Friday, March 19, 2010

Something More Specific Regarding Archetype And Stereotype

Today, folks, we will be discussing Soulless by Gail Carriger, for two reasons.

1. It is one of the 2010 Alex Award winners. That means it is a book written for adults that has special appeal to young adults, twelve through eighteen years of age. Once again, I just don't get this. This is a paranormal romance, mainly, about a twenty-six-year-old spinster living in a steampunk Victorian London who is warm for the form of a much, much older Scottish werewolf. What we have here is essentially a Georgette Heyer novel with vampires and werewolves and lots and lots of hot, steamy almost sex. Sure, plenty of teenagers will like it, just as I liked Georgette Heyer novels when I was a teenager. But I don't see how there's anything here that is of particular interest to teen readers. (Except for the almost sex.) No adolescent characters. No adolescent themes.

The people I think will really like this book are the adult women who've been reading the Twilight books for the sexual frustration. The sexual frustration in Twilight is really lame compared to what they'll find in Soulless.

2. Leila at bookshelves of doom brought up the familiarity of the characters. I, too, thought of the Amelia Peabody books in the opening chapters of Soulless. Both Amelia and Alexia, the main character in Soulless, are powerful Victorian outsiders partnered with powerful, highly cranky, if not close to violent, men with insatiable sex drives, and both women even carry umbrellas they use as weapons. But Leila's bringing up the characters in Soulless as "types" reminded me of my archetype vs. stereotype musings earlier this month. Is Gail Corriger merely tossing off some stereotypes in Soulless or is she messing with archetype? While Alexia- and Lord Maccon-type characters appear in plenty of Heyer and Heyer-type novels, is placing them in a steampunk werewolf story playing with the archetype or just plodding along with the stereotype? And while Lord Akeldama is a very stereotypical gay character, isn't he also the aristocratic fop from any number of Regency romances cranked up a great deal?

As J.L. Bell said in a comment, "Readers have different experiences, tastes, temperaments." Meaning that whether a character is viewed as a archetype or stereotype is subjective on the part of the reader. Or, as I said, "tomato/tomahto."

I don't know if I'll be reading any of the Soulless sequels because I don't know how long I will enjoy the male-lover-dripping-testosterone scenario. It seems like something that will get old really fast to me. (The same goes with the Amelia Peabody books.) However, I know one hairdresser who will be getting Soulless for Christmas this year.

Plot Project: Oh, definitely, this is a plot all about woman wanting werewolf. All the evil goings on are the obstacles to her getting him.

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Tuesday, February 02, 2010

The Hunt For Science Fiction

Charlotte's Library, which is a blog specifically about fantasy and science fiction for children and teenagers, does weekly roundups of blog reviews of middle grade fantasy and science fiction. You'll also find posts there on new scifi and fantasy releases.

You'll have to go through all these yourselves to work out which are science fiction, but you should at least be able to find some there.


Saturday, January 23, 2010

My Family Thinks I've Made It

I have some science fiction lovers in my family, and they were delighted to see that my last post was mentioned at io9 in a piece called Is The Golden Age Of YA Science Fiction Already Over?. I know I said I would stop talking about Tanita, but she's mentioned, too.

Be sure to read the comments.


Thursday, January 21, 2010

Perhaps This Is Why We're Not Seeing More Science Fiction

Earlier this month, Tanita said at Finding Wonderland that real science fiction is getting harder to find in YA. That was her experience after serving on the fantasy and science fiction panel for the Cybils. I served on that panel four (?) years ago and found the same thing to be true at that time in both YA and middle grade.

This past year while I've been doing agent research, I've found that quite a few of them aren't looking for science fiction. They don't say why, and it isn't necessary for them to do so. I, however, will be happy to speculate.

1. Perhaps they are already representing authors with science fiction material to sell and feel there is only so much of the stuff they can find a home for. This would make sense. However, since we're not seeing much science fiction being published, it seems unlikely that they already have their plates full of scifi that they're placing.

2. Perhaps they don't believe they can sell science fiction, so it would be foolhardy to accept new authors with scifi books to market. This would also make sense.

3. Perhaps they just don't like the genre, and not everyone can sell things they don't like. This is certainly understandable. I can think of several types of books I'd hate to have to promote to absolutely anyone, forget about editors.

Whatever the reason, agents are among the literary gatekeepers who control what is published. If they aren't interested in a genre, how is it going to get out into the marketplace?

Of course, all it's going to take is for one unknown writer to do for science fiction what Harry Potter did for fantasy and Twilight did for vampire romances and we'll be swimming in the stuff.

NOTE: I am not really Tanita's best friend. I've just been mentioning her a lot lately. I will go on to someone else soon.

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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Some Cybils Fantasy/SciFi Titles And Authors

Sheila Ruth has the list of 2009 Fantasy/SciFi Cybils Nominees up at Wands and Worlds. I noticed some familiar titles and authors. Among them:

The Last Olympian by Rick Riordan.

Ottoline Goes To School by Chris Riddell.

Skeleton Creek by Patrick Carman.

Stonewall Hinkleman and the Battle of Bull Run by Michael Hemphill and Sam Riddleburger.

Authors I've read with nominated titles I haven't read:

Joni Sensel, Jonathan Stroud, Anne Ursu, M. T. Anderson, Angie Sage, Derek Landy, Michael Buckley, P.J. Haarsma, and Holly Black.

And, finally, I noticed that Pamela F. Service is nominated for Camp Alien. It's been years since I've read anything by Service, but she is memorable at Chez Gauthier for Stinker From Space.

For someone who isn't a major fantasy fan, I seem to have read a lot of it.

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Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Science Fiction Formulas

I was reading some of the responses to last night's premiere of V. I thought it was better than I expected (I wasn't a fan of the original, though I did like the mini-series--I think they should have left well enough alone after that.), but, you know, it is just an invasion story. The character in that crowd scene last night who said, "This is Independence Day!" hit the nail on the head, as far as I'm concerned. An invasion story is an invasion story.

I feel the same way about apocalyptic novels. Have you ever read one that didn't involve civilization falling, leading to a dystopian world? Talk about a rigid formula. Did I have to read more than a half dozen? Or, for that matter, more than one?

I'm sure this was why I had trouble coming up with more enthusiasm for The Hunger Games.


Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Child Readers Of Science Fiction

Farah Mendlesohn has a terrific article in the March/April Horn Book called The Campaign for Shiny Futures. Oh, and look! You can read it. (Sheila, you want to read this.)

So many seriously thought-provoking things here that I don't know where to start. I will just say that I'm going to be thinking about didactic books quite differently from now on. At least, I will if they're didactic science fiction.

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Tuesday, March 03, 2009

More War! More Nineteenth Century Guys!

Stonewall Hinkleman and the Battle of Bull Run by Michael Hemphill and Sam Riddleburger (The Qwikpick Adventure Society) is an ambitious book. Its authors are interested in doing a lot of things--creating a twenty-first century main character readers will identify with, providing him with conflict in the form of an enemy, covering moral lessons, and teaching some history just to get started.

Stonewall Hinkleman is the twelve-year-old son of Civil War reenactors who has outgrown any enchantment he had with that activity. While at a reenactment of the Battle of Bull Run (or Manassas) he is transported back in time to that very battle, in progress. Also making his way back in time is another reenactor, one who hopes to change history. Stonewall has to stop him.

The historical portion of this book is its strong point. To be more precise, the battle scenes are its strong point. I found that interesting because, while I've visited a number of Revolutionary and Civil War battle sites, I'm not really interested in the military aspects of battle. I could care less which divisions were on what hill, when they got there, and how long they stayed. I'm interested in people.

Hemphill and Riddleburger provide Civil War era people of interest in Stonewall's ancestor Cyrus and the brothers Big Jim and Elmer. I was also quite taken with all the nameless men who stink because they've been marching for days, wipe blood from their faces, and fall down dead. Young Jacob who really doesn't connect at all with the white boy from the future is intriguing, though we don't see a lot of him.

I think Stonewall Hinkleman and the Battle of Bull Run probably tries to do too much. The plot relating to the contemporary bad guy wanting to save the Old South, for instance, has trouble competing with the more powerful war scenes. The book has set itself up for a possible sequel at the Battle of Antietam. If Stonewall gets to fight another day, I'd love to see him more focused on the people of the past. I can see him going from battle to battle saving one particular character's sorry butt, enabling the guy to survive the war.

Stonewall Hinkleman and the Battle of Bull Run will be published next month by Dial Books.

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Monday, December 29, 2008

There's Nothing Wrong With Being Thrilling

I am definitely a Suzanne Collins fan. I liked all but the last of her Underland books. And I found the actual game portion of her The Hunger Games exciting, an excellent thriller.

However, this book has been discussed on listservs all year. It's being talked about as having award potential. I just don't see it.

In The Hunger Games a ruling elite suppresses twelve districts it defeated in war by selecting two teenagers from each one (in a scene very reminiscent of The Lottery) and forcing them to fight to the death in a televised reality show. Seeing their kids murdering each other on television is supposed to show these folks that they have no hope. At the same time, the ruling class in the capitol city finds the games wildly entertaining.

I find this premise very...random. There just doesn't seem to be any compelling reason for anyone to have hit upon this particular device for breaking the will of an opponent.

I think I have trouble accepting the premise because I don't find the world of the book very well defined. The story takes place in North America sometime so far in the future and after so horrendous a war that the United States no longer exists or even seems to be remembered. People no longer use recognizable names. In fact, some names sound very Roman, as if the culture has been thrown into the past.

And yet they still have reality television?

A lot of things in this book just didn't work for me. The government of this society can create entire little worlds for the games to take place in and then turn them into theme parks for the wealthy instead of reusing them for the next games. It can control the weather, for crying out loud. It needs the Hunger Games to control a downtrodden population? I don't think so. The games appear to have been going on for seventy-four years. That's at least three generations. In that time the society hasn't changed in any way? How big are these districts that need to be controlled? What's going on in the rest of the world? What's with the girl who is introduced but never dealt with?

I'm guessing we'll see her in book two of what I've heard is going to be a trilogy.
In spite of all my reservations about the world building in this book, I am more than willing to admit that once the games in The Hunger Games begin, readers are in for a thrill ride. That's plenty of reason to read it.

The Hunger Games has been nominated for a Cybil in the Fantasy and Science Fiction YA category.

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Tuesday, December 02, 2008

A Possible Christmas Present

Last week we were talking about Christmas purchases of overlooked books published pre-2008. Yesterday I bought three of the books I mentioned and added a fourth. This book wasn't overlooked when it was published in 2006, but, boy, are its handlers making things difficult for it now.

Back when this clever combination historical novel, scifi time traveler story, and English procedural mystery by Linda Buckley-Archer was originally published in hardcover, it was called Gideon the Cutpurse with a marvelous two-piece cover. I'm sure there's a technical term to describe it, but the best I can say is that the top, hard cover had a jagged hole with an eye on the page beneath so that it appeared that someone was looking through a hole in a board. The title and cover were both very striking.

Unfortunately, the character Gideon the Cutpurse wasn't the protagonist. He was also an adult. He was also a nice guy, but not particularly charismatic, which is what you want in an adult character in a children's book if you're going to name the thing for him. And while I loved the cover, I can't recall any scene in the book that it illustrated. It may not have had anything to do with anything.

So I can see why the publishing powers behind this first in a trilogy thought it might be a good idea to make some changes with the paperback.

However, they changed the name to the generic and forgettable The Time Travelers: Book One In The Gideon Trilogy. And the cover...seriously underwhelming. Okay, now we know there are kids in the book, which we didn't before. Still, it just looks like another time traveling story for kids, while before it looked like something special, though probably no one knew what.

This paperback also carries a blurb: "For kids who love Harry Potter." What? I guess if you take the attitude that Harry Potter is fantasy and if you think that The Gideon Trilogy is fantasy instead of science fiction and if you believe that all fantasy is alike, then maybe...No. No. It just doesn't work. And it does such a disservice to this novel. Harry Potter fans are going to feel misled and people who've had all they can take of Harry are going to avoid The Time Travelers unnecessarily.

Now, note that they're calling this series The Gideon Trilogy. I'm guessing that's to maintain some kind of connection to the original title of the original book. However, Gideon isn't even mentioned in the publisher's description of the second book, The Time Thief. (Which, by the way, has just come out in paper.) Does he have a big enough part in the books to warrant having the series named for him? (I plan to keep reading them, so I'll let you know. Get back to ya on that.)

The first book definitely was good. The second has been nominated for a Carnegie Medal. It would be a shame if this series gets lost in the confusion of name and cover changes and over-the-top blurbs.

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A Very Classy Frankenstein Story

A Frankenstein story is one in which scientists play God, messing with nature to create life. The end result is rarely good. (Think Jurassic Park. Or Alex Award winner Never Let Me Go.)

Like Never Let Me Go, The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson is a very high quality Frankenstein story. Its characterization equals its plotting, and it's very elegantly written. The outcome for The Adoration of Jenna Fox is far different than the outcome in Never Let Me Go, though. It's not your run-of-the-mill Frankenstein story ending.

Jenna Fox has just come out of a lengthy coma at the beginning of her story, which is set in a future United States that has suffered your usual futuristic disasters involving disease, earthquake, and economic breakdown. She seems in remarkably good shape, though, and the only medical person she sees is her father, the head of some kind of biotech firm. She has survived a horrendous accident that she can't recall. Things come back to her slowly. Things come to the reader slowly.

Slowly, in this case, is not a bad thing.

This book deals with some big issues, such as what it means to be human (I'm sorry, I kept thinking of Data on STTNG--not that there's anything wrong with that), parental love, rationing health care, and identity. But it doesn't do it in a pretentious, heavy-handed way. The Adoration of Jenna Fox has a scifi/thriller aspect that keeps it from feeling like too much of a problem book and a teen angst problem aspect that keeps it from falling into scifi/thriller cliches.

Personally, I could have done without the epilogue, but I never like epilogues.

I think some might argue that The Adoration of Jenna Fox ends the way it does because it's YA and YA must be hopeful. But I think that doesn't give it credit for asking an interesting question about the traditonal Frankenstein scenario--Is it really wrong to do this?

The Adoration of Jenna Fox is a Cybils nominee in the Young Adult Fantasy and Science Fiction category.

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Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Science Fiction Short Stories For YA Readers

I haven't responded to any books here in a while because I've been reading The Starry Rift: Tales of New Tomorrows, a rather hefty volume of short stories edited by Jonathan Strahan. The Starry Rift is one of those themed YA anthologies that are often very uneven in the quality of its offerings. I think this one is better than average.

A couple of the stories are a little preachy. And some might not technically be YA. For instance, is a consciousness that's been alive for hundreds of years but inhabits a body that looks to be in its late teens a YA character or something else? (Infestation by Garth Nix) One story that I liked a lot, The Star Surgeon's Apprentice by Alaistair Reynolds, takes your classic tale of the cabin boy forced onto a pirate ship and moves it into space. The protagonist, though, seems as if he doesn't need to be a teenager.

One of the big pluses with this book is that the stories really are science fiction, something that I think hasn't been getting a lot of attention in young people's fiction since fantasy became king of the hill. In fact, the Nix story I mentioned in the preceding paragraph involves vampires, which usually fall into the fantasy category. But he gives them a nice science fiction twist here. Strahan's introduction provideds a history of science fiction, particularly in the twentieth century, that I think new, young science fiction readers should be able to get a lot out of.

I also like the way some of the authors took classic situations from other genres--or from the headlines--and used them in science fiction scenarios. In addition to the pirate story, we have a story here about kids thinking they've found a spy and spying on him themselves, something that might be described as a whaling story (Whales in Space!), and a tale of illegal immigrants coming from the past.

Then there was the story set in a future, high-tech India. India was ruined as a setting for me after having to read A Passage to India twice when I was in school. The Dust Assassin by Ian McDonald may have opened a new world to me.

Really, reading this book was an experience. I only skipped two stories.

For a much more serious critique of The Starry Rift, check out this post from The Inter-Galactic Playground. The post's author, Farah Mendlesohn, is the author of Rhetorics of Fantasy.

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Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Need To Teach

I just recently got around to reading Unhappily Ever After, which appeared in the July 21st issue of the print version of Newsweek. The article deals with kids' apocalyptic fiction, which is always a fun genre.

What I found really striking in the piece were the quotes from a couple of authors suggesting that children need to learn something from these books. Jeanne DuPrau said, "We have more ways of ending the world than we had before...These are big, hard truths that are facing kids, and they need to know these things." And Michael Grant told Newsweek "...there's a direct conection between things they may do and the end of the world..."

Now this attitude that children's literature should be improving and instructive has a long tradition, and I'm respectful of that. However, I wonder just what it is apocalyptic fiction has to teach children. I liked the thrills that went along with Life As We Knew It as much as the next reader, but what hard truth or connection to their own behavior could kids have learned from that? Don't let an asteroid hit the moon? How I Live Now was pretty terrific, too, but what teen reader could possibly do anything to prevent another country from invading her own? Isn't that expecting rather a lot? Don't young readers realize that?

I wonder how many kids read apocalyptic fiction as instructive and come away from it determined to do good? Or do they get from these books what kids often get from reading science fiction--an opportunity to try out frightening situations, safe in the knowledge that these worlds aren't real?


Thursday, July 17, 2008

A Couple Of Readercon Authors

As part of my preparation for Readercon, I've been trying to read a few of the attending authors whom I'm not already familiar with. I began with two adult books that were pretty much a bust. One had a first-person narrator who was primarily a monologuist and the other had a first-person narrator who was bogged down in trying to sound authentic to his period.

However, I found a book from the mid-nineties called Groogleman by two authors I'd never heard of--Debra Doyle and James D. Macdonald--and that was impressively well-written. Seriously, this book combined two genres I don't normally care for, and I still thought it was very well done.

Groogleman starts out as one of those scifi stories about some kind of backward pre-technological culture that relies on medicine people in lieu of national health care. As a general rule, I feel that having read one of those books, I've read them all. But in this case, the authors don't drone on with the arty, mystical padding I usually find so trying with that kind of story.

Then Groogleman turns into another type of story that, quite honestly, is probably just a variation on the pre-technological culture that relies on some kind of medicine person in lieu of nationalized health care scenario. I don't want to say too much because it's sort of a twist. I don't care for this type of story because it's really been done a lot. But, as I said, Doyle and Macdonald do it here very well.

And then we have a third type of story thrown into the pot--the pivotal adult character in a children's story. This is a type of story I do like, which is incredibly odd because I don't like to see adults dominating a children's book. Usually the reason these stories work is that the adult character is some kind of outsider or perhaps childlike in some way, like Howl in Howl's Moving Castle. In Groogleman, Joshua is, indeed, an outsider, but instead of being childlike he's just plain mysterious.

I think Groogleman is a balanced book, meaning that the plot is balanced by quickly drawn but well-defined characters and a setting that is atmospheric without becoming overwhelming. It's written in the third person, but two of the three main characters have clear voices. The main character's voice is the least powerful, but that works. I think readers are able to slip into his place because of his everyman quality.

I do think the ending is a bit rushed, and the authors may have given too much away in a couple of the quotations that appear at the beginning of chapters. (But maybe not if you're a child reader.) Otherwise, I have to say that Groogleman was a nice surprise.

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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

What's New In SciFi And Fantasy?

Susan Fichtelberg, author of Encountering Enchantment: A Guide to Speculative Fiction for Teens has a page at her website on New and Forthcoming Science Fiction and Fantasy Titles for Teens.

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Monday, July 14, 2008

Getting Out Of The House

Next weekend I'll be visiting Readercon, a conference on imaginative literature, for one day. I'm going primarily because I can. I like to go to something professional once in a while, but I don't want to have to hop a plane to do it. Even driving an hour to the train station, riding the rails for two hours more or less, and then hailing a cab to reach my final destination seems like an awful lot of work to me. So just the fact that I can get to this place relatively easily was my original motivation.

The Readercon people recently posted the program guides, though, (scroll to bottom of of the page), and I'm much more enthused. I'm not even all that into sci-fi and fantasy, and I still think this stuff sounds great.

Who's going to be at Readercon who the kidlit world might be interested in? Ellen Kushner. She had a Cybils nominee a couple of years ago. Holly Black. Sarah Beth Durst. (I wasn't aware that her work was fantasy or scifi.) Kelly Link. I read her collection of short stories Magic for Beginners, and she has a YA collection coming out this fall. Nancy Werlin. I'm sure there are more. The list of writers attending is rather lengthy. (I am, in fact, reading a kidlit book by a Readercon author, which I hope to be blogging about in a couple of days.)

In honor of my upcoming scifi/fantasy excursion to Readercon at the end of the week, I'll be trying to focus on scifi and fantasy here at Original Content for the next few days.

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Thursday, June 05, 2008

Funny And A Real Story, Too

Spunky eleven-year-old characters who save the world can be really annoying, particularly when they have cutie bizarre names like Gratuity. But Gratuity Tucci of The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex transcends her stereotype. She really is tough, funny, and engaging. Even the alien she runs into on her way to the human compound down in Florida can't get enough of her.

Smekday is both funny and scary, a marvelous combination in my humble opinion. Plus it doesn't skimp on a real story in order to crack jokes.

Gratuity is growing up with a somewhat dotty single mom, which explains why she is a little more capable than the average eleven-year-old. Mom is kidnapped by aliens just before they take over the Earth. All Americans are going to be rounded up and sent to Florida because the Boov overlords are colonizing the planet. Instead of heading out by way of Boov transportation, Gratuity decides to drive herself. Her poor driving skills are compensated for by the fact that no one else is on the road because civilization has fallen. (Plus, she's right when she says it should be a relatively easy trip--from Pennsylvania, which is where she's starting, I believe you're on the same highway all the way to Florida.)

Young Gratuity runs into a Boov on the lam from his own people. (We find out why--important plot point.) From there on, we've got a highly entertaining road story. It's sort of like The Defiant Ones without the chain and with plenty of sly and not so sly humor.

The Boov takeover of Earth is definitely supposed to be compared to the European takeover of the New World. The line between an interesting analogy and a pretentious, heavy-handed allegory is very fine, and in a few places Rex teeters along it. But he always manages to save himself, in large part because of Gratuity and J.Lo, two marvelous characters.

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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

A Little Bit Of A Split Personality

After I finished reading Interworld by Neil Gaiman and Michael Reaves, I stumbled upon their Afterword. In it, they explain how they originally tried to "sell" their idea for a story about a teenage boy who is part of an organization trying to protect multiple Earths (none of which are aware of the others' existence) from being overrun by two different empires--one technical, one magical--to television producers. They then put it in novel form, hoping to make those same TV producers understand their concept. Interworld never did make it to television and was released as a novel.

That was one of the most enlightening afterwards I've ever read, because after reading it I realized that Interworld does, indeed, read very much like a kids' television show. A sophisticated cartoon, perhaps. You've got a young boy who is bullied and can't get the girl but who becomes a hero in an alternate world. A pet-like creature attaches itself to him. He develops a group of diverse friends. (In science fiction, diversity means something different then it does in other kinds of fiction.) The group is under the guidance of an older, male authority figure. The ending sets us up for next week's episode.

Now some of you are probably thinking, Oh, Gail compared Neil Gaiman's book to a cartoon. Slam. Not at all. A book that helps cartoon fans make the transition to reading is a neat idea. I think in this one some kids might find themselves struggling at some points because our everyman main character will frequently begin spouting heavy science (or science-like) technospeak that seems alien to him in other parts of the book. But they may find the basic story to have enough drive that they can just skip over those parts. (I did.)

Note: Michael Reaves used to write for an animated show called Gargoyles, which caught my attention a number of times as I walked through the living room while a younger family member watched it. I never had time to watch a whole episode, but I used to sit down to see what was happening every now and then.


Saturday, January 26, 2008

And What About Sci-fi For Kids?

I wonder if Clive Thompson isn't lumping science fiction with fantasy in his Wired column Clive Thompson on Why Sci-Fi Is the Last Bastion of Philosophical Writing. He says, "Teenagers love to ponder such massive, brain-shaking concepts, which is precisely why they devour novels like Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, the Narnia series, the Harry Potter books, and Ender's Game. They know that big-idea novels are more likely to have an embossed foil dragon on the cover than a Booker Prize badge." I'm not going to dispute his basic argument, but "an embossed foil dragon" usually says fantasy to me, not science fiction.

Now, students, after you've read Mr. Thompson's column, think about how his theory that "Science fiction is the last great literature of ideas" applies to children's literature. Is there all that much science fiction being written for children these days? Or is it primarily fantasy? And should those two genres be lumped together?

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Friday, December 07, 2007

And How Do We Feel About Science Fiction?

Why Don't We Love Science Fiction? in the TimesOnLine is a great article on the status of science fiction. It also describes how science fiction and science influence each other.

Though the article pertains particularly to the situation in Britain, I don't think things are much different here or much different in kidlit. My impression is that while fantasy reigns supreme in children's literature, hardcore, traditional science fiction is far rarer.


Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Maybe The Fun Is Gone From Science Fiction

Sam Riddleburger and I have been having a private exchange regarding The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet. Sam wrote me to say he recalled liking the book when he was a kid. He also said,

"I just wanted to point out that the great Stanislaw Lem, who wrote an extremely detailed "realistic" account of space travel in "Fiasco," frequently used the "jump out of a rocket and meet an alien" technique for other books. And they're a lot more fun than Fiasco." (Links added by me.)

Sam's mention of fun got me thinking. Last year while I was on the Cybils scifi/fantasy panel, we didn't get a lot of science fiction books. Maybe only one. I've also read that true science fiction isn't very popular with kids these days. Maybe now that we are so science literate (I'm sure scientists would say we're not) that even young children have some basic knowledge of the reality of conditions in space, computers, gene therapy, artificial intelligence, and God knows what all, science fiction no longer has enough fun to attract young readers.

Or certainly it can't have much magic when it's loaded down with reality. Now, I know a lot of science fiction readers like and want reality. But I'm guessing most of those readers are over the age ten. It may be a lot harder for today's eight-year-olds to imagine themselves loaded for bear with space travel equipment than it was for eight-year-olds of old to imagine themselves dropping down onto the moon with nothing more than a couple of sandwiches to hold them over until tea.

I'm not saying that that is the case. I'm just raising it as a possibility.

By the way, Stanislaw Lem also wrote Solaris, which, when I saw it as a movie, I did not understand at all. Perhaps I'll try again now.

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Sunday, November 04, 2007

Time Will Always Work Against Me

I was very ambitious back when I was a teenager. In those days, I wanted to be a writer because I wanted to be immortal. I can remember thinking about it during study hall. Traipsing off to that great high school cafeteria in the sky would be okay because long after I was dust people yet unborn would be taking my books off shelves, and thus I would live on. It never entered my mind that people yet unborn might look at my work and say, "When did this woman live? In the Dark Ages?"

But in all likelihood, they will.

I found The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet by Eleanor Cameron on the new book shelf at my local library. The two boys in the space ship suggested to me that this might be one of those books for younger kids that I've been hunting for these last few months, so I took it home.

I started to read and thought, How retro. I read a little more and thought, How very retro. Before long I was thinking, How very, very retro.

Well, the book isn't retro at all. It probably fits very much into the period in which it was written, since it was originally published in 1954. It was probably very contemporary then.

I don't know what to make of Flight to the Mushroom Planet, at least in terms of being a book for early twenty-first century kids. Though the writing is sophisticated as far as vocabulary and writing skill is concerned, it has a "Hey! Let's build a space ship and go to another planet" aura about it that definitely comes from another time. Like some of Ray Bradbury's work, it's a product of a time when people could still believe humans could land on another planet and walk around and talk with the folks there. It also has a Bradbury-like romance with boyhood, a fantasy boyhood, perhaps, during which young fellows built things and had adventures and adults respected that. I also thought it had a Twilight Zone feel. (Rod Serling was seriously into the romance of childhood and treated it nostalgically, in my humble opinion.) When David is telling his mother about his adventure on the mushroom planet and he, and we, aren't sure whether she believes him or just loves talking to him, I could easily imagine her in a shirtwaist and pearls, a black-and-white mom on the TV.

None of this is to say The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet is a bad book. It's just very, very rooted in its time. I don't know how it will go over with the kids of our time, who probably all know by the time they hit kindergarten that no human being is going to be hopping out of a spaceship onto another planet without millions of dollars of hardware to keep her alive.

I think this is probably the fate of a great many books, not just works of science fiction. We are all residents of our time period. That's the way it should be. Our work, no matter what it is, is a product of the time in which it was produced. Some products will be appreciated decades later. Some won't.

Oddly enough, Eleanor Cameron wrote an article for The Horn Book back in 1972 in which she said something similar. "When in any age of the world's history has much of any art lasted? Out of the thousands upon thousands of works constantly being produced, most sink away and are forgotten." In a later paragraph she says, "Will any of the children's books written in the past thirty years be alive and beloved one hundred years from now?"

In her article, she raises that question in relation to the quality of the work. But I think there's more at work in keeping a title current than the quality of the writing. The passage of time is important, too. The children of 2007 aren't the children of 1972 or the children of 1954. They are products of the times they live in. Books are products of the times they were written in. Some of the works from the early '70s that Cameron spoke highly of in The Horn Book probably were very well done. How widely known are they now?

I should be sad that I'm not going to be immortal. But I do believe that those people yet unborn I was expecting to read my decades old books have a right to be people of their era, just as I am of mine.

Younger children who can still get into the idea of a nontechnical space adventure and who also have good reading skills may enjoy The Wonderful Flight of the Mushroom Planet.

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Monday, June 04, 2007

I See Connections That Perhaps No One Else Sees

That doesn't mean they're not there.

Today artsJournal directed me to a great article, Ray Bradbury: Fahrenheit 451 Misinterpreted. I've never read Fahrenheit 451. I saw the movie, of which I remember very little except that Oskar Werner was in it.

So I didn't get too shook up when I read that Bradbury says his book is often considered to be about government censorship when it is really about "how television destroys interest in reading literature." I mean, it's not as if it's some beloved book for me and now I'm finding out I never understood it at all.

I was very interested, though, because in my, admittedly limited, reading of '50s and '60s scifi (of which Fahrenheit 451 is a part), it seems as if I recall a great deal of anti-television sentiment. Doesn't Philip K. Dick, for instance, have some creepy things to say about TV in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the only one of his books I've read?

I've been thinking of those dire TV predictions lately in relation to the virtual world Second Life. My understanding of Second Life is weak, but I wonder if some of those mid-twentieth century scifi writers would see such worlds as the logical extension of their predictions about television. First it numbs your mind. Then you become tighter with the unreal TV world than your own. Then you enter an unreal world altogether.

While I've been thinking about Second Life, I've also been thinking of a book called Circuit of Heaven by Dennis Danvers, in which "all but a tiny minority of the earth’s population have chosen to forsake their bodies and electronically upload their personalities into ‘’the Bin,'’ a virtual paradise where life is indistinguishable from real life except that there is no hunger or crime and no one ever dies." I enjoyed Circuit of Heaven when I read it a few years ago, and it might be a title those older teen/college student readers would like, since the main character is 21 years old and could be described as rebelling against the status quo and determing what kind of person he's going to be.

So, seriously, I thought all this stuff was connected.

And now it's time for me to watch TV.

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