The success of Star Wars, Blake’s 7, Star Trek and the like suggest there’s an appetite for SF. Can it be fed with reading? Have we got the books to satisfy it?
Steve Bowles looks at what’s currently available.
It may seem strange to compare science fiction with historical novels and yet they share an apparent stylistic necessity which does much to limit the range of their appeal. Since readers won’t automatically conjure up appropriate mental images as with contemporary realism, there is pressure on the writer to create a clear picture of time, place and social structure while simultaneously establishing characters and storyline. All too easily, this can result in chunks of description which destroy the pace, unfamiliar details/vocabulary to disturb the flow, and dialogue which rings strangely on the ear, hindering the books’ immediacy. Often, good science fiction is nearly as impenetrable – for most kids – as a substantial slab of Sutcliff, Garfield or Barbara Willard. (It’s not altogether surprising to find a notable historical novelist like Ann Schlee receiving acclaim when switching over to SF – although personally, unlike BFK‘s editor and the judges for ’79’s Guardian Award, I found The Vandal boringly flat and uneventful.) Of course, SF commands a much wider audience than the historicals – and its unfulfilled potential justifies publishers’ continued backing. (Whereas there are 30 years’ worth of barely-dated, quality historical novels in the libraries – easily sufficient for their almost negligible audience.) However, the parallel is worth making, if only to suggest that SF subject matter does not, in itself, guarantee success.
Equating high sales with popularity can be misleading (as many publishers’ claims show) and some slow-sellers do work exceptionally well. Nevertheless, editors with a taste for SF must be bothered that the Puffin catalogue shows Peter Dickinson’s three Changes novels at 30p, 40p and 50p, indicating that they’ve not been reprinted recently, despite a (for once) effective TV adaptation. Moreover, Puffins by Ben Bova, Harry Harrison, Heinlein, Sheckley, Sylvia Engdahl and Andre Norton are all gone from the current list while Beaver seem to have shelved plans to expand the Space series and have dropped John Christopher’s Wild Jack. One wonders, therefore, how well founded is the apparent belief that the Star Wars bandwagon will create a big new demand for SF, a belief which surely explains recent upsurges in kids’ SF publication. Action-packed films don’t necessarily come across vividly in print and, with the notable exception of Douglas Hill’s Last Legionary sequence, the new books show hardly any modifications to styles, structures or themes now mouldering on library shelves as part of the Great Unread. Tinkering with content alone won’t do; the whole approach to kids’ books must change. John Christopher’s Empty World and Jan Mark’s Ennead no more satisfy the need for readable SF than Virginia Hamilton provides accessible books about Black kids.
Even with a clearly-defined genre, therefore, teachers must know individual books in order to put them in the way of appropriate readers. It’s pointless expecting everyone interested in SF to read everything with rockets or bug-eyed monsters on the front. Dr Who fiends aren’t likely to switch straight to Helen Hoover, nor Hugh Walters fans to Monica Hughes. However, with older kids at least, it’s easier with SF than with other types of fiction for teachers to nurture interest or counter prejudice because of the many SF short stories available for classroom use. (Promoting SF, of course, would be secondary to promulgating new awareness of techniques in short story writing.) If only half a dozen anthologies covered All Teachers Need To Know About SF… Unfortunately, the usual procedure applies again – Read Around. I don’t know one outstanding SF anthology in a kids’ paperback imprint although educational publishers’ (non-net!) offerings – a mixed bag, with many overlaps, usually aimed at older teenagers – contain a fair number of classics. Perhaps, one day, someone will collect them into a few readily-available volumes and make future anthologies cast around more widely. Currently, occasional nuggets nestle among dross, collections often relying more on promising connecting themes than on the merits of individual stories. Limited outlets for short stories written especially for kids have made most authors steer clear of them while, since the late sixties, new SF stories for adults have generally been too difficult – hence the continual reshuffling of Names from the simpler forties and fifties (Bradbury, Clarke, Wyndham…) which depresses most anthology-watchers.
A complementary problem exists with novels. Low grade series are not hard to find: Faber have Hugh Walters, Magnet have the Dragonfall 5 books (Brian Earnshaw), in Piccolo there’s Capt. W E Johns and the Tomorrow People, Armada have Patrick Moore, Dr Who battles on in Target. Knight’s Starstormers (Nicholas Fisk) might have more potential but, so far, I’ve riot been impressed. Useful though they are with some kids, these series tend to justify old criticisms – that SF equals Westerns on the Moon, and, in these cases, rather poor Westerns at that. This wouldn’t worry anybody if there were a way of channelling interest towards the more accomplished writers but I can’t agree with Bill Boyle’s comment in BFK No.7 that there ‘is already sufficient imaginative and entertaining sci-fi on the market’, especially for junior/early secondary kids. If SF is going to take off, there must be more good quality Adventures like The Last Legionary to bridge the gap to excellent but more demanding writers like Hoover, Hughes and Norton.
While we wait for writers to write them and publishers to publish them we have to make the most of what there is. Here are the results of my personal Read Around SF. We’ve separated novels from short story collections; books for younger readers occur first in each list.
Ghost Ship to Ganymede,
Robert Swindells, Wheaton, 0 08 025007 6, £2.95
Ganymede comes from a new series ‘for 8/1 1 year olds’ called Readalongs – short, lots of pictures, easy reading. Three young stowaways find themselves on a Jovian moon instead of a space station in Earth orbit and get involved in the racial warfare there before being rescued in the nick of time. ‘Lunar cops and robbers’ it may be; but it’s foolish to overlook the vital importance of setting for some readers. Not special, but in paperback this would be preferable to many of the pulp series around at the moment. See if your local Schools Library Service has a copy to lend you. Another SF Readalong is The Space Waifs (Tom Tully). This is pretty desperate stuff – makes you appreciate Swindells – but, hackneyed though it is, kids will probably read it. One can only hope that Wheaton won’t underwrite the series that it has obviously been designed to grow into. On the junior paperback front, Diana Carter’s highly individual Zozu the Robot (Puffin, 0 14 03.0767 2, 50p) should attract attention; it has the makings of a mini-cult for some schools. Don’t be tempted, however, by School on the Moon, Hugh Walters’ third attempt in red Grasshoppers to give new depth of meaning to words like ‘banal’. And Abelard reckon 6-8 year olds could read it – nice to know someone still thinks Education can achieve miracles.
Anita Jackson, Hutchinson Educational, 0 09 13101 1 3, 65p (non net)
Don’t ignore the Spirals series because it’s produced for ‘remedial’ kids. This is one of the most difficult and one of the best too – a tense SF spy thriller. Attempts to stimulate interest among ‘slow learners’ with space-y material have mostly been disasters – look at Edward Arnold’s Vardo books – and series like Scholastic’s Action Books and John Murray’s Bestsellers are at their weakest with SF. Spirals also offer SF – not as good as Pentag – in Anita Jackson’s Dahlish Dr Maxwell and, for those who like that sort of thing, the spoof Jimmy Rocket (David Walke).
The Cat People,
Jan Carew, Longmans, 0 582 21 176 X, 70p (non net)
Jan Carew is the best writer in the Knockouts series for ‘reluctant readers’ and this is a good piece of SF horror about using chemicals to change the environment without first making exhaustive tests to monitor side-effects. Look out this author’s other books too if you don’t already know them. By comparison with Jan Carew, the SF titles in Macmillan’s feeble Rockets series – about the same reading level – have the luminosity of a black hole.
Douglas Hill, Piccolo, 0 330 26186 X, 80p
First part of a splendid tetralogy. Deathwing Over Veynaa in Piccolo soon, hardbacks from Gollancz (Day of the Starwind and, in the Autumn, Planet of the Warlord). Just about the only whole-hearted attempt to find a new kids’ SF, blending Adventure with a convincing picture of a colonized universe. See BFK No.5 for longer account.
Nicholas Fisk, Puffin, 0 14 03.0745 1, 65p
Alien robot, on recce mission prior to invasion, visits a (very middle-class) family as Great Aunt Emma – and only the kids realise. A very popular book – though the style makes me sceptical about junior school use as some advocate; I think 2nd/3rd year secondary. The diary form adds a dimension and, for once, Fisk bothered to take his characters beyond Blyton (cf. the Puffin Trillions and Kestrel’s Antigrav). It deserves a better cover and stronger glue than Puffin have given it; surprising that M Books or Windmills haven’t picked it up. Blending SF with a recognisable domestic set-up is an approach Fisk has often used and it’s possible that it holds more potential for generally popular books than the Space Opera extravaganzas which, so far, only Douglas Hill seems to be tackling successfully.
Andre Norton, Puffin, 0 14 03.0315 4, 60p
The best paperback Norton for kids to taste now that Beaver have dropped The Zero Stone. The few who like her work have got a feast down at the local library; how about Breed to Come (Longman Young Books) next? Teachers looking for easy SF might read her uncharacteristically simple Outside (Blackie).
The Time of the Kraken,
Jay Williams, Topliner Redstar, 0 333 26180 1, 70p (non net)
Worth a look if you want to see whether your kids are likely to take to the fantasy varieties of adult SF – Ursula Le Guin, Vonda McIntyre, Anne McCaffrey, Tanith Lee. Life on a planet of feuding village communities is threatened by the Kraken, a vast creature which appears once in an age and can only be killed with the technology of an ancient space-craft, In so doing, the hero learns the truth about the planet’s history and the God-like ancestors who live in tribal legends – and thereby sacrifices his own future, too. Other possible ways into this field are through short stories eg. Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand (McIntyre, in Constellations, ed. Malcolm Edwards, Gollancz) or Anne McCaffrey’s The Smallest Dragonboy (in Space 6, ed. Davis, Hutchinson).
The Guardian of Isis,
Monica Hughes, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 10597 8, £5.50
Hughes’ most recent is a sequel to her best novel, The Keeper of the Isis Light (Magnet, 0 416 21030 9, 95p). Try the paperback before committing yourself to Guardian; the new one can’t stand alone but the emotional charge of Keeper is sufficiently strong to carry over and bolster it so that it’s never less than interesting. Monica Hughes vies with Helen Hoover for first place among current ‘middlebrow’ SF novelists for kids – think of Peter Dickinson’s teenage thrillers or Robert Westall’s fantasies and you won’t be far off the reading level. Compared to Douglas Hill, their emphasis is more on character, emotion, mood and morality, though this isn’t to deny either writer’s ability to create drama or excitement. All Hughes’ books deserve attention except The Tomorrow City. Crisis on Conshelf Ten and Earthdark are Magnet paperbacks but don’t overlook Beyond the Dark River (Hamish Hamilton).
Return to Earth,
H M Hoover, Methuen, 416 20810 X, £4.95
If only the good guys could win this easily … Never mind; it’s another very entertaining Hoover novel (despite the misprints) and, if it’s lust a little short on climax like one or two of her others, that doesn’t prevent me from looking forward to each new book with great anticipation. I particularly enjoyed The Lost Star (Methuen), an unusually warm and hopeful story infused by a subtle tension. Beaver have cut Children of Morrow from their list but look out the newer hardbacks from the library – they seem good bets for future paperbacking. Like Monica Hughes, Hoover is particularly valuable in that she gives prominent roles to women. Both should be especially useful if Louise Lawrence’s Andra (Topliner Redstar) or Robert O’Brien’s classic Z for Zachariah (Lions) have gone well.
King Creature, Come,
John Rowe Townsend, Oxford, 19 271441 4, £3.25
King Creature, Come is a well-wrought account of an alien colony’s last days on Earth, reminiscent of Hoover’s The Delikon (Magnet, 0 416 87690 0, 65p). JRT’s quality yo-yos so don’t ignore this merely on the basis of a nasty experience with his first foray into SF, the tedious Xanadu Manuscript. (‘First’ because, although I’ve no wish to get embroiled in definitions, I’d call Noah’s Castle (Puffin) something like ‘future fiction’ and put it with books like Roy Brown’s The Cage (Abelard) and William Corlett’s Topliner Redstar Return to the Gate.)
Tower of the Stars,
Rosemary Harris, Faber, 0 571 11607 8, £5.95
The second part of a 500 pager about Europe under neo-Stalinist rule; part one, A Quest for Orion, is scheduled for Puffin Plus later this year. (Pray for a better cover than Faber gave it.) This is ‘future fiction’ which tips over into SF. Ms Harris isn’t entirely at home with her material but all such broad canvas novels can catch real bookworms in the flow of events and the interweaving of different strands. To get involved, however, one has to overlook clumsy dialogue and an elaborately contrived plot (incorporating a spastic boy with strange psychic powers, any number of coincidences and, finally, a rescuing mystical force sweeping in from Space, channelled through Charlemagne’s crown and a piece of the True Cross). The political background is unconvincing – especially if judged by critical standards commensurate with the reading level – but, in an ideal world, there’d be a place for such books.
SHORT STORY COLLECTIONS
The Fight of Neither Century,
Robin Chambers, Granada, 583 30338 2, 85p
Defining the difference between SF and fantasy gets impossible near the join and there’s not much point to attempting it, anyway. For me, only Copycat in this set is SF – as Time Out is the only example in Chambers’ Ice Warrior (Puffin, 0 14 03.1013 4, 60p). Your concept may be different and none the worse for that. Robin Chambers’ great virtue is simplicity, a refusal to be Literary. The Fight of Neither Century doesn’t even reach the standard of his first collection but the genesis of each story is so obvious that they provide useful examples for showing kids how to contrive their own.
ed. Richard Davis, Hutchinson, 09 144350 4, £5.50
The latest in a series which mixes original stories and older work by SF stalwarts; 1-4 were published by Abelard, 5 and 6 by Hutchinson. You can also get 1 and 2 in Beaver (65p/85p 0 600 38406 3 / 0 600 20186 4). No. 7 maintains, even improves, the standard of the earlier volumes, notably by making the average story-length shorter there are 13 here as compared to 8 in no. 1 . Moreover, apart from the obligatory Bradbury and Clarke, the older stories here aren’t that well-known. In general, the Space books are more difficult than Davis’ four Armada SF collections and his Jon Pertwee Book of Monsters (Magnet). By and large, these are relatively easy reading but the quality isn’t spectacular – though Elizabeth Fancett’s clever but overlong Star Boy in Armada SF 2 warrants a look. So, too, does Tim Stout’s Christmas with Frankenstein (Space 4; also in Hollow Laughter, Tim Stout, Abelard). All Davis anthologies are worth knowing for secondary kids just starting on SF; the easier ones could suit some top juniors.
Jay Williams, Topliner, 0 333 26070 8, 70p (non net)
The easiest of several SF Topliners – others are useful but unremarkable collections of familiar names, though Future Love is worth noting for its ‘different’ theme and greater potential for luring girls (ed. Victoria Williams, 0 333 21859 0, 70p). Jay Williams’ stories were written for kids, which makes them more widely suitable for early secondary and up. There’s a nice variety of tone and idea, though the opener could have been better. Suggest Trial by Combat, Happy Pill or Beast of Prey if anyone’s asking.
Of Time and Stars,
Arthur C Clarke, Puffin, 0 14 03.0703 6, 70p
Has to be mentioned though I’m no great Clarke lover myself – too often ideas dominate story or there’s an anti-climax.
Lots here, however, including some of his best, though you’ll need Space 5 (ed. Davis) or Alien Worlds (ed. Douglas Hill, Heinemann) for the tense Summertime on Icarus. Another good one – but more sophisticated, dependent on mood – is The Wind from the Sun (Sunjammer) in Constellations (ed. Malcolm Edwards, Gollancz) or Strange Planets (ed. A. Williams-Ellis/M. Pearson, Blackie).
ed. James Gibson, John Murray Short Story Series, 0 7195 3502 6, 95p (non net)
For real beginners to senior SF, this has probably got more of the hardy perennials than any other collection, but the print is small and cramped.
Science Fiction Stories,
ed. Tom Boardman, Octopus, 0 7064 0999 X,:121.99
An unlikely source for a good collection but great value – you’d pay this much for 23 stories in paperback. Well-known standards rub shoulders with the equally good or even better. Two quarrels. Firstly, the opening story – Murray Leinster’s First Contact – is long and slow; when will house editors stop their compilers making this all-too-common blunder? Secondly, the jacket is a lasers-blazing, clean-cut hero, here-be-weird-monsters come-on – par for a series selling in chain stores. The stories, however, are relatively sophisticated, often thoughtful, adult stuff. For those hoping to re-visit Star Wars, this jacket is a con but, nearly as bad, it could deter the serious 14+ SF fan who would enjoy the stories. Once again, our efforts to keep kids reading are undercut by the publisher’s handiwork.
100 Great Science Fiction Short Short Stories,
ed. Asimov, Greenberg and Olander, Robson Books, 0 86051 035 2
Unfortunately, now out of print – so try the library or inter-library loan. Published for adults and consequently wearing a drab jacket, it’s a gold mine for teachers and SF fans – I admit plundering it shamelessly when putting together Twisters (Collins/ Lions). With 100 stories, obviously the quality fluctuates but overall it’s amazingly high and, since the stories don’t exceed four sides, small disappointments can’t spoil the general pleasure. Like the Octopus set, it’s a nice mix of humour, pathos, horror and ideas though with a slightly broader range as some selections are straightforward fantasy and all are so short.
Harold Hodgson, Macmillan Education Dramascripts, 0 333 18344 8, 95p (non net)
For those into scripted drama, I’m told this large-cast example about a school party stuck in a fall-out shelter after the Bomb destroys homes and families works well at 2nd/3rd year secondary level. For younger kids, Nicholas Fisk’s Space Hostages is available in Ward Lock’s Take Part series (0 7062 3625 4, 90p (non net)) while, moving back up the age range, David Campton’s Mutatis Mutandis for three characters in his collection of one-acters Laughter and Fear (Blackie Student Drama, 0 216 89077 2, £2.95 (non net)) is worth tracking down.
If you would like a longer list of SF suggestions, send a sae (15½p stamp) to Steve Bowles, 45 Hawkweed House, Gosfield Road, Dagenham, Essex. The lists will be sent out in September.