It doesn’t do to get too over-ambitious when trying to define science fiction. The truth is simply that science fiction is future fiction. Which would have been a better term from the outset – and might have kept some folk today from absurdly believing that SF is only for boys, along with science itself. (Wrong on both counts, as girls know.)
Incidentally, please note that the approved abbreviation is SF. ‘Sci-fi’ was invented by the popular press, and contains a built-in sneer. Consider: how would you feel if they lumped all historical fiction together – Morte d’Arthur, Barbara Cartland, Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood film, the lot, with no distinctions ever drawn – and dismissively labelled it all `hi-fi’?
But we were talking about the future, and its fictions. Any future. If one day you, gentle reader, were to write down your idea of what your community or your workplace or even your front garden might be like next year, next week, you would be imagining, speculating about, the future. So you would have slid over an amorphous time barrier, and would have become an SF writer.
And I bet you’d have had fun.
There, certainly, is the foremost and most conscious reason why I write SF (and fantasy) for kids. Because I enjoy it, enormously. I have been an addicted reader of SF and fantasy for more decades than I choose to admit – and in the course of that endless intake of reading, the dials of my mind were being set, the nature of my imagination was being developed, or perhaps programmed. If I had had a musical or athletic or whatever tendency, and developed that, I would no doubt have come to try to utilize it somehow to make my living. As it is, I’m able to utilize my lurid, perhaps over-developed imagination to invent future or fantasy fictions that seem to please young readers. And I love my work.
But there are many other reasons why I do what I do – some personal, some trivial, some perhaps otherwise. Here’s another that is somewhat peculiar to me: residing in the fact that while I have lived in Britain for more than 30 years, I still speak with the accent and speech patterns of my native Canada. So I would be uneasy, unsure, if I sought to write more `naturalistic’ fiction. I would suspect myself of getting the tone and terminology and much else wrong in the speech of my British characters. Even if I set a book in North America I would worry about committing howlers, having not lived there for so long. Similarly, I was never a schoolchild of any age in this country, and so I lack any direct experience of those realities.
But in the future or fantasy worlds of my own invention, the characters can speak as I wish, and can have unique backgrounds provided by me, and no one can say me nay – as long as it all remains consistent within its own terms. Such blissful freedom…
Still, those are obvious rather homely, foreground reasons for why I write SF for young readers. Behind them, looming in a more conjectural or even fanciful manner, are some grander purposes. They may not emerge to blaze before my eyes every time I sit down to formulate another tale of heroic derring-do amid extraterrestrial menaces. But they’re there, they’re around somewhere – always lurking at the back of my mind, hanging out on the corners of my consciousness.
And the first of them is the simple but blinding glimpse of the obvious that science fiction is future fiction, and the future belongs to kids.
SF cannot, of course, predict the future (though writers like Arthur C Clarke haven’t done badly). What it can do instead is prepare us for the fact that social and technological change is progressive and accelerating, and that the future is therefore going to be unavoidably, shockingly, unpredictably different from today.
For a 12-year-old on the one-way fast track into tomorrow, that is quite a useful early awareness to acquire.
The fact is that we SF addicts almost never suffer from what Alvin Toffler called `future shock’. We haven’t, for instance, been troubled over the way the world has been irretrievably altered by the new industrial revolution in information technology. We had already been there – having experienced that segment of the future through some SF imaginations.
Tied in with that notion is an ever broader purpose behind SF for kids, which has to do with, precisely, the imagination. Younger readers are the most natural and obvious audience for imaginative fiction simply because of the wonderful quality, range and vigour of their imaginations. In a society that puts a short-sightedly higher value on more practical, realistic, even pragmatic forms of capability, it seems to me that children need all the exercising of their imaginative muscles they can get. To keep that part of their mentality fit and hale for as long as possible.
Because, inescapably, the imagination is one of a very few mental faculties that serve to distinguish us from robots on the one hand and animals on the other.
Which brings me to my last essential reason for valuing children’s SF and fantasy: my unflagging belief in the importance of reading.
We all know the habit of reading is under threat, these days, and how in the next century it may decline into a marginalized, arcane minority amusement. Rather as amateur drawing and painting have declined, today, compared to amateur photography. But I hang on to the assertion by (I think) T S Eliot, written in regard to the similarly threatened position of poetry in our culture: `we fight neither to win nor to lose, but to keep something alive’. It is a similarly worthwhile fight, trying to keep books and reading alive, among children.
At the same time, I continue to insist, the struggle has to be conducted realistically. With all the alternative demands on their attention and imaginations, all the television and films and comic and electronic games (not to mention the dire threat to libraries), it’s absurd and counter-productive to be exclusory about children’s reading.
No child (or adult!) is ever going to leap in a single bound from Judge Dredd or Neighbours or Sonic the Hedgehog to Charles Dickens or even Lewis Carroll. Reading habits are formed in stages, along an upward ascent on which people may naturally come to rest at levels where they feel comfortable, or may continue to climb almost indefinitely. And no one has the right to carp or scoff if, on the lower, earlier stages, children turn to reading Mrs Tiggywinkle or the Famous Five, or even science-fiction adventure, instead of `classics’ of higher brow.
From the start, I set out to write books that would provide some lower rungs on the reading ladder, because there is continuingly, today, a remarkable amount of SF being made available to kids in their TV, their comics, their computer games. So I’ve been saying, look, here’s some SF in books, try it, it, can be fun, too. And now and then teachers and librarians gratifyingly tell me that it works.
In the end the biggest and most awesome truth of all, behind any promulgation of books for young people, is that the `reading habit’ is the only activity that contributes to the continuing health, efficacy and richness of our language.
And language is an absolute and fundamental essential for all our interactions – political, social, informational, personal – as human beings.
So, perhaps, ultimately, why I do what I do, why other children’s writers do what they do, why there are so many doughty fighters for children’s books including teachers, librarians, parents and this admirable magazine, is because we all cannot really forget the seldom voiced but undeniable bottom line. Which brings us, naturally, back to the future.
It says that, in the 21st century, our imaginations must not be allowed to wither, our language must not be allowed to decay. Or it will be our very humanity that will be diminished.
Douglas Hill has lived in or around London for more than 30 years. Recently he tried his hand at fiction for adults (as well as children, not instead) – and The Lightless Dome published in August by Pan, the first of a fantasy trilogy, is his 50th book.
The Voyage of Mudjack (Methuen, 0 416 18819 2, £6.99), for young readers, also came out in August. His latest SF novel for older children, World of Stiks, will be published by Transworld early next year.
Illustrations on this page are from Douglas Hill’s The Moon Monsters (Heinemann `Banana’ Book, 0 434 93024 5, £3.99).