Jessica Yates picks her way through the rich terrain of SF for youngsters.
I came to science fiction early, moving on at the age of 10 from C S Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles to his space trilogy. Soon I was sharing whatever my father brought home from the adult SF section of the public library.
I didn’t enjoy 1950s’ children’s SF: too much space opera, rocket-ships and boring aliens who were either stereotyped enemies or wise space guardians; and I read very little of it, apart from the Kemlo series. Far more stimulating were the short stories of Ray Bradbury, Arthur C Clarke, Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. 1950s’ adult SF was the teenage literature of its time: strong in narrative, questioning fixed beliefs, without the complex character analysis of serious adult fiction, and those authors hold up well today.
Returning to British children’s SF as a librarian, I discovered that it had broken with space opera and gone for quality instead of pot-boilers. Following the example of John Wyndham’s disaster novels like The Chrysalids and The Day of the Triffids, it had developed a quasi-medieval ambience. In the future, after some horrific disaster destroys civilisation as we know it, humankind lives among the ruins in a new Dark Age, stumbling across unexplained relics of the past. John Christopher set the pattern with his Tripods trilogy in the 1960s, in which Earthlings are enslaved by aliens; Peter Dickinson wrote the Changes trilogy in which humans turn against machines (though magic is the cause); and Christopher wrote his best work, the Winchester trilogy, in which the disaster comes about through geological stresses: earthquakes, volcanoes, etc. Mutants called polymufs are born among humans and kept segregated, and the plot has parallels with the Arthurian legend.
Through the 1970s British children’s SF was also enriched by ‘non-genre’ authors better known for realistic fiction or pure fantasy, who wrote the occasional top-quality SF children’s or teenage novel, e.g. John Rowe Townsend – King Creature Come; Rosemary Harris – A Quest for Orion; Jill Paton Walsh – Torch; Jan Mark – The Ennead; Ann Schlee – The Vandal; Penelope Lively – The Voyage of QV66; and Diana Wynne Jones – A Tale of Time City.
Space opera has also gone up-market in the hands of Monica Hughes, British-born but settled in Canada, with her trilogy about the planet Isis, where she examines how superstition and religious intolerance develop in a closed community. Like Hughes, the writers most prominent in children’s SF today are genre specialists, sometimes mixing SF and fantasy together in the same story to produce the hybrid `science fantasy’.
There are several humorous picture-books around: June Counsel’s But Martin! for instance, and the books by Jeanne Willis, The Long Blue Blazer, and the Dr Xargle titles illustrated by Tony Ross – all on a comic alien theme.
SF/fantasy themes turn up in series like Banana Books, Jets and Superchamps; and the Mr Browser books by Philip Curtis, also illustrated by Tony Ross, humorously recount how a humble school teacher foils various alien threats.
Children’s contemporary culture has a large SF-cult element drawing on the fantastic-film industry. The fashion for big-screen SF has been fed by spectacular advances in special-effects technology, so we have tie-in storybooks derived from, for example, Ghostbusters, the Ninja Turtles, and now Jurassic Park. New this year is an imported series of six Star Wars juvenile adventures written to bridge the gap between Return of the Jedi and the wedding of Leia and Han Solo. Unashamedly commercial, illustrated in comic-book style, with cliff-hangers at the end of five of the six interconnected books, they carry on something of the myth of Star Wars, so I’ll mention them and forget the absence of any literary distinction.
Another school library staple is the Dr Who series, now published by Virgin. Novelised versions for children of the TV scripts, there are well over 100 in print! New Dr Who adventures have been commissioned for fans who want to continue the story of the Seventh Doctor and Ace after the BBC killed off the series: the new books are for a teen-to-adult readership, with more violent action, some `bad’ language, and a hint of sex.
Robert Leeson, whose previous SF work includes the Time Rope quartet, has newly created the six-book Zarnia series, about four young teenagers selected for a scientific experiment by aliens who send down a robot to make contact. Each teenager is somewhat at odds with life, and at first they welcome the robot’s offer to improve their life chances, but only at the last moment discover a Zarnian leader’s real intentions for them. Each book hooks on to the next and the style is direct and accessible: do try them on reluctant readers.
Now to introduce five current writers of juvenile SF/fantasy, all notable for well-written, original fiction, and committed to a writing career.
When Terry Pratchett published Truckers his popularity had run ahead of him, his spoof fantasies set on the Discworld being already loved by teenagers. The Truckers trilogy must now be among the most frequently requested school library books. It combines two classic children’s book themes: small non-magical people living in secret, hidden from humans, like The Borrowers; and the quest for a new home, as in Watership Down and the Farthing Wood titles, adding an SF element: the ‘nomes’ originally came from outer space, thousands of years ago, and have forgotten their origins, although their mother-ship is still buried on our moon, awaiting their summons.
Truckers is rich in satire: nomes speak English (an unlikely but essential detail) and some read it, often misunderstanding the signs in the Department Store where they live: Fire Sale, Prices Slashed, etc. They don’t think much of humans: `It can’t be very difficult [i.e. driving a lorry], otherwise humans wouldn’t be able to do it.’ Readers of all ages love to see through their blunders, though adults probably get more out of the Biblical parodies from the `Book of Nome’. We must also approve books which stress the importance of reading and the right of women to an equal education, two lessons the nomes must learn in order to escape back to their space-ship.
Pratchett has revised his first book, The Carpet People (written when a teenager), adding anachronistic phrases and satirical comments to this mini-saga about people even tinier than the nomes. Here again we find misunderstanding of human artefacts such as a matchstick or a penny, both of which are huge to the Carpet People. Like Tolkien, Pratchett puts over an anti-war message and makes his leading characters small, autonomous adults having real adventures, instead of children whose freedom is limited.
Only You Can Save Mankind is about a boy who finds that the aliens in his computer game talk back, and tell him they want to surrender and go home. I found this book a little didactic and patronising, but have no such criticisms of the excellent sequel, Johnny and the Dead. Again Johnny is contacted by a group of almost defenceless, bewildered adults: the town cemetery has been sold for fivepence as an office block site: the dead will be dug up and reburied – and they don’t want that! Soon they wander out of the cemetery to sample the delights of modern civilisation, including horror movies.
Diane Duane is an outstanding American writer of `science fantasy’ who has developed three fiction sequences: a children’s fantasy quartet; an adult fantasy series; and several Star Trek novels for a multiple-author series in the USA. The latter are suitable for the school library: published for adults, they observe taboos on sex and violence in the interests of a universal readership, and are quite intellectual in their view of the Star Trek universe.
Duane’s adult fantasies are too erotic for the school library (!) so on to her children’s `Wizardry’ quartet: So You Want to be a Wizard, Deep Wizardry, High Wizardry and A Wizard Abroad. Duane invites us to believe in `wizardry’, a secret quality or talent exercised by Good against Evil, whereby humans, some intelligent animals and many outer-space aliens, are recruited on the side of Life to help the Powers run the world more smoothly, and to oppose the Lone Power who invented Death aeons ago at the start of Creation.
Two American youngsters discover a book of spells which challenges them with its title: So You Want to be a Wizard. In each book of the quartet they battle the Lone Power in a life-and-death struggle for the future of the world. The series is a hybrid of SF and fantasy: the wizards’ spells are described in a scientific way, and they use their magic to travel to the Moon and outer space, and the Good versus Evil theme arises out of Duane’s unorthodox Christianity, with C S Lewis the inspiration for High Wizardry, set on a far planet where the Temptation is re-enacted. The latest title, A Wizard Abroad, is a Celtic fantasy in which Duane pays tribute to her adopted country, Ireland.
Louise Lawrence began writing in the early 1970s, going through a difficult period when, out of six books written, only one was taken by a British publisher. She came into her own when she settled for SF rather than fantasy. Now Britain’s senior woman SF writer for the young, she is notable for her intense writing style, especially the `purple passages’ of poetic prose, and for her downbeat endings mingling tragedy with consolation. Children of the Dust began a run of prophetic stories with an overriding political or social theme. It charts the aftermath of nuclear war through several generations, leading to a mystical conclusion when the human race develops new physical and mental powers to ward off nuclear radiation. Moonwind, The Warriors of Taan, Star Lord and Calling B for Butterfly followed. Extinction is Forever is a short-story collection displaying her concern for the environment and Earth’s future: the chilling title story is about a vain attempt to avert nuclear war.
Ben-Harran’s Castle, her greatest novel yet, shows Earth on trial. The Council governing the Universe wants to take Earth over in our best interests. Aggression will be suppressed by mild hypnosis – and so will free will, creativity and the awareness of God. Ben-Harran, the Galactic Controller, wants Earthlings to have free will – to destroy themselves if need be.
Ann Halam is another 1970s’ author who made a fresh start in the 80s, by keeping her real name, Gwyneth Jones, for her teenage and adult novels, and adopting `Ann Halam’ for her children’s books. After the chilling ghost story, King Death’s Garden, she wrote the Daymaker trilogy, a feminist and environmentalist saga of science fantasy. Our civilisation has collapsed through the exhaustion of all artificial energy sources, and women have pioneered the rediscovery of magic. Zanne, a rebellious teenager, fascinated by the relics of technology, discovers that they must be sought out and destroyed if the new magic world is to survive. Young readers must guess, adults will probably know, that the ‘daymaker’ is an electric power station, and the weird changes in Transformations are brought about by a store of nuclear waste. In The Skybreaker a space rocket, secretly built, threatens the reality of the magic world. Sadly, this trilogy has sold poorly and is already being deleted: this is a plea to publishers to keep these wonderful books alive.
Ann Halam has also written Dinosaur Junction, a topical tale of a fossil collecting lad who wonders if dinosaurs could be cloned from a claw he found, and ends up going back in time to be chased by dinosaurs – or is it a dream? And as Gwyneth Jones she is the author of The Hidden Ones, a feminist `Young Adult’ novel about a punk teenager with telekinetic powers who learns to heal rather than hate.
As well as creating original fantasies with unexpected plot twists, Annie Dalton has an astonishing way with words. She is a veritable Pre-Raphaelite word-painter at moments of revelation, when the everyday and the fantastic worlds merge – words like `iridescent’, `rainbow dazzle’ and `burning golden whirlpool’ pour from her pen. She is also confident about choosing child characters from the ranks of the underprivileged: fatherless, orphaned, adopted, disadvantaged by race, or just plain unhappy; not because it’s `politically correct’, but because these are the children who need a fantasy adventure to liberate their true selves – and we share that adventure with them. Annie Dalton has so far published six wonderful fantasies: Out of the Ordinary, Night Maze and The Alpha Box for teenagers; The Afterdark Princess and The Witch Rose for 6-11s; and the haunting Swan Sister, about a child lured by the swans, for all ages.
Now for a selection of recent SF paperbacks: for younger readers first. Nicholas Fisk’s A Hole in the Head tackles the hole in the ozone layer. With his typical inventiveness and quirky style, Fisk offers a totally improbable plot which leads via a talking dog to saving the ozone layer.
Hydra, by Robert Swindells, blends SF and the thriller. Jellyfish-like aliens have been smuggled back from Jupiter by a disloyal scientist and mature into savage carnivores. Two children discover their hiding-place, while adults, of course, refuse to investigate their fanciful story.
Bob Shaw, author of adult SF, has written his first children’s book, Killer Planet. This is pure space opera: the hero and heroine go on a mission to the `killer planet’ to discover what happened to previous colonists, and find that the whole planet is a deathtrap. It is suspenseful all right, but I found myself saying, `Come back, Douglas Hill – we need you!’ I only learned while researching this article that all Hill’s juvenile SF and fantasy adventures are out of print. Hill, whose achievement was to revive the space opera genre in the 1970s by deliberately pastiching adult SF and comic-book styles, produced four fiction sequences, the Last Legionary, Huntsman, Klydor and Blade of the Poisoner series. Issued in bite-size paperbacks, these sagas were very popular with reluctant readers from 10 upwards, and Douglas Hill was one of the most cited authors in the Bookseller article (3 September ’93) based on the W H Smith Children’s Reading Survey, along with Dahl, Blyton and Pratchett. So – write to Pan Piper demanding reprints!
Authors for teenagers are most pessimistic about Earth’s future. The late Robert Westall wrote two outstanding SF novels: Urn Burial, about humans caught up in a space war between alien cats and dog-people; and Futuretrack 5, a grim parable about youth unemployment hinting at depopulation.
Unemployment is also the theme of Daz 4 Zoe by Robert Swindells. British society is split between the middle-class Subbies and the working-class Chippies, with fences between to stop the deprived breaking through. The teenagers tell their love story in a diary form, and Daz’s story is written phonetically because of his inferior education – though he’s far from stupid.
Invitation to the Game by Monica Hughes ends optimistically as the protagonists prove themselves worthy of the new planet they are colonising, but this can only help the selected few. The Crystal Drop, also by Hughes, is set in Canada 20 years ahead, when the hole in the ozone layer and the greenhouse effect have brought about desertification and drought.
Peter Dickinson’s Eva is a deeply stirring fable about the future of humanity, set against the background of humankind losing the will to strive, through over-population and pollution. Horribly injured in a car crash, Eva wakes to find her brain transplanted into a female chimp’s body.
Jean Ure’s frustration at the idiocies of the arms race impelled her to switch genres from teenage romance to SF in Plague 99, in which plague spreads worldwide after the accidental explosion of a biological warfare device. Come Lucky April, the even more provocative sequel, takes up the story 100 years later, with another kind of conflict: not the Cold War, nor racial hatred, but the sex war. One community of survivors, blaming the plague on male aggression, uses IVF technology to continue the human race: teenage boys are castrated after donating sperm, and then live apart from the women, who pair-bond with one another and may not know who `fathered’ their children. The great-grandson of Fran and Shahid from Plague 99 comes across the community and disrupts it with this account of `normal’ life and heterosexual love.
Finally, Adam Ford’s The Cuckoo Plant is a promising debut. It comes from space and needs a new planetary home. It has then to clone Earth’s plants, animals and even people: is it intelligent, benign? Could and would it wipe out life on Earth?
A-Z order by author:
June Counsel, But Martin!, , Corgi, 0 552 52312 7, £2.99
John Christopher, The Tripods Trilogy, Puffin, 014 031722 8, £5.99; `Winchester’ trilogy o/p
Philip Curtis, `Mr Browser’ titles from Puffin
Annie Dalton, Out of the Ordinary, 0 7497 0007 6, £2.25; The Alpha Box, 0 7497 1178 7, £2.99; The Afterdark Princess, 0 7497 0999 5; Night Maze, 0 7497 0322 9, £2.50; The Witch Rose, 0 7497 0454 3; The Swan Sister, 0 7497 1065 9, £2.99 (all Mammoth)
Paul and Hollace Davids, `Star Wars’ titles from Bantam
Peter Dickinson, The Changes Trilogy, Puffin, 0 14 031846 1, £5.99; Eva, Corgi Freeway, 0 552 52609 6, £2.99
Diane Duane, So You Want to be a Wizard, 0 552 52645 2; Deep Wizardry, 0 552 52646 0; High Wizardry, 0 552 52651 7; A Wizard Abroad, 0 552 52744 0; all £2.99 from Corgi; `Star Trek’ novels from Titan Books, 19 Valentine Place, SE1 8QH.
Nicholas Fisk, A Hole in the Head, Walker, 0 7445 2359 1, £2.99
Adam Ford, The Cuckoo Plant, Mammoth, 0 7497 0613 9, £3.50
Ann Halam, The Skybreaker, Puffin, 0 14 034857 3, £3.99; Dinosaur Junction, Orchard, 185213 368 6, £8.99, 185213 369 4, £4.99 pbk; The Daymaker and Transformations both o/p; (as Gwyneth Jones) The Hidden Ones, Women’s Press Livewire, 0 7043 4910 8, £3.50
Rosemary Harris, A Quest for Orion, o/p
Douglas Hill, Last Legionary, Huntsman, Klydor and Blade of the Poisoner series, o/p
Monica Hughes, The Crystal Drop, 0 7497 1023 3; Invitation to the Game, 0 7497 0953 7; £2.99 each from Mammoth
Diana Wynne Jones, A Tale of Time City, Teens, 0 7497 0440 3, £2.99
Louise Lawrence, Children of the Dust, Bodley Head, 0 370 30679 1, £6.99, Collins Tracks, 0 00 6726216, £3.50; The Warriors of Taan, 0 00 672853 7, £2.75; Moonwind, 0 00 672750 6, £2.50, both Collins Tracks; Star Lord, 0 370 31153 1, £6.99; Calling B for Butterfly, 0 370 31256 2, £2.95; Ben-Harran’s Castle, 0 370 31715 7, £7.99, all Bodley Head; Extinction is Forever, Bodley Head, 0 370 31348 8, £6.99, Red Fox, 0 09 985060 5, £2.99
Robert Leeson, The Zarnia Experiment: Landing, 0 7497 0840 9; Fire!, 0 7497 0841 7; Deadline, 0 7497 0842 5; Danger Trail, 0 7497 0843 3; Hide and Seek, 0 7497 0844 1; Blast Off!, 0 7497 0845 X, £2.99 each from Mammoth; `Time Rope’ series from Corgi
Penelope Lively, The Voyage of QV66, Mammoth, 0 7497 0360 1, £2.99
Jan Mark, The Ennead, Puffin Plus, 014 032556 5, £2.99
Terry Pratchett, book details on page 7
Ann Schlee, The Vandal, Mammoth, 0 7497 0228 1, £1.75
Bob Shaw, Killer Planet, Pan Piper, 0 330 31696 6, £2.99
Robert Swindells, Hydra, Yearling, 0 440 86313 9, £2.99; Daz 4 Zoe, Puffin Plus, 014 034320 2, £3.99
John Rowe Townsend, King Creature Come, Nelson, 0 560 55015 4, £3.99
Jean Ure, Plague 99, 0 7497 0333 4; Come Lucky April, 0 7497 1015 2, £2.99 each from Teens
Jill Paton Walsh, Torch, Viking, 0 670 81554 3, £8.50, Puffin, 0 14 034941 3, £3.50
Robert Westall, Futuretrack 5, 0 14 032768 1; Urn Burial, 0 14 032266 3; £3.50 each from Puffin Plus
Jeanne Willis, The Long Blue Blazer, o/p; the `Dr Xargle’ titles with Tony Ross, Andersen in hbk and Puffin in pbk
John Wyndham, The Chrysalids, 0 14 001308 3, £3.99; The Day of the Triffids, 0 14 000993 0, £4.99; both Penguin
Dr Who titles from Virgin Publishing, 332 Ladbroke Grove, London W10 5AH
Jessica Yates has been reviewing and writing about children’s books for 20 years. Her anthology Dragons and Warrior Daughters, a collection of heroic, feminist fantasy, was published by Lions Tracks but is now, sadly, o/p. She has two children, works as a school librarian and reviews for School Librarian, the Tolkien Society and the British Science Fiction Association.
(BSFA membership costs £15 per year; details from Alison Cook, 27 Albemarle Drive, Grove, Wantage, Oxon OX12 ONB.)