skin and turns into something weird and alien. The story is told in a series of answers to questions we don’t see… a bit like a Locus interview really. Stephen Baxter’s “Repair Kit” offers us a very shaggy dog story fuelled by uncertainty theory of the kind I used to love in the Out of this World series (Ellis and Owens). Jeffrey Ford is at the other end of the spectrum with “The Dismantled Invention of Fate” about the intercourse between a human and alien, their separation and eventual spiritual reconciliation. The story is lyrical, and gently old fashioned, I was reminded rather strongly of Heloise and Abelard.

More serious stories are offered by Kathleen Ann Goonan, Ian McDonald and Walter Jon Wiliams. All three of these stories can be seen as coming to terms with adulthood responsibilities, but keep their eyes firmly on “in a different kind of world”. Goonan’s “Sundiver Day” explores the emotional consequences of trying to clone a much loved person, while in “The Dust Assassin”, McDonald tells the story of the last surviving daughter of one of the great water houses of India. Walter Jon Williams “Pinnochio” is very good indeed as it considers the increasing pressure on child stars, but points out that changing technology may increase their ability to take control of their lives.

I long for derring-do and panache in my science fiction, and Al Reynolds, Paul McAuley and Tricia Sullivan all deliver. In “The Star Surgeon’s Apprentice” Reynold’s hero escapes from a space station where he has killed a gangster who hurt his sister and signs on as surgeons mate on a ship. The ship turns out to be a pirate ship full of cyborgs and he ends up helping a lobotomised young woman and a star creature destroy the surgeon and the ship. Paul McAuley’s “Incomers” is a classic adventure story in which boys think they’ve found a spy in the aftermath of war (it reminded me strongly of Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner (1929). Like Egan and Link’s stories, it doesn’t have to be sf to work, but the way they spy, and the things they discover are all firmly depedent on futuristic technology and politics. Finally here is Tricia Sullian’s “Post-Ironic Stress Syndrome” in which a girl from the future is fighting a virtual war in 1994 against another side’s champion for control of the Meq, another dmension. Each of them is a map of their own sides resources whch can be knocked out by their injuries. When a third party steps in a feedback loop is created so that each injury they inflict on the other, rebounds on themselves. The story moves as fast as the fighters and while the protagonist is immune to the third party’s political arguments, the readers may not be.

My favourite stories are by Nix, Lanagan and Doctorow. Garth Nix’s “Infestation” is a fairly straightforward story of a vampire hunt, but these vampires are genetically engineered alien war machines. The story is about courage and pride, and about skill, it’s also a lovely demonstration of why sf isn’t about its tropes and icons. Margo Lanagan’s “An Honest Day’s Work” takes a damaged child from a very poor family into his first day’s work in a breaker’s yard, where what is being broken up is some large, live, toxic beast: a dark vision of Lilliput and the way whole nations are treated as if they are Lilliputians. The absolute stand out for me though was Cory Doctorow’s “Anda’s Game”. It’s no secret that I loved Little Brother and this has the same passion and panache: as Anda earns real money and even realler confidence acting as unthinking muscle in virtual reality, she comes up against real world capitalism and discovers that there are sweatshops in the web.

table of contents


Ass-Hat Magic Spider by Scott Westerfeld
Cheats by Ann Halam
Orange by Neil Gaiman
The Surfer by Kelly Link
Repair Kit by Stephen Baxter
The Dismantled Invention of Fate by Jeffrey Ford
Anda’s Game by Cory Doctorow
Sundiver Day by Kathleen Ann Goonan
The Dust Assassin by Ian McDonald
The Star Surgeon’s Apprentice by Alastair Reynolds.
An Honest Day’s Work by Margo Lanagan
Lost Continent by Greg Egan
Incomers by Paul McAuley
Post-Ironic Stress Syndrome by Tricia Sullivan
Infestation by Garth Nix
Pinocchio by Walter Jon Williams.Acknowledgments
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